I dedicated most of my professional adult life so far to the hospitality industry. Back in 2014, I left my job in the banking world to join Emirates Airlines, as a result of a hiring spree for international cabin crews. I left everything behind and embarked on a one-way ticket to Dubai with the youthful zeal you’d expect of a new graduate seeking daring and disruptive adventures. Truth be told, before the airline, other than a short-lived sting as a bank teller one summer in high school, I’ve never truly worked in a conventional customer-service role. I was privileged enough to get hired early on by a youth government program aiming to reduce the alarming rates of smoking in teens, from where I joined other (luckily, paid) opportunities in community leadership. Gratefully, this kept me employed in a part-time capacity throughout both high school and university.
That year, Emirates hired about 5,000 people out of 100,000 that applied worldwide. Initially, I thought my lack of hospitality experience would be a detriment. Emirates, however, wasn’t really interested in experience. Most new hires were in their early 20s, and although some had a hospitality background, many didn’t. Instead, the airline sought people with the right attitude; warm, authentic individuals with a strong character and a graceful personality who could also adhere to strict standards of operational excellence. Emirates is the hospitality bootcamp; having one of the best training programs in the world, the task couldn’t be left in anyone else’s hands.
Today, the airline and leisure industries are facing significant challenges. The scene is nothing short of ghastly — many of my industrious ex-colleagues are being furloughed in the thousands, entire fleets of jumbo jets are sitting grounded on barren fields, and restaurants and hotels are closing all over the world due to low demand and financial losses. However, the lessons we can learn from how these companies approach customer relationships are not only timeless but distinctly relevant. They can act as pillars for navigating our bizarre newfound world.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes that services generate “more than two-thirds of the global GDP, employ the most workers, and create most new jobs globally.” Chances are, you are most likely working in the service industry or closely linked to it. Even companies employed in natural resources, manufacturing or agriculture still have a stakeholder they serve. Actually, any company that interacts with another independent body, be it another enterprise or the general public, could benefit from a more acute focus on hospitality.
When Pam Am was arguably one of the most successful hospitality companies at the height of the jet age, every new crew member was asked to read Dale Carnegie’s classic, How To Win Friends and Influence People. Still applicable today, the book comprises a wealth of insights on human behaviour and psychology, with simple principles that can strengthen our relationships with others. If you haven’t read it, Shane Parris offers a succinct summary of the key lessons. Pan Am was not only an innovator and disruptor when it came to their hard product (such as being a driving force behind the development of the first commercial jet, the Boeing 707, and our ‘Queen of the Skies,’ the 747), but their company philosophy was also rooted in a deep care for their guests.
Betty Riegel, a Pan Am Flight Attendant hired in 1961 recalls in her memoir the advice she received from one of her instructors, Al. He emphasized that even on short flights, when the crews were expected to complete a full seven-course meal, they “must never appear flustered or rushed. (…) The passenger wants to get what he has paid for and you should encourage people to relax, take their time and enjoy their meal.” Hospitality was such a core of how the airline operated that Juan Trippe, the founder of the airline, even built comfortable hotels on far-removed islands, like Wake in the Pacific, so passengers could have a hot bath and a plush bed to rest on during their layovers.
Service ought to be unobtrusive for the most part, anticipating what people wanted before they asked for it, yet also responsive to any request they made. — César Ritz
César Ritz, one of the other pioneers of modern-day hospitality, manager of the Savoy London and founder of Ritz Paris, believed that “service ought to be unobtrusive for the most part, anticipating what people wanted before they asked for it, yet also responsive to any request they made.” Author Luke Barr notes that for Ritz, the ‘customer is always right’ philosophy was “one of his often-repeated maxims.” He believed speed to be one of the key contributors to customer success, with service that is “unquestioning and solicitous and swift.” While working as a waiter, he was suitably known as “César le Rapide.”
Some of the best-ranked leisure businesses know that anticipatory hospitality is at the heart of authentic guest engagement. Hotel executive Aaron Kaupp of Raffles Paris calls his team “ambassadors of anticipation,” noting that staff are encouraged to look for clues that can enhance the customer experience. A guest who left their jogging gear by the door, for example, could be gifted a personalized running map later that day or on a future stay. Featured in A Wealth of Insights, a book about timeless lessons from hospitality leaders, many hotel executives note that warmth, active listening, honesty, attention to detail and delivering a consistent experience are at the heart of the industry.
