Colin Nagy, head of strategy at FFNY, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. "On Experience" dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. You can read all of his columns here.
Unbeknownst to most luxury guests, there exists a class of high-end assessors who mark the best properties in the world on their service standards.
Far from people trying to make an extra buck like a secret shopper, the employees are former hoteliers that go through a vetting process and six months of training to ensure consistency. The goal? To try to make sure that when you stay at a top-tier brand, you are getting the desired experience for your money.
Hoteliers employ them to examine how they are doing according to quite a long list of criteria. These include having your call answered in three rings or less, food prepared and presented correctly, and guests that are addressed appropriately given cultural nuances, among many other factors.
One of the most prominent companies in the space, Leading Quality Assurance (LQA), seeks to provide owners, franchise managers and operators an honest look at how a hotel is performing against its standards, and perhaps most importantly, against a competitive set.
Andrew Lazzaro, CEO of LQA, walked me through how the process works, as well as some observations on the luxury space from a unique viewpoint.
Their assessment tends to be three days/two nights in duration and is anonymous (i.e., the hotel does not know when they are coming). The entire customer journey (everything from the reservation to check out and everything in between) is measured, and at the end of the assessment the consultant will announce themselves and meet with the management team for a full face to face feedback session.
Every conceivable touchpoint, many that would be invisible to a guest, is measured. Reservations; check-in; check out; porters arrival, porters departure; concierge; housekeeping arrival; evening turndown; daytime servicing; laundry; breakfast restaurant; light meal; bar; in-room dining, room product, public areas product, fitness facilities, spa treatment and transport.
No stone is left unturned, and upon conclusion, there is an unmasking, and an intense debrief with the property on what worked and what didn’t. Also, there’s a process where AI is used to mine existing user reviews and incorporate them into the on property feedback to create the most holistic picture of what is happening at the property across every department, online and off.
Down to the Human Touch
According to Lazzaro, each of these departments has its own set of standards, adding up to around 800 in total. Guests, however, only ever talk about 15 percent of these standards in online reviews. So it is clear some areas are more visible than the elaborate stage set that plays out every day in a luxury hotel. But everything is examined down to the human touch, empathy, and emotional intelligence the so-called EQ factor.
Lazzaro asserts that the hardest metric for many hotels is indeed this human EQ one: “Connecting emotionally with so many different types of guests is often the hardest issue…How a hotel employee emotionally connects with a guest in that given moment can make or break a stay. Loyalty can be bought and sold today, but devotion is a much stronger and more valuable bond.”
This emphasis on the emotional intelligence and the nuance is also what he sees as the future of luxury, and considers the best GMs as focusing on the development of people as being mission critical to the future of luxury hospitality. “It is easy to get fixated on the product, and we’ve seen an arms race of the past few years of trophy assets, says Lazzaro. “There is no shortage of spectacular assets around the world, but those that consistently operate with an unparalleled level of customer intimacy are few and far between.”
This people-centric approach can outperform something ostentatious or flashy. And Lazzaro cites several examples where a hotel with a more engaging and personalized experience beats a more extravagant asset.
Not Just About Having Knuckles rapped
Luxury consumers have predictably high expectations, and guests expect a level of exceptional service regardless of who they encounter throughout their journey throughout a property. It is clear that the high-touch experience is no longer in the hands of a few within the hotel and every employee whether front or back of the house and every interaction counts. To achieve success, operators not only need to manage a diverse team but also need to arm them with the right insights and support infrastructure to execute flawlessly. The more cohesive and high functioning the team, the better the guest experience.
It is clear that the process is seen as additive for hoteliers. The assessment is not just about having knuckles rapped for letting the phone ring too many times, but rather there is nuanced advice on how to right the wrongs sustainably.
“What intrigued all of us was the way [the consultant] provided convincing and educational feedback to us,” said Lars Wagner, general manager of the Mandarin Oriental, Geneva. “She understands luxury and has a good eye for detail. These are the kind of [consultants] we appreciate from the field.”
When asked about his favorite hospitality experience he and his team witnessed this year, Lazzaro said: “I recently witnessed a back of house employee ask to spend a day in a guest-facing role. To see her receive a front of house uniform and engage a guest for the first time within a very high-profile property was a humble honor. She greeted a guest with a sincerity and passion that I wish I could bottle and replicate around the world.”