Guest experience must be authentic, GMs say
26 SEPTEMBER 2014 6:58 AM
GMs speaking on a panel said guests want authenticity during hotel stays, but operational consistency also is key.
SANDTON, South Africa—At the Royal Livingstone Hotel at Victoria Falls, Zambia, a man named Edward makes all the difference to the guest experience, GM Joanne Selby told attendees of the recent Hotel Investment Conference Africa.
During the general managers’ panel on guest experience, Selby said guests want authenticity when they visit an iconic destination such as Victoria Falls.
Things such as cleanliness and bricks and mortar are required but do not differentiate a hotel, she said.
Someone like Edward does. He is the hotel’s storyteller, she said. He is one of the most photographed people and knows a little bit of every language. He can greet New Yorkers in their own language, and they love his questionable imitation of a New York City cabbie.
Edward tells guest about the beliefs and traditions linked to Victoria Falls. That, rather than information about the height and volume of water per second at the Falls, makes a lasting impression on guests.
“Africa has got amazing stories to tell that you will never read about. It is all about the human connection,” Selby said.
Tony Balabanoff, head of divisional operations at the OR Tambo City Lodge Hotel outside Johannesburg, emphasized the importance of a good loyalty program that can be mined for information about guests and their preferences.
Clifford Ngakane, former GM of Sun International’s Meropa Casino Complex, said guests love being recognized when staff knows their favorite drinks and other preferences.
But Selby said individual recognition also can go wrong. Guests have their own quirks, and hoteliers need to have the right staff in the right place to acknowledge them.
“Even if you get it right 20 times, they will remember the time you fail. Consistency is very important,” she said.
Serving up the right staff
Michael Pownall, GM of the Taj Hotel in Cape Town, said a stable staff base goes a long way in achieving that consistency.
“The best hotels in the world have long-term front service staff. They are comfortable in their positions and know how to handle guests,” he said.
Selby said staff should be empowered to deal with situations. She told the story of a guest who complained bitterly that the microwave in the room was not working.
“We don’t have microwaves in our rooms. He was referring to the safe,” she said. The receptionist kept a poker face and graciously said she will send the butler to look into the problem.
Balabanoff emphasized the importance of measuring guest satisfaction through exit questionnaires and to deal with problems immediately.
“A real-time rating system is vital,” he said, adding that if GMs don’t react within a few hours, “you have lost the plot.”
Robert Hodson, GM at a Legacy Hotels and Resorts’ Da Vinci Hotel and Suites, said social media and platforms like TripAdvisor give an even better idea of guests’ experiences. Technology makes it easier to get feedback, he said.
Selby said it is important that everybody in the organization “from supervisor level up” have access to that feedback and to praise staff members who get the best response.
Aided by tech
Balabanoff said technology can aid a business and has to be embraced, but it can never replace the human interface.
Hodson said technology can enable guests to book while riding the train on the way to the hotel, but guests older than 35 won’t be impressed. They want human contact, he said.
But when it comes to technology, Pownall said the one thing that can really irritate corporate guests is when the Wi-Fi or Internet access is slow or off.
Hodson agreed. When asked how much free Wi-Fi is enough, he said, “We gave 350 megabytes and increased it to 1 gigabyte, but it is still not enough.”
He said South African guests expect free Wi-Fi, while guests in other regions are used to paying for it.