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Inside hotel service.

An association's perspective on service is bifocal: It serves and is served. Even as associations race to bring quality service to members, they ask as much from suppliers. Associations rate service quality very important more often than any other factor in site selection, according to the 1992 ASAE Meeting Trends Survey. That's not news to hotels, where management is running in the same lane as their association partners, carrying the torch of quality service.

What is service?

By definition, the hospitality industry epitomizes customer service. Asked what her hotel's customer service philosophy is, a Westin manager answers in almost puzzled tones, "In convention services, customer service is what we do."

"A gorilla and a dog can produce the food and the beverage and the beds, and design the rooms, and all of that," maintains Darryl Hartley-Leonard, president of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Chicago. "It's a given that you've got to have those. These days everybody's jumping up and down about service. At Hyatt we say, service in America is attitude."

Hotel-chain service commitments try to capture the idea in words. "Total customer satisfaction," says Carl T. Mottek, president of Hilton Hotels Corporation, Beverly Hills, California. "Be the leading global hospitality group by consistently exceeding your customers' expectations through innovation and quality," quotes J. T. Kuhlman, president of Inter-Continental Hotels Group, London. Customer service, though, must do better than talk, as Susan K. Dahle, director of convention services at the Westin Hotel Copely Place, Boston, notes above.

Hoteliers agree that the basics - room, food, prompt and friendly service - are now the starting point, not the goal. Welcome to the world of hotel customer service, where the norm is to perform "beyond the call of duty," as Kuhlman puts it; where, according to Hartley-Leonard, "If you leave the office at the end of a day and you are not physically or emotionally exhausted, then you missed an opportunity."

The new client

"It was all very nice," recalls industry veteran Graham K. L. Jeffrey of association meetings 15 or 20 years ago. The present vice president and general manager of the Willard Inter-Continental in Washington, D.C., enjoys the memory. "Conventions were somewhat of a jolly for everybody, especially if they were going overseas. They didn't do much work, and cost wasn't a big factor," Jeffrey says. "Today, the cost is a big factor. They're there to work, and meetings are much more structured."

"Our customers have become much more sophisticated," agrees Inter-Continental's J. T. Kuhlman. "They are more experienced, more demanding, and have a bigger supply of choices. They've also developed a need for recognition and speedier, more efficient service. And they want the experience to be a little adventuresome, a little exciting."

That's the businessperson who uses the room - your member. The hotel's other customer is you. "You can talk about the level of expectation of the traveler," confirms Darryl Hartley-Leonard, of Hyatt. "But it's clearly the meeting planner in whom the greatest sophistication has come about. Too much," he remarks, laughing. "They're such bloody smart people now they can whiplash you to death on price."

With more than 40 years at Hilton, Carl Mottek shares the perspective of the Willard's general manager. "Business in general used to be focused on |here's what we have, make your needs fit the product.' Our customers are far more learned about their own needs now. They have sophisticated plans and programs for their meetings," Mottek notes. "We have changed how we service this customer. We've actually elevated the convention service department to a key position, reporting directly to the general manager. This person is empowered - has the authority and the responsibility - to accommodate customer needs."

The power to serve

Along with quality, empowerment is on its way to redefining management in the 1990s. They are intimately related.

Hartley-Leonard says Hyatt's product is its employees. "We know were got atriums and fancy-schmancy resorts, but if we ask people what makes them stay here, the answer always comes back, |the employees.'" Hotels, then, have a doubled challenge: managing employees as both the vehicle of product delivery and the product itself - service.

That's quite different from a business that sells a product supported by - rather than identical with - its employees. An association meeting department, for example, creates, sells, and services its meeting product. The association manager can help improve both product and employee experience by getting staff to invest themselves in their work. But the product - the annual meeting, breakout session, or exposition - stands on its own, separate. When hotels persuade staff to invest themselves in their work, if Hartley-Leonard is right, it's themselves they improve and feel good about.

In fact, training and empowerment are on the lips of all four of these hotel-chain presidents. As the stifling recession forces hotels to trim material expenses, they rely more on their people. Graham Jeffrey describes a staff meeting at the Willard called "to talk about how we could save money in ways the customer would never notice. One waiter noted that we pour imported bottled water for everyone when they sit down. Why didn't we replace that with tap water served in lovely silver jugs, nicely iced? Now, that waiter really feels he has made a contribution," Jeffrey enthuses. "He saved this hotel $18,000 in one year.

