“You are welcome to perform cartwheels in the lobby”

The Great Service Debate – Part Two of Six

EP and Giles Gordon-Smith, Founder of Penshee.

Last week, six more industry leaders arrived to the Goring Hotel. Ushered into the majestic silver room by red coated footmen and quickly supplied with the always welcomed combination of caffeine and bone china, the scene was set for another stimulating debate on great service… if that’s what we should even call it?

Our experts brought a wealth of experience to the room:

Nicholas Rettie – MRMD Consultancy
Debrah Dhugga – Managing Director, Dukes Collection
Edward Griffiths CVO – Chairman of Searcys & Portico
Niels Sherry– General Manager, 67 Pall Mall
Sara Jayne Stanes OBE – Chief Executive, Royal Academy of Culinary Arts
Rob Flinter – General Manager, PPHE Hotel Group

As with the opening event, and so for the following four in 2018, the Chair, Giles Gordon-Smith, founder of Penshee introduced the agenda for the morning’s debate:

1: What is great service?

2: How do we achieve this across our industry?

Can we reach consensus on these questions today, and over the course of the year? Let’s review the key themes that arose that morning.

What is great service?

Service vs Hospitality
Sara Jayne quickly raised the question of whether the term ‘service’ was creating the right precedent for the conversation and whether ‘hospitality’ was in general a better alignment with the sorts of experiences that we are looking to create. She preceded this by suggesting that great service is the art of making a customer feel as though they are the only person that matters. Surely a fantastic intention to set for the millions of interactions that take place each day in our industry?

Process vs People
Edward reminded us that whilst there is a significant consumer focus on culinary experiences, what we must remember and communicate is that poor service will always have the power to spoil great food and vice versa – guests on the receiving end of mediocre food but outstanding service, are likely to return.

Community Values
It was fascinating to hear a perspective of great service through the eyes of a luxury private club General Manager. Niels explained how he had seen a shift in the relationship between staff and guests when moving from hotels to club. His members like to be known, but more importantly, love to know the staff who look after them – to the extent that they requested the staff images and names to be made known on the members’ site.  As network technology continues to surge and we ironically become more disconnected than ever, could it be that a sense of community and connection is something that we should be aspiring to achieve, or at least make available to the hospitality consumer?

Debrah would seemingly agree, but importantly recognises that this sense of community starts with the team. An important part of great service for her and the team at Dukes is to get together and get ahead of potential pitfalls in the operation. Sometimes situations outside of our control (such as burst mains water outside your hotel) happen, but if we want to protect staff from the brunt of upset patrons, make sure that they are informed and empowered to communicate and problem solve. The old hospitality adage that a negative incident can be turned into a positive memory is relevant here, with another following quickly behind, again from Debrah – “happy team, happy guests”.

The personal touch
Rob was recently on the receiving end of some highly attentive and personalized hotel service where his name was used by five different members of the breakfast team. Undoubtedly impactful, but this seeded the later question of whether that level of service is right for everyone? To offer consistently excellent service, the table was in agreement that there has to be an understanding of the individual customer and their needs. Of course there are times to pamper and engage, but there are plenty of modern travellers who want nothing more than an efficient and perfunctory check in and to take themselves off to their room alone. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to service.

How do we achieve this across our industry?


Perception perception perception
We know that when it comes to aspirational career choices, our industry has challenges in the way it is perceived. Rob wondered whether the long hours, low pay generalisation was a fair one, citing other industries where early mornings and missed kids’ bath-times were as, if not more common. Sara Jayne questioned whether there was a fundamental void in understanding of the importance of our industry – at home, in education, at government level and even from within hospitality circles. RACA are making strides in this area, but we could do so much more to inform and educate the next generation of hospitality workers, and even those in the positions to be able to better help partner and support our industry. Do we have enough industry mentors? Is there enough funding for ‘grass roots’ incentives? Is it unrealistic to expect greater exposure on the national curriculum?

Stakeholder Communication
It was suggested that the case for true hospitality also needs to be better made to stakeholders without industry backgrounds. All agreed that putting oneself in the shoes of owners is an important intention as they have financial expectations to meet. Similarly though, there is also a greater need for owners to understand the added value of providing outstanding guest experiences, and the investment required through recruitment, development and support required to generate returns. Is there enough appreciation that we are an industry built on people, and not just bricks and mortar?

How can technology help us?
For the second session running, we saw strong (and occasionally opposing) opinions on the role of technology in hospitality experiences. The bar at The Goring itself was referenced as a place where old fashioned service values were demonstrated and guests’ preferences were known, not because of profiled information, but because of attentive and service driven employees.



However, Nicholas reminded us that across the industry at all levels of operation, this was harder to achieve and if technology could be used to assist, then we must embrace it. Continuing on the ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ theme – if AI can give us ‘human free’ experiences, and there’s a demand for this, we must accept that those experiences can live alongside full service operations. Perhaps we can learn from Mr & Mrs Smith, who successfully combine both’ high tech’ and ‘high touch’ in their model?

Rules vs Guidelines
With a general earlier consensus on the importance of treating the guest as an individual, the group agreed that adaptability in service delivery was vital. Delving a little deeper into what needs to be done to empower staff in this way, to understand them was equally vital. For example, experience tells us that chefs crave clear standardisation of their processes whereas a greater degree of flexibility is often welcomed ‘on the floor’. In efforts to further understand their teams, some of the group had had rewarding experiences with programs such as ‘Insights Discovery’.

This high human approach is one that will serve us well at recruitment stage, and both Edward and Debrah provided relevant context here – for example, a shift in the reviewing process for a major service awards program from written submissions to face to face interviews across the board has seen an uplift in the personality of candidates. At a major recruitment drive in the UAE, Debrah was able to consider outstanding candidates, whose CVs simply hadn’t done justice to their industry relevant skills. 

Culture comes from the top

Niels shared some wonderful anecdotes from his time working with Ian Schrager, who combined his innate passion for service with storytelling to create a cultural connection amongst the organisation’s teams. He relayed a wonderful story of a housekeeping employee who shared a personal gratuity (for an outstanding piece of service) amongst his team. At a former property, Niels informed a doorman that he was welcome to perform cartwheels in the lobby. Okay, it never happened, but the intention and message were well understood, as was the teams’ approach to their roles – further reinforced by a more flexible approach to the traditional ‘employee of the month’ award, replaced by general recognition and reward of desired behaviours.

The Chair asked how important the role of the most senior members of organisations was in reinforcing culture – and the group passionately concurred that it was imperative. The question is, do we have enough leaders from the Schrager mould to implement the sorts of cultural changes required?

In summary, we’re seeing a fascinating market dynamic where there are consumers who will be happy with absolute minimal human engagement and guests who wish to know the staff by name, and to build relationships based on community and old-fashioned values – and of course a myriad of in betweens. It is imperative therefore that we are able to identify which experience our guests wish for and make sure that everyone that serves them knows the difference, and importantly how to intuitively respond. Does the traditional hospitality model create unimpassioned experiences? Can storytelling, greater flexibility and a high human approach create better guest experiences and at the same time, speak to future industry stars and even government?