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The Future Hospitality Professional

As adventurous as it may be to predict the future, there is no doubt in my mind that we stand today at the same point as Dick Tracy when he conversed through a two-way, walkie-talkie video wrist-watch to a remote caller six decades ago. In other words, the prediction that hospitality professionals of the future will read the minds of guests may sound a far-fetched fantasy and possibly even ludicrous, but it will come to be. Why? Because it has been done to some extent for centuries by that quintessential service provider, the British butler, when in top form; and because the technology to bring all service professionals to that pinnacle already exists.

Here, we are not talking some corporate formula for guest interaction that too often results in canned phrases and plastered-on smiles; or a consultant guru’s mantra for superior guest services that seeks to put a datum where intelligent observation and action should be. We are talking information relay followed by drilling on the “how to’s” resulting in an ability gained. It’s nothing mystic and has no relationship to any psychological mumbo-jumbo, but down-to-earth application of workable principles resulting in guests being properly assessed and treated in a way that they find pleasurable, which always leaves them feeling better than before the service was administered.

Such guest service employees of the future will be closer to Life Consultants than room service and will care as much about guests as their mothers. So says the crystal ball. Predicting the future can be fun. Take the “Future Holiday Forum” held in London, England recently for leaders in travel, technology and design. Their “2024: A Holiday Odyssey” according to a report predicted the future hotel for remote destinations as a foldable/ transportable, self-sustaining, low-environmental-impact pod on stilts in which guests could choose the images to be projected on the walls. The technology for such hotels already exists.

The line-up of future hotels that will similarly soon be with us includes underwater hotels and airship hotels that permit scenic views as one travels leisurely to one’s next destination. Resorts in space no doubt lie in the future, incorporating spinning rooms for all the comforts that we have come to expect from living with gravity.

As for space-age technology addressed at specific hospitality issues, we already have 3-D hologram teleconferencing for hotels specializing in conference services. We will soon see smart cards containing all information on a guest, including likes and dislikes, as well as credit card information that will no doubt make check-in and customized servicing of guests easy.

Other technologies to be introduced into the hospitality sector include robotics for cleaning and check-in; biometric security such as retina scans for entrance to rooms and access to safes. Then there is nanotechnology (manipulating and manufacturing at the molecular level). While we are close to imprinting electronic equipment onto our clothing and even skins, there is talk of using nanotechnology to reconfigure rooms per guest wishes, transmogrifying the furniture, fixtures and decorations at the push of a button (so to speak).

However, notice that the talk of the future is invariably in the realm of gadgetry and machinery. Whatever happened to the human element? Are we giving up on our fellow man? Are we just using him or her until some machine can replace him not just on the factory floor but also in the giving of service? Just as Astounding Science Fiction moved beyond machines to focus on the human element regarding things from outer space during the 1930s, so I believe we need to move into improving the human element, rather than always focusing on the mechanical and even trying to substitute machines for humans. And by improving the human element, I mean moving beyond formulas and mantras to increase employee intelligence and ability to act self-determinedly, rather than other-determinedly by rote.

Butler as Future Service Standard

Whether or not Mr. Horst Schulze, former chairman of Ritz-Carlton, was serious when he announced his plans to introduce a six-star hotel chain that was defined in part by private butlers, he was signaling a recognition of the value of a certain something that classic British butlers bring to the guest experience.

So what’s the connection between the British butler of the past and present, and the future hospitality professional? How does one move service employees from transient lower-paid wage earners to professional service providers acting with pride and knowledge, more akin to Life Consultants than room service and caring as much for guests as their own mothers?

Try the code and standards of the traditional butler: trustworthiness, loyalty, attentiveness to guests predicting what they want and attention to detail in providing it before they even know they want it. Always calmly smoothing events into a successful conclusion with a can-do attitude and real caring for the guest; social graces, treating each person with dignity; the soul of discretion; never crossing the invisible line between friendliness and familiarity, attitude free; a superb organizer who always achieves targets set; able to deal with the raw emotions of upset staff, imperious or discourteous guests, indignant bosses, shifty contractors and suppliers and the best-laid plans falling apart at the last moment-all the while maintaining his composure, his desire to provide the best possible service, and ensuring events turn out satisfactorily. Who finally has the energy and humility to ask, “Was there anything I could have improved about my service today?”

That’s the basic butler persona and mindset. But beyond that, we need something more to create the service provider of the 21st Century.

Current Best Practices in guest services result in an industry effort to have all guests greeted cheerfully or enthusiastically. That’s fine for employees who are naturally cheerful or enthusiastic. But how fake the result when they are not. And is it really appropriate when every guest is so greeted when they are neither cheerful nor enthusiastic at that particular moment nor even as a general rule. One size does not fit all.

What is needed is an understanding of the human mind and character, how their emotions dictate their attitudes, and what they will find acceptable to talk about, consequently, and at what emotional tone.

Anyone who thinks that “emotion” is the opposite of “rationality” won’t be tracking with the above. “Emotions” actually refer to the measurable wavelengths emitted by an individual as an expression of his or her like or dislike for various subjects. Some men are enthusiastic about football or conservative about receiving that promotion. Some women grieve over the loss of a relative or dissolve in raptures over a friend’s new hair-do. The exhilaration of an individual who has just won the Lotto can be contrasted rather handily with the apathy exhibited by an individual who has nowhere else to go for help and has given up. Or take the boredom a man might exhibit during a business conference as it enters its fourth hour, or the covert hostility (the equivalent of the phrase “passive aggressive”) exhibited by a woman as she smiles crookedly while saying “What a lovely dress. I saw one just like it in the thrift store yesterday.”

There is more, though: being in the moment or now with guests. Presenting a guest with an attitude, or dealing with them while one’s attention is elsewhere, completely misses the boat when it comes to making them the most important element in a hospitality setting. So the question is: how does one anchor employees in the now? It’s easy. If you know how.

And when you have that licked, you will find employees will be there enough to observe what is right in front of their faces, compute intelligently, and then act effectively to predict and cater to guest needs, and more importantly, read their mind.

And that is why the future of hospitality lies with the ancient butler tradition, married to the latest in “mind-reading” technology to better read and serve guests. Fit that into the equation, and we will find those floating or space-based hotels, as well as the regular landlubber hotels of today, better serviced and continuing to attract guests who prefer the human touch. Robots for humans is about as satisfying as petting a Sony RoboDog instead of your loyal, lively and loving Lab.

This article also appeared in the Hotel Business Review section of Hotel Executive on-line (August 2005), the October 2005 issue of Hotel Online and in