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Hotels Taking Steps to Spruce Up Flagging Service

March 15, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

You've ordered room service, but the food arrives an hour late--and it's cold. You've checked into your room, but 40 minutes later you're still waiting for the bellman to bring your luggage. The hotel laundry loses your shirts, but promises to find and return them tomorrow afternoon--five hours after you plan to check out.

Do these stories sound familiar? Over the years I've experienced all of them. In most cases these bad moments have happened when good hotels have made occasional mistakes. But a growing number of incidents seem to indicate a disturbing trend: There has been a general decline in hotel service.

It's been said that the difference between a good hotel and a great hotel is determined by the guests.

It's also been said that the difference between any hotel and a great hotel is simply determined by the spirit, attitude and often the ingenuity and service of the hotel staff.

When was the last time you were really treated well at a hotel? When was the last time you felt that the staff really cared about you...instead of just your wallet? And when was the last time you left a hotel feeling great, instead of mildly abused by the hotel staff?

Good Service Only a Hope

"At many so-called great hotels," says James Nassikas, president of the Stanford Court hotel in San Francisco, "good service is no longer a given . . . it's only a hope. Maintaining our high standards is the toughest single job we do.

"It's not like painting a wall and walking away. It's a wall that constantly needs repainting."

Unfortunately, at a growing number of U.S. and foreign hotels, the paint on that wall has been peeling.

"In the 1950s and 1960s," says Sheraton spokesman Steve Gold, "hotel companies focused on technology and updating their telephone reservation systems. In the 1970s, companies like Sheraton found ourselves in the real estate business. We upgraded our properties.

"Now, everyone has nice properties--Marriott has them, Stouffer has them and Sheraton has them. But fewer people are bragging about their atriums. Everyone's got one.

"Today, we've discovered that our main focus has to be service. When everything is said and done, that's all the customer really wants."

As a result, Sheraton's corporate philosophy has gone through a quantum change.

Says Gold: "Now that we've experimented with technology and upgraded our product, we've discovered that we are really dealing in a non-manufacturing society. We are in a service society, and we're catering to a much more sophisticated customer than ever before.

"All of our feedback from customers is telling us that what they are now demanding is not better accommodations, but better service. Sheraton now wants to be the most customer-driven company we've ever been. We're moving from high-tech to high-touch."

Sheraton is doing feasibility studies in significant areas, and the hotel corporation may soon announce a radical departure in some of its procedures. Sheraton may soon implement a maximum five-minute check-in time, and may also announce a company-wide no-tipping policy.

Costly Changes

"We want to create a service strategy, but these changes will be costly because we are turning everything around," Gold says.

"We watch our service almost microscopically," says Charles Park, general manager of the Mauna Lani on the Big Island of Hawaii. "Our people work very hard to maintain the longstanding tradition of Hawaiian hospitality."

It's not an easy task for Park and his staff. Throughout the 50th state, more and more islanders are leaving Hawaii for the mainland and higher-paying jobs. A growing fear is that the traditional philosophies of Hawaiian service have been leaving with them.

The flight of the locals hasn't reached serious proportions, but managers such as Park see a major service problem developing in Hawaii in a few years if it is permitted to continue unchecked.

"I can't control who stays and who goes," he says, "but what I can do is work closely with my employees who still seem to love the islands and want to stay."

To maintain high standards, Park holds intensive workshops for his employees.

"We instill in them the notion that money should not be a motivator for service here," he says, "and a feeling that we are the product, not the hotel. The total guest experience ultimately hangs on us and how we perform.

"If we can keep Hawaiiana as our No. 1 priority, not forget who we are and where we came from, our task will be an easy one. 'Kuliaika nuu' means to strive for the summit. That is our motto."

Overworked, Underpaid

Employer-staff relations is often a major problem area when it comes to hotel service. Last year, a survey of hotel working conditions by the Greater London Council showed that London hotels with good staff relations are "the exception not the rule," and that overworked, underpaid and badly treated hotel staff are in effect failing to give tourists the service standard they've come to expect.

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