At Hyatt, Hartley-Leonard links the quality of service delivered by staff to higher management training. "If service is attitude," he repeats, "attitude is a product of management. The work force in the lodging industry is young. Young management, by nature, are insecure, and insecure management abuse power. And therefore we have a tremendous emphasis on management training in interviewing, counseling, and building relationships with employees. You will be terminated as a general manager for a lack of relationship with your employees."

If Hyatt has a management philosophy, its president claims, it is, "One, when you have power, you give up the right to abuse people. And two, you've got to treat people as you wish to be treated yourself."

Hartley-Leonard tells a story about his first general manager. "I went to apply for a job, and he asked me how I was going to get to work. I told him I would take a bus, and he laughed because this was in Los Angeles. Then he took me across the street to the bank and cosigned a loan for me to get a car. And that," Hartley-Leonard says conclusively, "is why we have no turnover."

Training to be flexible

Hilton's Carl Mottek emphasizes a "continuous commitment to training" as the chain's number-one customer service tactic. "We need to constantly hone our skills in whatever position we have," Mottek says. "So we have structured training programs for sales, director of catering, and director of convention services. These are classroom programs where techniques and systems are discussed and applied to the hotel. We really emphasize listening."

Hilton means for staff to listen not only to customers but to each other. At the New Orleans Hilton Riverside and Towers, Director of Convention Services Anthony F. Dennis says his hotel is "very client-oriented. My general manager goes to an association's meeting and participates as staff [before they come to New Orleans] to understand the planner's point of view. One time he came back and told me now he understands the challenge I face." Dennis also tries to attend an association's conference to discover what they will need at his hotel.

Dennis needs the prerogative to be flexible because meeting planners don't always tell him what they want. "One group printed in their program that attendees could go to any restaurant in the hotel for breakfast, sign the bill, and the association would pay for it. That's a credit nightmare. This popped up at six the first morning, and we didn't know in advance. So the restaurant manager said okay," Dennis confirms. "We can always settle something like that later. We all know what we have to do, and you can get stuck in the standards thing."

In essence, J. T. Kuhlman agrees. "Standards are really made up by our guests," Inter-Continental's president says. "Our customer should expect an above-and-beyond effort to fix any detail that goes wrong. If your audiovisual materials are delayed at customs, the hotel uses its connections with local government to clear them. A large portion of guest problems are not foreseen in any of the policies," Kuhlman remarks. "So every employee has to feel empowered to correct a problem on the spot."

The Willard was the first Inter-Continental hotel to implement an intensive chain-wide training program, "The Customer Comes First." Jeffrey is delighted to describe some of the results.

"We had an Australian group here - five of them. They went into the bar and asked for Foster's Lager, which we don't carry. They were very disappointed. The bartender said, |Why don't you have this, and we'll see what we can do in the future.' They said, |We'd like you to know we're going to be here five days.' By the time they ordered the second drink, she had a case of Foster's Lager. She'd gone across the street and bought it with her own money," Jeffrey says.

"That's what this is all about - the customer comes first. She never questioned whether she was going to get reimbursed; of course she was," he says.

Accepting power

"What's important in customer service philosophy is it's the employees who make it happen," affirms Richard Adie, general manager at the Hyatt Regency, Chicago. "It's been a challenge, because you can't just tell people, |Okay, now you're empowered to do this.'"

In January, Adie kicked off the "Feel Free" program for his 1,700 employees. "At this hotel, every employee carries a card that says Empowerment: I am free to take care of the guest, and management will support me." The previous fall, staff training used role-playing and interaction to talk about what customer service is and how staff are free to meet expectations.

"The program comes down to six aspects of empowerment," Adie says. "I am free to take responsibility; to get involved; to do more and learn more; to ask questions; to have fun; and to bring my unique talents, values, and culture to my job." A committee of managers and employees brainstormed the list. "We're focusing on each component for two months. The executive office puts out a sheet of ideas on how to get involved, and each department competes."

Are they having fun? "You have to have fun to be genuine about what you do," Adie offers. How does that spell service? "We treat each customer as an individual. Guest find employees will take responsibility and take care of the problem without calling a manager. They can make the guest laugh."

