How addictive is your hotel?
How addictive is your hotel?
13 APRIL 2015 6:15 AM
Let’s apply science to the hotel industry and see how addictive your hotel can be by examining the operations of dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin.
To give you a new perspective on your guest service operations, let’s reframe a person’s hotel experience in terms of chemicals—specifically how a brain responds to micro- and macro-interactions by releasing certain neurotransmitters. For those of us lacking a medical degree, neurotransmitters are the molecules your nervous system releases to dictate further bodily actions and emotional states of mind. 
Although there are dozens of these brain chemicals that have been identified, we’re going to focus on five widespread and powerful neurotransmitters as they relate to guest-staff relations—four good and one bad. 
On the positive end of the spectrum, I remember them by asking the simple, relevant and acronym-tinged question: how DOES a hotel elicit positive emotions from its guests? In this case, DOES stands for: dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin. On the opposite end is cortisol, which, although technically a hormone, is a must to avoid. 
The reason why we as hoteliers should know a thing or two about neurotransmitters is because they are instrumental in reward-seeking and affection-seeking behavior. Dopamine is most directly associated with adventurous or reward-motivated behavior; when we find something we like, dopamine is released. 
Oxytocin is the bonding hormone, released after we encounter any displays of kindness, warmth or empathy. 
Endorphins are a series of naturally occurring opiates that inhibit pain and induce feelings of euphoria. 
Serotonin is the “feel good” chemical, contributing to feelings of happiness, belonging, self-assurance, satiety and many others. 
Finally, cortisol is the stress hormone and counteracts the release of several positive neurotransmitters on top of its own metabolic and emotional effects.
To start, here’s a simple example without looking too much under the hood: You are offered a free cookie by a friend (oxytocin); the cookie tastes good (dopamine and serotonin); your brain records that the cookie tastes good and remembers this encounter for future reference. In this instance, the cookie is provoking a positive feedback loop to reinforce the behavior of eating more cookies.
Now consider one involving a front-desk clerk handling the check-in process with a guest. It starts with the guest arriving and the clerk smiles in return with a warm greeting (oxytocin). After a speedy check-in where the employee continues to talk and ask questions in a soothing yet confident tone (oxytocin and serotonin), the clerk gives the guest a complimentary spa treatment because he has attained a certain milestone within the hotel company’s loyalty program (dopamine and serotonin). 
Upon redeeming his reward, said guest feels a strong sense of relaxation and bliss (endorphins). Unfortunately, there was a minor spill in the spa entrance area and the guest nearly slipped while leaving (cortisol). He calmed down after the receptionist rushed to assist him and apologized profusely (oxytocin). 
In essence, when asking how addictive a hotel is, we are actually pondering what we can do to increase the release of the DOES neurotransmitters in our guests’ brains. The above example is rather uncomplicated, but it nonetheless effectively demonstrates the all-encompassing role that these hormones and neurotransmitters have as we go about our days. The case goes to show that there are many straightforward ways to increase a hotel’s perception. It also illustrates how micro-interactions can act in succession to generate a far stronger and longer-lasting sentiment toward a person, place or object. 
In the hotel industry
Considering that micro-feelings are the building blocks for macro-sentiments and the lasting emotional resonance your hotel will have with its guests, here is a short list of potentially positive interactions and the inscribed neurotransmitter that’s released:
  • warm, confident eye contact (oxytocin);
  • firm handshake, hug or other physical show of camaraderie (oxytocin and serotonin);
  • remembering a loyal guest’s name (oxytocin and serotonin);
  • witnessing a staff member happily assist another guest (oxytocin and serotonin);
  • briefly chatting with a manager in the lobby (oxytocin)
  • dynamic, vibrant artwork in lobby or corridors (dopamine);
  • carrying a guest’s bags to his or her room (serotonin);
  • helping a guest plan his or her day (oxytocin and serotonin);
  • encouraging a guest to try a new activity (dopamine);
  • cooperation between guest and staff toward a common goal (oxytocin);
  • exercise, yoga or pilates (endorphins);
  • revitalizing spa treatment (endorphins and oxytocin);
  • winning a sports match (dopamine);
  • new milestone reached in training regimen (dopamine and endorphins);
  • comfortable restaurant seating (oxytocin);
  • lively restaurant atmosphere (serotonin);
  • bold, new food or beverage that’s also quite tasty (dopamine and serotonin);
  • jovial and attentive attitude of servers and bartenders (oxytocin); and
  • live music (dopamine and serotonin).
I could go on. The pattern you should see among all these neurotransmitter-inducing scenarios is that those involving staff-guest interactions lean toward the chemicals (oxytocin and serotonin) responsible for generating feelings of affinity for a hotel, whereas property features that lead to novel or active experiences are more likely to activate dopamine and endorphins. 
Although the former two can inscribe severe habit-forming behaviors, you merely need to look at two of the most rampant narcotic scourges of modern society—cocaine (a dopamine provocateur) and heroin (an opiate that mimics the actions of endorphins)—to realize the value in stimulating these same reward-based pathways through the enterprises of your hotel and staff. No, I’m not telling you to hand out free drugs in the lobby. But I am urging you to look at your hotel’s features to assess how they can better imitate these two highly addictive substances. 
How does your hotel excite the senses? What physical objects can you place in the lobby, restaurants, bars or guestroom corridors to provide your guests with a palpable distinctive space? What features or amenities do you offer that would be considered exceptionally rare among your average guest? More to the point, what do you offer in terms of exciting and novel experiences? Responding to these questions and adjusting your operations accordingly will have powerful subconscious effects with your clientele.
But the cortisol …
Before I sign off, a word on cortisol is required. This hormone is the antithesis of what you want. Along with adrenaline, it helps put you in “fight or flight” mode as a result of stress or some other external hazard by arresting restive bodily functions. As part of our evolutionary development, we are built to vividly remember dangerous encounters so that we can do our best to avoid them in the future. In this sense, we often recall incidents of pain or suffering with far greater detail than those with the opposite circumstances.
Cortisol is partly responsible for our visceral reaction to seemingly unsafe or unhygienic conditions—what our primitive brains interpret as a precursor to danger. It is a powerful hormone and one you must do your best to avoid because one cortisol-inducing event could be enough to counteract a dozen others that promote serotonin or dopamine. As such, if you are hoping to deliver an “addictive” experience, start by eliminating any perceived negatives, and then (and only then) build in your positive.
Larry Mogelonsky is the president and founder of LMA Communications Inc., an award-winning, full service communications agency focused on the hospitality industry (est. 1991). Larry is also the developer of Inn at a Glance hospitality software. As a recognized expert in marketing services, his experience encompasses Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts and Preferred Hotels & Resorts, as well as numerous independent properties throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Larry is a registered professional engineer, and received his MBA from McMaster University. He’s also an associate of G7 Hospitality, a member of Cayuga Hospitality Advisors and Laguna Strategic Advisors. His work includes three books “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?” (2012) and “Llamas Rule” (2013) and “Hotel Llama” (2014). You can reach Larry at to discuss any hospitality business challenges or to review speaking engagements.
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