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What is “hospitality”?
I understand this question may appear basic, but after a recent conference I attended in which the panelists, moderators, and even hosts conflated and misconstrued the words hospitality and tourism, I knew the issue was far more pervasive. Even more problematic, hospitality is commonly misunderstood as servitude.
With these general misunderstandings we’ve lost touch, failing to recruit the qualified talent and passionate people we need, all because of the stigmas associated with the very word that connotes our business. Consequently, we “hospitality” executives need a little schooling, getting back to our origins to understand the true meaning of our business.
It’s not tourism, and it’s not servile.
At its origin, hospitality is the relationship between a guest and a host. It generally conjures up notes of welcome, courtesy, entertainment, warmth, and generosity associated with the basic tenets of humanity and culture. Tourism, in a very different way, is the operations, theory, and practice of traveling. Tourism, at its origins, is about movement and business, whereas hospitality is about relationships.
Yet, mistaking servitude as hospitality is the larger issue. Since joining Georgetown University, I have continually been approached by a number of hospitality executives who are yearning for droves of qualified, well-educated, and passionate employees. But, those ideal individuals are repeatedly opting for (what they perceive as) more “respectable” careers.
It has cultural stigmas.
In some cultures, working for a hotel or restaurant company is considered to be inferior. What they fail to realize is that the most acclaimed frontline staff can command hefty earnings and foster meaningful relationships with the most prestigious and powerful of their guests. Accordingly, hospitality is not generally known as the glamorous, enriching, and prosperous industry that it can be.
We have a huge marketing problem in hospitality: we are not framing employment in this industry in the best possible light. Hospitality is often thought of by the general public as servile, an assumption that the host is beneath the guest. Hence, this problem is guest-facing because some of those guests could also be our future employees. Somewhere, the passion, cultural pride, and sheer professional talent required in hosting guests are being lost in translation.
Hospitality is respect for others.
In Afghanistan, a guest is considered a blessing from God, which probably derives from the Sanskrit notion Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning that a guest is equal to God. My mentioning this is not religious in nature, but rather an implication of a code of conduct in how we have historically treated visitors: we want them to be showered with the kind of formalities, perfection, and respect that we would associate with divinity.
These emotional connections are grounded in simple details: knowing a guest’s name; looking into their eyes when conversing; handwritten and thoughtful notes left in one’s room. Sure, fancier gestures and experiences can be used to tout differentiators and incite headlines, but it is these seemingly elementary foundations that matter the most. And it is a large and elaborate backstage organization that facilitates these simple, seamless gestures.
Careers in hospitality are secretly dynamic and captivating.
The average traveler often associates employees of this industry with the immediate frontline staff that they see working at the reception desks of hotels and inns, or the servers in restaurants that they all too often gripe about. The general public does not see the Brand Director of boutique chain Ace Hotels—or the events team of Burning Man—or the inflight experience manager of Virgin America—all working behind the scenes to facilitate the complex process of hosting a guest.
The hospitality industry is enormous, and there are so many diverse roles that sit within its auspices, including careers in real estate, IT, marketing, and branding—not only within lodging and restaurants, but also in airlines, technology companies, hospitals, and residential developers, amongst others. This lengthy list hints at how this industry is easily one of the world’s largest and most encompassing.
Its employees must be passionate, educated, respected, and inspired.
Money isn’t everything, and with today’s rising generation, we are seeing a resurgent desire for passion and meaning in one’s life and career, all of which hospitality can easily provide.
Alongside experience, education is currency. The hospitality industry provides a type of informal, lifelong learning that gives people the critical skills of being more humble, open-minded, worldly, and savvy. It establishes a thirst for knowledge and a motivation to take care of others. Somewhere in the evolution of the business, we’ve lost the respect of the general public. This industry has an overabundance of distinct, global, and captivating roles, yet these have become overshadowed by the negative connotations that precede them in today’s society. The issue is largely nomenclature and marketing.
The hospitality industry needs to go back to its roots to attract a passionate next generation of employees and show them what it really means to be hosts and purveyors of honorous human relationships.