The end is quality

If we keep asking about customer service but hearing about staff training, are buyer and provider looking in the same direction? "Yes," affirms Hartley-Leonard. Management "is constantly reinforcing a message to the employees that result in the attitude that they are justified in spending the enormous amount of time working that they do every day." Since it's that "8 or 10 or 12 hours a day" that results in happy Hyatt customers, means and end have a symbiotic relationship.

Westin's president, Jim Treadway, concurs. "Total quality management is a way of doing business. You get better service and a higher degree of consistency at lower costs," he says. "Our owner [the Japan-based Aoki Corporation] has a long-time view of the world, while American companies are managing quarter to quarter. Starting TQM at Westin North America was easy to sell to management."

Treadway notes, "At every level we work in management teams with mixed disciplines and levels. If we implement a new system or innovation, we include in the process members of every employee population that will be affected. For example, to improve production in laundry, we would set up a team including people doing the tasks and management representatives of housekeeping, rooms, property, and laundry and valet."

Treadway knows this system works; he visit his hotels anonymously to taste service as it is delivered to any guest. "When I travel, I always ask for a room with the lowest rate, because then I know all the rooms are as good or better. I marvel at hotel execs who don't check in but get whisked away to a suite. It's an unreal experience. You have to stay in touch with the real product."

At the ANA Westin in Washington, D.C., recently, Treadway had planned only a briefly trip from Seattle and packed light. "This morning I discovered I unexpectedly have to go to Texas, so I called the valvet to tell them I desperately need to get some shirts cleaned." Treadway gestures around the room. "Everywhere there are signs telling guests that if you have your laundry in by 8 a.m., you get it back by 5. But that's when my flight leaves. I told the valet about my problem, and even though they didn't know who I was, the bellman said, |Don't worry, we'll have your shirts back by 2.'"

Surviving to prosper

Quality is the hotel industry's hedge against economic erosion. Inter-Continental's Kuhlman says worldwide, "The economics are changing. The big annual increase in room rates is not possible in most places, and room rates are not able to keep pace with increased operating costs or rising labor costs. The only way to protect our bottom lines and maintain customer loyalty over the long haul is to keep on adding technology, I proving skills, and motivating staff."

Technology is on everyone's agenda. This fall, Hyatt will put a portable computer in the lap of every salesperson to access and book rates, dates, and meeting space for planners. Inter-Continental plans telephones that flash the name of the guest before the guest speaks, so hotel staff can call people by name.

Whatever the philosophies and tools promoted by hotel executives, it's the staff on-site when association members check in who deliver the product. At the Westin Hotel Copely Place, Susan Dahle says, "Risk taking is part of my job," but she knows that her convention services staff and other department heads will back her up. "When I tell 200 people they can have early check-in, I've made a decision that has a ripple effect," she says. "People rise to the occasion when they're challenged. You just have to be sure to communicate the needs and expectations of the group."

Sometimes you have to communicate more quickly than usual. "We had a group of young presidents last year," Dahle recalls, "500 CEOs at one time. The group came in charter planes, and their bags were being bused from the airport." People and baggage were to arrive at the same time, "but they wanted the bags in the rooms when they got there. We invented a system with walkie-talkies and tag numbers, and expressed pieces up the back elevators just in time as each person checked in."

Concludes Dahle, "If I weren't a risk taker, I wouldn't have this job."

ASAE's Conventions and

Expositions Section

ASAE's Conventions and Expositions Section promotes excellence in association meetings and exposition management. The section also provides excellent networks to strengthen partnerships among planners and service providers.

These are special section services: * The monthly newsletter Conventions and Expositions features articles by section members on food and beverage management, negotiating with hotels and convention centers, international meetings, and legal issues. * Continuing and advanced education is offered in the Hotel Training Program, five-day Convention Management Symposium. * Roundtable luncheons address key issues in association meetings and expositions management. The newsletter reports on these events so that members nationwide can learn from this sharing of expertise. * The Diamond Awards of Excellence are presented annually for outstanding achievements in convention management, exposition management, and convention services management.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Staroba, Kristin
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Members sustain association meetings.
Next Article:Putting the ADA to work.

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