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Service is the most important part of any hospitality business, but an even more significant differentiator in the luxury sector. When every five-star hotel offers the same luxury amenities, it’s the individual actions of staff that set a brand or even property apart from another.
The ideal attitude of a luxury staff is best captured by the head of concierge at Madrid’s Hotel Ritz, Martin Guridi, who, profiled recently on Roads & Kingdoms, says he “achieves the impossible immediately, but takes a little longer with miracles.”
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It’s an intention that is quickly noted by guests and often the most discussed part of their stay. In a Cornell Hospitality review of more than 95,000 reviews and ratings for 99 independent high-end hotels and resorts, half or 47,337 reviews included a rating for service, underlining the “importance of the hotel industry’s core product, namely, consistently excellent service.”
But how exactly do the accommodating, doting and discreet staff of the world’s top luxury hotels get that way? Is it something that can be trained or something that one must possess?
We spoke with leaders directly involved in talent management or employment for luxury hospitality companies to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes.
Attitude Over Education
Every person we spoke to overwhelmingly agreed — instinct comes before education.
“We have found that attitude is as important as skill-set,” explains Elana Friedman, vice president of global marketing of AKA, which offers luxury extended-stay apartments.
“The personality and professionalism of a team member is extremely important. It’s crucial that they possess the ability to relate and operate in a personalized, service-driven environment.”
Echoing that sentiment is Irene Forte, brand manager of Rocco Forte Hotels.
“We require employees to have the right attitude and behavior as a starting point, as that is hard to teach.”
Craig Reid, CEO of luxury boutique hospitality company Auberge Resorts, also agrees.
“We would prefer to take someone with less experience and a personal gift than someone who is very experienced but at risk of being set in their ways. We want people who are going to be able to empathize and respond to what the customers’ wants are.”
Employees who come with the desire to please, but no formal education, are quickly schooled in tailor-made brand training programs. Each of the luxury hotels we spoke to had designed their own programs and techniques to indoctrinate employees.
Emotional intelligence is often seen as the most important aspect of these programs.
“Being able to properly read our residents and use emotional sensibility is extremely important at AKA,” explains Friedman.
“We train our Resident Services team to read the body language of the resident and quickly determine how much or little interaction each resident wants in that moment.”
AKA President Larry Korman went so far as to write a book on the brand’s history and values, which is part of their custom training program.
Rocco Forte Hotels has gone one step further and created a career training and development app called MapMyFuture with funding from the British government.
“We created this as a training tool for our team members to use to help develop their careers as we found there was a gap in the market for on-the-go learning for this industry,” explains Forte.
“It is versatile as you can use it any time of day, and it clearly maps career paths, with rewards, tutorials and learning tools.”
Giving employees a means to review or improve skills outside of formal training is a trend that we expect to see more of.
Language Skills Become More Important
One skill that is becoming more essential is the ability to speak multiple languages.
An innovative program in New York has found success priming bilingual speakers for jobs in the luxury sector. Luxury conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton partnered with the Chinese-American Planning Council and Parsons The New School for Design to provide Mandarin-English bilingual jobseekers with training and job development opportunities.
The program, which includes eight weeks of classroom training and a two-week paid internship at an LVMH store, covers skill development, resume workshops, workplace etiquette and placement assistance — with an 82-percent job placement to tout.
The program was so successful in its first two years that it expanded in 2016 to include training in Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Arabic.
What Retail Can Teach Hoteliers
It’s also beneficial to look at luxury sectors outside of hospitality for potential practices.
Swiss luxury conglomerate Richemont, for example, has a special talent development program that takes into account the unique needs of luxury customers. Employees are evaluated on three factors — agility at learning, engagement and commitment, and ambition — and then moved into a group where they’re recognized for their leadership potential. Employees are never alerted of the program, Harvard Business Review explains.
LVMH, on the other hand, encourages employees to move between different roles and even leave the company for a short time in order to bring back new perspectives from other industries or cultures.
Some hoteliers are already nabbing top talent from these high-end brands.
“We have found that recruiting top-level talent from different industries has been beneficial as they each bring a different perspective,” says Friedman.
“AKA is proud to have many longstanding and accomplished team members, many of whom have come from outside of the hospitality industry.”
Renato Mosco, CEO of Training Luxury, delved deeper into what goes into creating his luxury training programs, which are primarily crafted for the retail sector, in a recent conversation with Skift.
“We do a lot of research on everything from neuro-marking to neuroscience, from Neuro-Linguistic Programming to social and emotional intelligence.”
His programs were born out of his own frustration with the training experience.
“I disliked when I had the “all-mighty” trainer who did a sales training program with examples that were not relevant for my business! Or even worse, people who came with tons of slides full of theories or time wasting and useless games,” explains Mosco.
“We want our training and workshops to be as real as possible. We use games, but we work on real situations.”
A great example of a real-life training program is Hotel ICON in Kowloon. Skift columnist Colin Nagy recently described his experience at the hotel, which doubles as a training ground of hospitality students, as good as any other high-end hotel. Students from the adjacent Hong Kong Polytechnic University work alongside staff to complement their textbook knowledge.