Barnett on Business Travel



September 1, 1991 -- What do America's top hoteliers do on their vacations or free time? Prowl other hotels, often snooping for good ideas to snatch. Others overnight in a competitor's hostelry to sample a rival's style and service firsthand.

Here's what they look for, and what you should expect to receive from a hotel, every time you check in. And if it doesn't deliver, register a complaint. You're doing the manager a fat favor.

"I focus on the doorman and the front desk staff first and look for spirit, enthusiasm and friendliness," says Ed Paradine, general manager of the San Antonio Marriott River Center. "I want genuine hospitality, not a script or a facade."

Paradine, who topped 200 colleagues to be Marriott's general manager of the year for 1990, hates hotel robots.

"If they just say, 'Howdy' and mean it, I'm happy. The absolute worst is a clerk who asks, 'Checking in?' as if I'd be doing something else standing there with my wife, kids and luggage."

Paradine expects the bellman to continue the greeting with a warm welcome.

"If he says, 'You're going to love this place and here are all the neat things you can do here,' great."

The silent bellman who simply parks a guest and the bags in the room is a black mark on Paradine's mental check-off list.

On the way to his room, the Marriott manager always looks to see if the hotel skimps on cleanliness. Are corridor carpets vacuumed wall to wall or only down the center? Are corners frayed, baseboards and ceiling moldings dirty, bedspread faded and wallpaper nicked? Is there dust underneath the bed?

And when there's a problem, asks Paradine, does a staffer "fail or pass the moment of truth?"

Example: You are shown to your room but you don't like it and ask for another. If the bellman shrugs, he flunks. "If he says, 'Let me call the desk and get you the room you want,' he passes the test."

Employees who "extend themselves for my wife and my kids" is what Rick Adie, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Chicago, looks for.

Vacationing at an oceanside resort in Maine, Adie says the room wasn't ready and his wife had to feed their youngster in the lobby.

"No one went out of their way to find a spoon or help me with my luggage."

Adie, chosen as the No. 1 manager in Hyatt Hotels for 1990, praises the desk clerk of a Ramada Renaissance in Springfield, Ill., for thoughtfulness.

"I was checking out at 5:30 a.m. and the clerk said, 'You look like you could use a cup of coffee.' He brought me a cup from his own pot."

Lynn Ross, general manager of the Sheraton Park Central Hotel in Dallas, and recently voted by her colleagues as the city's hotel general manager of the year, freely admits she stays in all rival hostelries at least once a year.

"I'm looking at what they are doing new and different," says a candid Ross, and she will purloin an idea. At the Wyndham Hotel by Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, a Sheraton guest spotted a pasta buffet and told Ross about it.

"I sent our restaurant manager and chef out for lunch and they came back and created one and we're now serving 30 to 50 people a day."

She got the notion of gourmet in- room coffeemakers from a bed and breakfast in Boston, and staffed a business center similar to one she had seen at a "five-star hotel here in Dallas," which she declines to name.

Ross gives ideas and praise as well. When the competition treated her with care during one of her snooping forays, she congratulated an employee for "phenomenal service. You've got to give positive feedback when someone does a good job."

She doesn't hesitate to voice her displeasure either. Recalling a dinner where the service was at a snail's pace, Ross took the manager aside and said, "'The food was wonderful and the decor is great, but you have a problem with the service. That waiter is stretched too thin.' He appreciated my comments."

Some hoteliers say they can tell a lot about a hotel's "personality" just by observing - without even talking to a staffer.

Tom Negri, general manager of Loews Annapolis, Md., Hotel, regularly "scopes out the competition looking for friendliness and cleanliness."

A welcome sign: employee name tags that give first names instead of the more formal initial and last name. Other turnoffs: burned-out light bulbs, high thermostat settings and newsstands with sleazy magazines. All are indicators to him that no one is really "watching the store."

One hotelier who watches his like a hawk is Bernard Agache, managing director of the Century Plaza Hotel and Tower in Los Angeles. He is also Westin Hotels' "Hotelier of the Year" for 1990. It's easy to see why.

"I want to walk into a hotel that exudes liveliness, that tells me something exciting is going to happen," says Agache. "If I don't feel welcome the moment I arrive, I don't want to stay."

He looks for "neat, well-groomed employees who should look as if they were dressed to go out on the town." When he took over the Century Plaza, Agache scrapped all dowdy uniforms and outfitted his staff with Italian-styled business suits.

When he visits a hotel, he often first goes to the bathroom - to check for cleanliness.

"An establishment with anything less than an impeccable rest room is not a place where I would want to stay or dine," insists Agache. "In fact, there is no excuse for lack of freshness and maintenance anywhere in the hotel."

Above all, Agache expects any hotel employee, from bellman to boss, to handle his or any guest request on the spot. No buck passing. In fact, he recently dismissed 100 supervisors at the Century Plaza because the bureaucratic layer demanded too many approvals for a request that made a guest happy.

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union.

Copyright 1990-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.