Invest In Your Most Important Assets

If the latest report from Market Matrix is any indication, the hotel industry has misplaced its priorities. The research group's index of customer satisfaction in the lodging business indicates that a growing number of guests are unhappy with the levels of service they're getting.

Even scarier is the additional data from the survey showing that hotel guest loyalty scores have declined significantly in recent months. Luxury hotels recorded the steepest dip in loyalty, down more than 10 percent from this time last year. According to the data, a guest who reports a problem with a hotel staff member is 43 percentage points less likely to return to that hotel than a guest who didn't have a service issue.

Clearly, there is a service problem the lodging industry needs to fix, not collectively but on a property-by-property basis. Yet, some other surveys and a lot of anecdotal evidence (media coverage, water-cooler buzz, etc.) reflect how much hotel customers seem to appreciate the industry's new emphasis on guestroom comfort in the forms of upgraded bedding, high-tech entertainment systems and luxury bathrooms.

In fact, most guests probably figure the comfy beds, the new amenities and the gadgets they're finding in their rooms merely justify the higher rates they're asked to pay. At some point, however, the business will run out of new tchotchkes to add to the guestrooms, or more likely, hoteliers will ratchet up the amenity wars with services, facilities and other product improvements that may be cool but which don't justify the investments required. How, then, will you be able to continue to ask guests to pay higher room rates?

Here's an example: a hotel in the Northwest recently announced that it will offer split bedsheets — one side will be a warm polar fleece and the other a cool 100-percent cotton — to accommodate two guests bunking together who may have opposing body temperature preferences. While the hotel charges $20 for the service, it's not clear to me whether this amenity will catch the fancy of guests and produce an ROI or will just be another gimmick that fades quickly.

Most of the product improvements introduced to the hotel industry in the last decade — everything from the Heavenly Bed and its clones to check-in lobby kiosks — have made a lot of sense and have enabled the industry to leap forward in sales, profits and image. But, owners and operators need to make sure some of their investment dollars go to the assets that ultimately are most important in a service industry: the people who man the front desks, change the sheets, bus the restaurant tables, sell the groups, clean the pools and fix the air conditioning units.

It's not as sexy as adding a new bedding system, plasma TVs or a celebrity restaurant, but it has been and always will be more important. And the resources you need to attract, train, nurture and retain top-quality, service-oriented employees are plentiful, easy-to-find and generally cost-effective. Every brand company has a full menu of training aids. The Educational Institute of the AH&LA is our Library of Congress when it comes to training resources. And several top-notch training companies in the industry can create and implement whatever employee enrichment programs you need at whatever price you can afford.

And, to quote the personal mantra of master hotelier Bill Marriott, “Take care of your employees and they'll take care of your guests.” Marriott has great hotels in the best locations with good amenities, but perhaps it is adherence to Mr. Marriott's exhortations that really make it the leading hotel brand in the world.

Paying attention to the comforts of your guests is always a good idea, but it will never take the place of a kind word, a welcoming greeting or fast response to a problem.

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