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Skift launched the latest edition of our magazine at the Skift Global Forum in September. This article is an excerpt from our look into the current state of the traveler and consumer mindset through the lens of the pervasive state of anxiety felt worldwide.
Download the full version of Skift’s Travel in an Age of Permanxiety magazine here.
To combat travelers’ general anxieties, today’s hotels are hosting meditation retreats, coaxing smartphone-addicted travelers to “unplug” in their device-free settings, and urging them to indulge in all things wellness-related.
While those efforts are all well and good for our collective mental health, they don’t amount to much more than escapes in a bubble — temporary fixes for living in an increasingly stressful world.
But whether a hotel offers complimentary yoga classes or special programs designed to help you unwind doesn’t carry as much weight as having a staff that knows how to treat its guests with hospitality that’s free from bias or ignorance. It’s hospitality that’s genuine, intuitive, and accommodating that really sets travelers’ nerves at ease when they walk in the door — and that’s sometimes much harder to find than a fancy hotel spa.
“The fact that travel can be so stressful, I always thought about what we can do as a hotel, when the guest walks through our front door, to ease that, and have that sense of empathy as to where they’re coming from,” said Suzanne Markham Bagnera, a former hotel general manager at a number of properties who’s currently a clinical professor at the Boston University School of Hospitality Administration. “One of the first things we do with front desk agent training is to focus on that, especially because it can be really stressful to have long lines and have customers taking out all of their travel frustrations on you, even though it has nothing to do with you. We let agents know it’s not about them, and that they need to look beyond that and try to find the best solutions for the guest, and just have a sense of empathy.”
Markham Bagnera said she remembered working at a hotel in downtown Boston at the time same-sex marriage became legal in the state of Massachusetts in 2004, and the hotel she worked at wanted to make sure they could accommodate same-sex couples as much as they possibly could. However, not all staff members necessarily knew how to do so.
“We would have same-sex couples coming in who had reserved a room with a king-size bed, and then at the front desk, the agent would say something like, ‘Oh, you have a king-size bed for just the two of you. That’s not right; you don’t want to sleep together and share the same bed, do you?’” she recalled. “That was not the way we wanted to handle that. So, from then on, we made it a point to have agents say, ‘I have a room with a king-size bed. Will that meet your needs?’”
The Importance of Empathy
To further drive home the point of having empathy for guests, Markham Bagnera would also make sure her staff knew what it was like to experience the hotel as a guest who may have special needs, especially those who may have a physical disability.
“I would actually make my employees get in a wheelchair, with one person sitting in the chair and the other pushing that staff member,” she said. “They had to go throughout the whole hotel — all 15 floors — and come back and report on what the experience was like. What heights could they not reach? What doorways did they have trouble with? People don’t realize, until they’re put into that situation, what works and what doesn’t.”
She added that training hotel staff to know how to provide hospitality to guests with disabilities remains a challenge, especially today.
“Some people still feel awkward and uncomfortable, especially if that person has a physical disability, or if there’s a service dog or animal,” Markham Bagnera explained. “And when they think they’re doing the right thing — like seating someone with a disability in the back portion of the restaurant where they’ll have more room — they’re actually isolating them and making that guest feel worse.”
That’s exactly something that’s happened before to Peter Slatin, founder of the Slatin Group, a company that helps businesses better understand how to deliver customer services to customers with special needs. Slatin, who is blind and has a service dog, recalled that happening at a hotel where he was hired to do a staff training.
Whether he works with hotels or destination marketing organizations or even airports, Slatin says he stresses this to all of his clients: “Compliance is the floor, not the ceiling. I know that’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow for someone who feels that they’ve already invested heavily in compliance, so they think, ‘Why do I need to do more?’ Because compliance is not about service, it’s about access. Now we’ve got the physical access, what we need is social access.”
Beyond accommodating guests with specific needs related to disabilities, both Slatin and Markham Bagnera stressed the need for more overall “cultural competence,” too.
Markham Bagnera said she was especially impressed by a presentation delivered by Apoorva Gandhi, Marriott International’s vice president of multi- cultural affairs, at a recent conference hosted by the International Council for Hotel Restaurant and Institutional Education. “He was looking at the changing demographics in the areas between women, Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, and the LGBTQ community,” she said. “He created these video vignettes as training tools to show staff how to respond in all sorts of different situations.”
And we’re continuing to see more signs from major hotel companies that they’re paying special attention to making sure all guests feel welcome. Just last month, Marriott International debuted a new campaign for its Courtyard, Fairfield, Four Points by Sheraton, and Springhill Suites brands called “The Golden Rule.” That golden rule is the one we were taught as kids: to treat others the way we want to be treated. It’s a simple principle, but one that can all too easily be forgotten, especially in an age when permanxiety reigns.
But if hotel staffs hold steadfast to that concept, that’s a start. Slatin added, “It’s just a basic truth about service that it’s for everybody, and the more you know about who your customers are and what they need, the better prepared you are to serve them. As you can tell, I’m passionate about it, and I believe it really opens up the world to everybody.”