Mr. Ely

Guest Service / Customer Experience Mgmt

Renovation That Pays: Train Employees to Improve the Guest Experience

By John Ely, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Signature Worldwide

What are your guests' experiences worth? Maybe an extra $20 or $50 per room, per night? How about $100 per night? That's how much a large hotel on the Las Vegas Strip is raising room rates on the weekends based solely on the elevated customer service levels. One hotel is undergoing a major renovation, but even before the construction is complete, and in the middle of the worst economic downturn in many of our lifetimes, this hotel is still charging a premium - and getting it.

It seemed a bit unbelievable to me that a hotel could charge that much more simply by delivering better customer service, so I set out for Las Vegas to experience this for myself. (True, it doesn't take much of a reason to get me on a plane for the land of neon and glitter. A good story will do!) I set up a meeting with the new executive in charge of this customer experience program and headed west.

Upon arriving, I entered the hotel and right away I noticed something different. The staff was incredibly welcoming. I travel to Las Vegas four or five times a year and have noticed that service levels have steadily dropped as hotels run on leaner staffing. Honestly, that's what I was expecting here, but I was pleasantly surprised at all the attention I received.

I entered the wrong tower, which is typical for me. Almost immediately, a staffer who was vacuuming walked across the hall to ask if I needed directions. This doesn't seem too far-fetched, except that he noticed I was looking "lost," shut of the vacuum cleaner, and walked at least 30 feet to greet me. At this point, he mentioned that a lot of guests are a little confused with all the physical renovations going on and offered up his assistance. I told him I was looking for a certain coffee shop and he immediately began to walk me to the corridor leading to the side of the property where it was located. He didn't ignore me or even simply point me in the right direction. He took ownership of the situation to ensure I was able to find my way.

Once in the correct tower, I stopped again to gain my bearings and another hotel employee, this time an upper-manager or executive (or at least I thought he was based on his attire), asked if he could help me find something. I mentioned the coffee shop and he walked me to within a few yards of the place. Again, the employee was taking ownership of the situation.

About 10 minutes early for my appointment, I got in line to order coffee behind several other guests. It was shortly before 9 a.m. and the line for coffee was a popular place to be. Here again, the attention to the customer experience was evident. As we were waiting to place our orders at one of two registers, a third coffee shop employee came out to talk to the guests in line. She simply made "small talk" asking if we were enjoying our stay and if there were any questions about the menu, the shop, or any other restaurants on the property. It helped make the wait seem shorter and much more enjoyable. I was making mental notes. Within 15 minutes of arriving at the hotel, I already had three memorable interactions with the staff!

When I met with Bernie, whose official title is director of service culture, I immediately told him about my first few minutes in his hotel. He didn't look a bit surprised. In fact, that's exactly the type of guest service Bernie had in mind when he took on the role nine months earlier.

"I'm so glad you had a good experience, but I would expect nothing less," he said. Bernie went on to explain how guest service, experience and interactions were all tremendously important to the new service culture he was creating, and how so much time and energy had been allocated for training all the staff - everyone from the front of the house to the back.

He added, "Training has taken a back seat in Las Vegas over the last few years, and I'm a firm believer that we need to get back into the habit of educating and investing in our employees. We have a lot of great new amenities coming, but not one of those can interact with a guest like a staff member can.

"I have customer culture directors reporting to me who are responsible for all areas of the business, from the casino floor to housekeeping to the front desk. My department is responsible for the total service culture. Customer service is not siloed by department."

By taking an organization-wide approach to training and responsibility, Bernie ensures a consistent, high-level of customer service. Even in a traditional operating model, the customer service might be good. But having the responsibility for guest service divided among departments may lead to inconsistencies.

Bernie's group has also trained staff on empathizing with the guests, which is exactly why I was offered so much assistance! The staff knows that it's an uncomfortable feeling to be "lost" on the property, and takes action whenever they spot someone who looks a bit unsure of where they are going.

"This connection with guests is even more critical during a renovation," Bernie said. "We must do everything possible to ensure they feel welcome and come back after the work is done, because after all, it is an investment for them."

Because all this training is going on under heavy renovations, you would think that higher prices would have to wait until it was finished, but Bernie confirmed that prices were raised by $100 per room based only on the new levels of service.

"We've gone from two-star to four-star service and the rates reflect that improvement. I'm sure that once the renovations are complete, there is even more room for price flexibility," Bernie said.

Bernie and I ended our meeting with a tour and he invited me to come back when the renovations are complete. When I run into one person delivering great customer service, it could be that person just has that certain "hospitality" gene. When I run into two, it could be coincidence. But when everyone I meet on the property is dedicated to creating legendary customer experiences, I know it is the result of extensive training and good management.

I've preached over the years that in an industry where amenities and features are becoming more parallel and transparent to the guests, customer service is one of the best ways to differentiate your hotel from the competition. With Bernie's property, it not only is a differentiator but a profitability strategy too. It pays to deliver great guest experiences - an additional $100 per room in this case!

John Ely is senior VP of marketing for Signature Worldwide. He is responsible for developing, implementing and evaluating strategic marketing and corporate growth plans, and has industrial and consumer marketing experience. He has an associate degree in electrical engineering, a bachelor's in technical management and a master's in marketing and communications. He is a member of the American Marketing Association and Product Development Management Association. Mr. Ely has served as a professor at Franklin University and is certified as a "Teaching at a Distance" (TAD) online educator. Mr. Ely can be contacted at 614-766-5101 or johnely@signatureworldwide.com Extended Bio...

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