Hoteliers to impresarios: the art of theatre in the hotel business

conductorProviding good customer service has long been recognised by hotelier’s as one of the cornerstones of successful hotels, but what is it that is really delivered when we talk about good customer service? Is it a scripted standardised form of dealing with customers and guests or is it part of the intangible characteristics that shape the relationship between staff and customers?

A recent eHotelier survey conducted with over 390[1] respondents attempted to better understand how the customer service experience was seen and perceived by hotelier’s and how important it is especially in relation to other well recognised characteristics of the business. It will come as no surprise that 97.3% of responses considered that the customer service ‘experience’ was either extremely important or very important. However when considering the responses to all of the questions in the survey, especially when distinguishing between customer service and delivering a customer experience more of a  distinction was drawn. This indicates that whilst we think we understand “customer service” we may be less comfortable with the idea of providing customer “experiences”.

Nearly three decades ago, Pine and Gilmore published the book The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre and Every Business a Stage (1999)[2]. It is this work more than any other that has developed the concept of the “experience” as fundamental in adding value to any business. The authors argue that by decoupling the notion of experiences from services opens up new possibilities in adding value to the offer. In the second part of the title, they also argue that “any work customer observes directly is an act of theatre” and “whenever employees work in front of customers an act of theatre occurs”.

Hotelier’s would probably rightly look at past successes and some of the great, grand and famous hotels and hotelier’s of the world and argue that there have always been entrepreneurs and ‘impresarios’ and the very design of hotels is creating a relationship with theatre. There may be others who would argue that the sheer growth of the industry has led to a “brand commoditisation” that has almost systematically removed the opportunity for staging performances and creating experiences.

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In the survey, when asked to rank the components that make up the hospitality product in terms of their relative importance, from extremely important to not important at all, the customer service experience was considered to be extremely important and, in fact, the most important component, ranked above the quality of food or rooms, location, the physical surroundings or the style and design. This ranking correlated very strongly with the responses to the question, ‘Which you think are the most memorable to customers?’.

Most Important Most Memorable
The service experience 77.4% 82.95%
The quality of the food/rooms 54.64% 50.78%
The location 37.89% 22.25%
The physical surroundings 27.4% 14.84%
The style and design 18.39% 14.32%

The table is based on the responses to those two questions where the respondents indicated that that component is extremely important or extremely memorable.

If the customers consider the service experience to be the most memorable and hotelier’s consider it to be the most important, this rather begs the question as to why there is so little investment in research and development of the service ‘experience’ compared to the design care and attention that is paid to all of the other component factors. When presented with the statement “we pay more attention to the design of the product than we do of the service experience”, 57% of the respondents considered this to be true.

The response to the statement “we do not stage experiences, we design the process of service”, was even more definitive. Here over 83% of the respondents considered this statement to be true. The response to the question “delivering experiences is more than just service” was even more emphatic, with over 93% of the respondents indicating this was true.

This suggests that there is a wide recognition that the customer service experience is the most important factor as well as the most memorable,  but that the all-important “experience” component relies on happenstance rather than being an integral part of the overall service design. The view that delivering “experiences” is more than just delivering customer service, is important, as this indicates an almost intuitive understanding of what needs to be done, whilst not actually taking the concept and embedding it within the service culture.

This understanding correlates well with a response to the question “delivering memorable customer services is more than hospitality, it is theatre”. Over 89% of the respondents believed that this was true.

The principal messages arising from the survey indicate that hoteliers consider the customer service experience to be the most important component of the service that they offer. They also recognise that delivering experiences is more than just delivering a service and delivering memorable customer service is actually theatre. However, this is somewhat countered by the reality that more attention is paid to the design of the product than the service experience and that as an industry, there is no wide understanding of the concept of “staging experiences”.

This is where the notion of the hotel as theatre needs to be brought to the fore and for general managers to take on an understanding of the importance of being an ‘impresario’ and staging experiences. As Pine and Gilmore put it “experiences are events that engage individuals in a personal way”. Most would argue that is the very basis of good customer service.

Experiences are as distinct from services as services are from physical goods. Customers are the audience, the staff are the players. They take on a different characterisation of the role that they play within the hotel. They put on a costume, they learn lines and they perform. They engage directly with the audience and will be required to improvise on their part.

“Every action contributes to the total experience being staged”. Hoteliers, as with many other parts of this diverse industry, have been creating and managing experiences for centuries. If, as an industry, we were to embrace the idea that the concept of “theatre” should be integrated within the management and operation of our businesses, how much better we might be in adding value to the customer service in creating truly memorable experiences?

This will require courage and understanding that being hospitable is more than merely managing a hospitality business. It is recognising that the art of the theatre is as important as designing the rooms and the quality of the food.

This change of mindset will need to permeate through all of the organisation, not just at the operational level, but through HR and training and development. How long will it be before we see “the art of the hospitality theatre” appearing on hotel schools curriculums?

[1] 69% of the respondents indicated their main business as hotels

[2] B Joseph Pine II and James H Gilmour, The Experience Economy; Work Is Theatre and Every Business A Stage. Harvard Business School Press, Boston Massachusetts, 1999

About the author

Peter JonesProfessor Peter Jones is the Dean of the eHotelier Academy. With a distinguished career in hospitality, education and training, Peter has been involved with national and international projects with clients involved in hospitality education. Peter is a Director the Edge Hotel School and of Hotel Future, a new education and training initiative in Greater Manchester and is a Visiting Professor at the University of Derby. He was also awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to the hospitality industry.

For more on the results of eHotelier’s members survey on Customer Service and many other topics, see our Viewpoints section.

Food for thought –what are some ways hoteliers can improve the art of the hospitality theatre on a property level? Share your perspective in the Comments section below.

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