Pick up any newspaper, travel magazine or meeting publication today, and you will read about the challenges and frustrations of travel and meetings — probably more so, even than about hospitality or customer service. And yet, doesn’t hospitality mean service — to serve? Those of us in the hospitality industry often say we are in the service business, and hotel companies take pride in their customer service programs. So why the disconnect in what we read?

It may be as simple as asking the customer about their service expectations, how they define hospitality excellence and what they would like to experience when traveling, attending meetings or even planning meetings. Those at the forefront of the hospitality industry are doing just that, and in ways that are proving extremely effective as measured by new services and guest satisfaction scores.

Sometimes, these measurements are driven by the location and the culture of the resort. “Really our philosophy is 'one stop shop,” says Stephen Price of Spring Creek Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “We work very closely with our clients and do our best to never say 'no, we can't do that.' The nice thing about Jackson Hole is you've got a ton of people who are passionate. The mountains bring it out in people. The joy that we have we are too big to be mom and pop and too small to be corporate. So we have the best of both worlds. It's interesting how we do business – you can still have a handshake you get it done; and you do it because you want to do it, not because somebody says you have to. It's some training, and it's reminders — constantly telling the staff we have invited people into our house. This is our home, and these our our guests.”

The conference room at Spring Creek RanchConference centers, hotels, resorts and hospitality organizations are utilizing customer focus groups to gain insight to customers’ expectations. Then, some are going even further with input from dedicated customer advisory boards. The customer advisory board for EMCVenues, for example, consists of 45 travel/meeting industry leaders. These people meet bi-annually to share trends and innovative concepts, and to discuss the changing needs of the travel and meeting industry. The information from our customer advisory board allows us to introduce products and services that further elevate customer service.

Here’s an example. A typical corporate meeting planner is challenged to place multiple meetings across the country. This makes it virtually impossible to be on-site for every program; so how can you stay on top of them all? Learning more about the concerns and needs of the meeting planner encouraged us to develop meeting planning solutions to deliver highly-valued services such as Meeting Concierge and On-Site Meeting Support; here, an experienced EMCVenues meeting planner is sent to each site to coordinate the logistics and details on behalf of our client.

No More Lines?

One of the venue partners EMC EMCVenues portfolio now meets attendees at the airport and “checks them in” en route from the airport to the resort. Upon arrival, the guest can by-pass the reception desk and proceed directly to the guest room or event without worry of check-in lines or storing luggage.

While this has eased the arrival process at one major hotel, another EMCVenues partner in Miami has redefined the departure frustrations associated with airports. From the comfort of its recently remodeled lobby, the traveling guest can scan large flat-screen monitors for the latest flight schedules and then print a boarding pass from one of the specially designed lobby kiosks. If the flight is delayed, the guest can continue to enjoy refreshments and simply access one of six computers in the lobby living room area. “This customer service feature was the direct result of asking our guests what they would like to see as part of our renovation project. The guest was looking well beyond the new guest room new health club or new restaurant when responding to customer-service wants/needs/expectations” says Selim Solimon, general manager.

The Art of Customer Service

With the $10MM renovation and re-branding, EMCVenues’ partner in Bethesda has transitioned the entire lobby to maximize the guest experience. Gone are the traditional front desk, lobby bar and bell stand. They have been replaced with interaction areas including Reception, Sushi Bar and Starbucks as well as free-flowing restaurant and lounge that are actually part of the lobby as well as secluded seating areas. Tying it all together with a comprehensive Aromatherapy Program with changing essence throughout the day-from the scent of fresh oranges in the morning to lavender in late evening. Capping it off daily with lighting of 700-candles at Dusk.  “We were amazed at the simple requests and feedback our guests provided and we were delighted to incorporate them into our recent renovations and repositioning.” says general manager Michael McMahon.                  

Lee Pillsbury, co–chairman and chief executive officer of Maryland-based Thayer Lodging Group, implores his team of hospitality professionals to seek to provide customer delight. Pillsbury says, “today’s discriminating traveler expects satisfaction; we meed to provide moments of customer delight in order to convince them that we have their comfort in mind at all times.” This can be a simple, but unexpected expression of customer service.

Customer Relationship Management has run “hot and cold”.  CRM software revenue jumped 13.7 percent in 2005 to $5.7 billion. But founder Bob Thompson suggests that we should begin to pay more attention to Customer Experience Management. 

Director of First Impressions

Before we begin thinking technology is the ultimate in customer service, let’s return to the leading hospitality management companies for more examples of customer service as an art. At one full-service business center in Richmond, North Carolina, the name badge of one manager reads “Director of First Impressions” because that is how the customer sees her: ever-present to take care of them and their meetings. Other hospitality companies are positing executive-level industry veterans with titles such as Customer Care Manager and Vice President of Customer Care.

This approach can be especially effective in places like Spring Creek Ranch, which sits on some 1,000 acres and provides hiking, rafting, horseback riding even safaris for its guests. Price says that one employee, or Destination Manager, is typically dedicated to each group, and given the power to make all decisions related to the event. “That way, the person in our destination management group is a stakeholder in the event,” Price says. “The employee actually becomes part of the group. In many cases, our Destination Manager almost 'crosses the fence,' and becomes a client. It's kind of a neat thing to watch evolve.”

The fine art of customer service is not limited to leading conference centers, hotels and resorts. With the EMCVenues Meetings at Sea, exceptional customer service can be found in exotic destinations and onboard beautiful luxury ships, boutique ships or mega liners with glamorous staterooms and sophisticated conference rooms. EMCVenues delivers customer service to make it seamless for planning onboard meetings; the cruise line delivers customer service-gourmet meals, and exceptional, personalized moments of customer delight.

“At EMCVenues” says Chuck Ocheltree, Chief Development Officer and EVP Consulting Solutions, “we stress that customer delight can be more about anticipating a customer’s needs than reacting to them.”

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