All The Riches In The Night

The challenge for the host is to rediscover a language of hospitality and to ensure that is spoken throughout the business.
You Say You Want…

Some time ago, when the lean days of old were becoming a folk memory, it seems the Irish hotelier and restaurateur adopted the biblical ‘Ask and you shall receive’ as his mantra. So his guests asked for the world and, like a good host, he rushed to give it to them.

He was encouraged, of course, by the funds made available to him to build and refurbish and multiply. There was little he couldn’t achieve if he put his mind (and his tax breaks) to it. He was encouraged too (some would say compelled) by the sight of his neighbour and competitor building and refurbishing and multiplying and the real fear of being left behind if he too didn’t join the rush.

An hotelier client of mine recently wondered aloud if the Irish welcome was not greater when, in his own words, “that was all we had to offer because the product itself often wasn’t all that great”. Of course, there is a risk here that we join those who lament the march of progress simply out of some sense of native guilt so it is important to acknowledge that the much-improved product here in Ireland has generally brought dramatic benefits to both guest and host alike. However, there is also a danger that we ignore the evidence that, in the frenzy of building over the past ten years, some of our traditional reliance on a sense of hospitality and care to deliver for our guests has been replaced instead by a dependence on the product to do it on our behalf.

Diamonds On A Ring Of Gold

So what does this dependence on product look like and sound like?

We see it in the palaces that are being built, especially in the mushrooming spa and wellness parts of the business, where guests are treated like royalty but with little of the warmth and immediacy that has traditionally underpinned the Irish welcome.

We hear it in the language that panders to this sense of excess. There is a place for opulence and perfection but it is generally at the higher end of the market. Instead, the talk of indulgence is everywhere. The customer is king and our role seems to be to pamper him and cater to his every whim.

This over-respectful attitude to the visitor is largely alien to those operating at the more modest end of the market. It can put distance between guest and host and place a huge strain on the relationship between them. Each tiptoes around the room, nervous about upsetting this unnatural order of things.

In making the customer king in this sense, there is a danger that we make him tyrant too and undermine the mutual respect that marks the very best relationships between visitor and host. In promising perfection, we make a stick with which to be beaten, inviting our guests to look for superiority in every aspect of what we have to offer. We are likely to create an environment in which both sides are watchful, even resentful, anxiously waiting for the other to trip up and break the spell of perfection.

This reliance on product at the expense of relationship makes for a no-win situation for both business-owner and customer. (Note that I write ‘relationship’ rather than ‘service’ as in many places service has been made a commodity alongside the ‘two-nights bed & breakfast-with-dinner one-night’ formula, or the inevitable leisure centre and spa). In relying on product, the owner invites comparison with his competition on everything that can be graded and measured. He vies with his neighbour for bragging rights, briefly holding the advantage until his competitor goes one step better, building on another floor, adding an extra treatment room and catering to the latest fad.

In short, he creates monsters for his business, a voracious Mr. & Mrs. Jones who must be bested at every opportunity and a demanding and critical Mr. & Mrs. Smith who must be kept satisfied at all costs.

A Treasure Just To Look Upon It

He is not alone in this, of course. Despite the arrival of the international brands, there is a widespread confusion in the Irish market between product and brand. We talk about brand when what we mean is product or service, which is not the same thing at all. The product or service underpins the brand but it is not to be confused with it.

Instead, the brand is best understood as the relationship between the business and its customers. The product or service enables us to build the relationship and to deliver on what is offered in the relationship but it is not the relationship.

This distinction is to be seen in the now-legendary story of Mr. Bolt, who was working on reception at a fully booked conference hotel in the American mid-west on a stormy night. An elderly couple arrived without a reservation and was told that there were no rooms at this particular inn (and unlikely to be any elsewhere that night). They were about to leave when Mr. Bolt, seeing their distress, offered them his own room instead. He quickly cleared out his own things and showed the couple to their room. The following morning, the elderly gentleman asked for Mr. Bolt’s card before departure. A year or two had passed when Mr. Bolt received an invitation to New York. He was greeted on arrival by the elderly gentleman, who led him to a magnificent new building and announced, “This is the hotel that I’ve built for you to run”. The new hotel was the Waldorf Astoria and the rest, as they say, was history.

Mr. Bolt, like all of the great hosts before him and since, made the distinction between brand and product. His hotel had no room for an elderly couple but he understood that he was not in the business of providing rooms but in the business of hospitality, the business of taking care of people. He saw beyond the product to the relationship and acted accordingly.

A Harbour In The Tempest

It’s no accident that there are biblical undertones in much of the language I’ve chosen in writing this piece. When we hear of the frenzied development of hotels, each one bigger and more opulent than the one before, we hear echoes of the stories of hubris and excess told in the bible and the other great books.

Much of the language we use offends the notion of hospitality and care. These words of bragging and overindulgence offer little real comfort to the guest. They speak of the product rather than the relationship. In using them, we are dodging our responsibilities.

We are sometimes too quick to suggest that the traditional words of welcome have been lost in the babble of international tongues that have arrived to work alongside us. But this is disingenuous. It is we who are building the towers and are distracted into using boastful, inhospitable words to applaud our own efforts. Words and gestures of genuine welcome and care can be offered in any language. Our colleagues take their lead from us and learn quickly from the example that we offer to them.

The challenge for the host is to rediscover a language of hospitality and to ensure that is spoken throughout the business. How can he do this? As always, it is a question of returning to first principles.

When All I Want Is You

I am writing this piece in the early part of December, during the Christian season of Advent. In a poem of the same name, the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh writes: “We have tested and tasted too much, lover – through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder”. Later in the same poem, he talks of how the “dry black bread and the sugarless tea of penance will charm back the luxury of a child’s soul.”

Now I’m not suggesting that we need to break out the hairshirts and do penance, but I propose that we do need to charm back something of the soul of hospitality, the instinctive welcome that my hotelier client feels was more forthcoming when we had little else to offer.

This means beginning with the brand and the relationship that we intend to have with our customer. It means our stepping into that space without the distractions of product and service and asking what is required of us. It includes an examination of the values that will guide us and drive our business.

The rest can follow. Once we have made sense of what the relationship demands, we can then design and build what we require to deliver to our guest. This may in fact result in our building and refurbishing and multiplying – if that is what the relationship requires. But brand must come first; otherwise we are in danger of being distracted from the duty of care and hospitality that is our first responsibility as hosts