Position your staff as agents, not gatekeepers. An agent makes things happen for others, while a gatekeeper sets up barriers to keeping people out. — Danny Meyer
No one explains the concept of hospitality better than successful restaurateur, Danny Meyer, founder of some of New York’s top-rated eateries. In his bestselling book, Setting the Table, he makes a compelling argument on the importance of positioning staff who are the first point of contact with customers (for example attendants, receptionists, or assistants) as ‘agents’ and not ‘gatekeepers.’ He explains that an agent “makes things happen for others,” while a gatekeeper “sets up barriers to keeping people out.” This ideology is not only worth considering for those who are customer-facing ambassadors, but for all of us who interact with any stakeholder, being a client or even colleague.
Service is the technical delivery of a product, while hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel. — Danny Meyer
The biggest takeaway from his philosophy, however, was how Mr. Meyer explains the distinction between service and hospitality. He notes that “service is the technical delivery of a product,” while hospitality is “how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.” He adds: “Service is a monologue — we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response.”
As our world over the last few months has become increasingly distanced, and strikingly more sheltered, an almost digital revolution is forcing companies to shift their customer engagement fully online. We are no strangers by this point to Zoom calls, contactless pickups or home deliveries. However, behind masks and protective equipment, and separated by screens and devices, everything feels just a bit more impersonal and separating.
It is in these strange times, however, that a focus on customer relationships becomes even more pertinent. Perhaps, it might even become the defining factor of which company gets to stick around long-term. How can we maintain relationships in one of the most isolating times of our generation? How do we still respond to our customers in a timely fashion? How can we still learn from one another? How can we continue to be part of our customers’ lives behind closed doors?
Every company — irrespective of industry, every employee — irrespective of role (customer-facing or not) can reflect on how they can show more hospitality in their work. Cultures of hospitality don’t need to live within hospitality businesses; they should live within every business.
And this is where we can all play our part. Every company — irrespective of industry, every employee — irrespective of role (customer-facing or not) can reflect on how they can show more hospitality in their work. Cultures of hospitality don’t need to live within hospitality businesses; they should live within every business. There is much we can learn from our beloved top-rated hotels, restaurants and airlines.
Every company has a set of standard operating procedures and a customer service department. Most companies do a good job sticking to their rules and offering service exactly as it’s on paper. When this doesn’t happen, they apologize, conduct some form of service recovery, and move on. That may sound enough, yet it often leaves people feeling disengaged, unsatisfied and commodified.
There’s no greater priority than attending to our customers and stakeholders.
A hospitality culture focuses on the anticipatory moments, on the human stories that won’t ever be found quantified in our databases, on giving space for employees to make a customer’s day, irrespective of role or operational priorities. Because there’s no greater priority than attending to our customers and stakeholders.
This brings me back to my work with Emirates, which opened this story. The idea that became fundamental to my understanding of hospitality was rooted in the knowledge that everyone travels for specific reasons. There may very well be over 400 reasons residing in one aircraft alone. Often, they will be unknown to us. We should never assume someone’s story, just acknowledge it’s there and expect the unexpected. Of course, our operational standards (the ‘customer service’) still need to be excellent. However, our main job goes beyond offering drinks in the right glasses or ensuring napkins are placed with the logo facing the customer. Our main responsibility lies in the hospitality offered. As agents, we are making space for people to share their stories. Through those stories, we can then anticipate needs and focus on creating an environment that treats everyone like guests in our own homes.
The essence of hospitality is a focus that goes beyond service fundamentals and taps into forming emotional connections born out of humbleness, empathy and integrity.
The essence of hospitality is a focus that goes beyond service fundamentals and taps into forming emotional connections born out of humbleness, empathy and integrity. Of course, not all of us are in the business of surprising a guest with their pillow of choice or making a specialty dish for someone with a strict dietary requirement. However, all of us are in the business of offering something to someone else.
I encourage you to reflect on how you can show more hospitality in your role, towards clients, colleagues or other stakeholders. And if you’re lucky enough to be a leader or founder, I’d urge you to take it one step forward: how can you turn your company from a service culture to one of hospitality?
To start, I’d recommend reading Dale Carnegie’s, How To Win Friends and Influence People, and asking everyone in your team to do the same. Moreover, with hospitality professionals being laid off in the thousands, considering them in your hiring decisions might be the single most strategic step in cultivating a higher level of empathy and emotional leadership in your company. Their energy and ability to tap into human stories will bring you one step closer to your bread and butter — your customers and stakeholders. No table setting required!