David Flaherty has more than 20 years experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.
I’m not one to spend money on filling my closet with rows of flashy sneakers, or lining up at dawn to get the latest tech gadget. But I do happily spend my hard-earned cash hunting down great dining and drinking experiences.
Over the years, my litmus test for which restaurants and bars I return to has become quite simple: How does the place make me feel? Call it comfort, call it vibe, call it being taken care of, or call it escapism, but more than any other element, a palpable sense of hospitality is what truly captures a guest’s heart.
Genuine hospitality is what separates a great experience from a forgettable one. It’s what fills the bar stools with devout regulars. Yes, it can be an ephemeral factor that’s hard to put into words, but when you feel it, you know it. Developing hospitality that emanates from your staff, and encouraging them to unfurl it night after night, is the key to creating repeat business, and is imperative for the bottom line.
“Hospitality is the most important aspect of what we do,” said Sophie Oppelt, sommelier at Summit at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. “At the end of the day, you can have a killer beverage program and incredible food, but it all comes down to how your product gets to the table and the human interactions that go with it. These can have an impact that are more memorable than the bottle of wine, or even the entire meal.”
Having empathy for your guests and recognizing that each one is looking for something different, allows you to engage them with an open mind, to adapt your approach to what you’re hearing, and then to create custom experiences they’ll remember.
One principle to focus on with your staff is the difference between service and hospitality. These are two different skill sets, said Matthew George, lead sommelier at Rivea in Las Vegas, one of Alain Ducasse’s properties.
“Learning the steps of detailed service is one thing, but you have to choose to be hospitable,” George said. “All the finer points of service can be taught. But the staff has to openly, and happily, embrace a sense of hospitality that affects their conduct every day. It’s about being one step ahead of the guest, knowing what should come next in their experience before they do. Beating their anticipation and needs makes for a secure, welcome feeling. And for repeat guests, you can enhance their experience with a new wine or dish, but ultimately they should leave with a feeling as welcoming as on their first visit.”
Even how your staff refers to guests is important.
“First off, you must refer to them as ‘guests’ and not ‘customers,’” said Jeff Taylor, beverage director for North End Grill in New York City, part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. “We try to take a lot of the transactional nature of a restaurant out of the equation and make it feel like we’re inviting our friends over to our apartment for dinner. Every guest must be handled differently. Does this guest require a lot of attention? Is this guest hands-off? Is this guest having a bad day? Is this guest celebrating something and, if so, how do we acknowledge it? Do we know what the guest’s preferences are ahead of time, like what kind of water they prefer? How do they like their Martini made? The list is endless, but it’s a list that is specific to that particular guest.”
Hiring employees that have an innate sense of hospitality is a must.
“Some people will be more naturally inclined to hospitality than others,” said Jason Percival, beverage director at Post 390 in Boston. “You can tell your staff to smile more, to refine their tableside manner, or to use certain verbiage, but if it’s not genuine, it’s apparent. If someone by nature genuinely wants to take care of people, it’s very easy.”
Although it can be challenging to identify in an interview, look for positive characteristics in prospective employees like sustained eye contact, clear articulation of thought, ease and confidence in body language, and a sense of humility. These qualities can pay off in spades when your employees get to know your guests and spend extensive time with them.
When things go wrong and a guest’s experience is blown off track, a skilled practitioner of hospitality must swoop in. It’s much more effective to deal with a guest in real time than to find that they’ve already left and begun complaining on social media.
“With each moment that passes after the guest leaves and they feel like they weren’t heard, they have the potential to become more upset,” Taylor said. “I always tell my staff, ‘If you see or hear something, say something!’ In layman’s terms, I like to call it ‘No Guest Left Behind.’ Get in there as quick as possible, listen to their complaints, acknowledge their feelings and act accordingly to remedy the situation.