This week was the first time I went back to SF since the COVID shelter-in-place order (a.k.a lockdown) was issued in March 2020. It was my first hotel business stay and my first visit to our SF campus to teach our MBA students there.
When faculty from Wharton, as myself, make these trips, we always stay at our “Wharton Hotel” (which I prefer to keep anonymous).
The hotel is highly rated, as part of a reputable chain, and I usually stay there for approximately 30 days in total per year (which may seem insignificant for consultants or salespeople, but is quite a lot for the rest of us mere mortals). It is so much that the hotel feels like my home away from home.
When I arrived this time, it was clear that the hotel was relatively empty. The receptionist who checked me in warned me that there would be no housekeeping, a reduced number of meals, and limited room service. I paid very little attention to this since I don't consider myself someone who needs much pampering.
But then it began: I walked into the room and there was nothing in it. The room was there. The bed was there. There was even a desk there. But the room seemed lifeless; a mere shell of itself. It looked more like a hospital room than a hotel room (but if you don't have the patience to read about my first-world problems, I suggest you stop here).
Part of this clearly has to do with maintaining cleanliness and health restrictions: Some guests want no interaction whatsoever, and the hotel wants to keep its staff healthy by reducing interaction with guests as much as possible. I understand and respect that, but as a repeat guest before COVID, the difference was jarring. It felt so sterile.
Later on, it became clear that it was not just the room. I had arrived in between meals and after unpacking, I went down to get some much-needed coffee. To my dismay, the coffee station had already been taken away, there was no coffee in the rooms, and room service was unavailable between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
If you know me, you know that I can't function without coffee. I can fast for days, but lack of coffee is not something I can tolerate (I am not addicted... I can stop whenever I want... I just choose not to).
Again, I understand the driver for the hotel. With limited occupancy and an increased difficulty in finding staff, hotels have reduced their services to keep their costs low. But depriving a guest of coffee? What’s next? Are we to bring our own towels?
Luckily, we have the gig economy to come to our rescue with DoorDash and UberEats in SF, so I managed to get my quick fix (but more on this in another post).
I understand why hotels do all this, but my question: Is there a better approach in these challenging times? One might say that you should focus on cutting costs in order to just survive. Another may say that this may actually be the time to really WOW your most valuable customers. I agree with the latter. I actually think you need to strive to be “essential” to your guests. Be the “home away from home” they want you to be.
This is not my idea. This is Danny Meyer's idea, the founder of Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack. He coined the term “enlightened hospitality.” “Hospitality is not our end goal. Being essential is,” says Meyer in an interview a few years ago. “Another restaurant might try to impress diners by suggesting an esoteric sweet wine... The servers at Union Square Cafe don’t want you to be impressed. They want you to be happy.”
Against the backdrop of COVID, this notion of being essential is becoming even more critical. Travel is uncomfortable. Everything is more challenging and takes longer with a face mask. That day, I flew with two masks, out of caution, and didn't eat on the plane (or the airport). The entire experience was daunting and felt very “risky.” Every person that sneezed behind me would trigger enrollment in a COVID test… Not something that I associate with fun or luxury.
All I wanted was to get to my hotel room, remove my masks, take a deep breath, have some coffee, and prepare for next day’s class. In these times, a hotel has the unique ability to amplify being “home” when the entire environment feels more hostile than usual.
But they didn’t deliver, not even close. In fact, they totally missed it.
It will take a while for travel to go back to normal. Some of the people who traveled frequently before COVID may never travel again in the same capacity. But I can say that the people who travel now are most likely the ones who will continue to do so. They will have more options than in the past and I know it’s hard (but not impossible) to step completely out of the ordinary in these situations. So, I’m not suggesting you do that. Just be essential. Road warriors are not looking to be pampered. They are looking for attention to detail that makes their stay convenient, home-like even. They want to know that you took the time to get to know them.
As Danny Meyer describes it:
“Hospitality will not succeed unless the person on the receiving end knows all the way to the bottom of their kishkes [Yiddish for “guts”] that we’re on their side. The definition of hospitality for me is the degree to which [the guest] feels that we are on their side, we have their back, we are their agent.”
How should hotels operationalize this concept? The answer is coffee. Well, maybe not just coffee, but start with knowing your customer. While customer service has many technical features, hospitality and “being essential” are more about culture. It’s about how you view your role with respect to your employees and customers. For a hotel, the question is which services to keep when forced to reduce costs and staff. What is the feeling you want people to have when they walk into their room? What’s the taste you want them to have when they leave...? Coffee!
The Enlightened Workplace
The notion of being essential is not only related to hospitality. It is also related to the workplace.
When I finally got to our campus in SF the next day, I realized that there was no coffee there either. Why? For so few students and so few guests, we (Wharton) decided to cut costs. The building has no coffee, you are in the middle of nowhere (so to speak), you have 3 hours of teaching and 6 hours of meetings. And they expect you to do all this without coffee. Once again: I ordered from UberEats.
So, the idea of being essential is not only valid for your guests, if you are running a hotel, but it’s also true for your employees. Reward those who come to work in the office (and in this case, travel to another city) by knowing who they are. By being essential.
Over the next few years, the competition over workers is going to get tougher. The workplace itself will not play a big role in attracting and retaining employees, but the culture you build will. Again, it’s not about going out of your way. It’s about being predictable, being less alienating, especially in these times.
Many years ago, Starbucks coined the term “the third place” for its cafes: Not home. Not the office. That third space where you spend time and overpay for bad coffee.
This is a reminder for the office and your home away from home to play these “1-2” roles and not be that third place. Be those first two places for your guests and your employees. Be essential.