It’s vital to regularly infuse hotels with renovation dollars, but it’s just as important to ensure hotel staff are trained and ready to embrace the upgraded hotels’ new culture and service levels.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—At hotels undergoing upgrades or that have recently been repositioned, hotel owners and managers are working diligently to ensure that service levels match the newly refurbished product.
These “service renovations” generally are structured on a case-by-case basis depending on a host of property-specific factors, but the overarching goal is always driven by the same ethos: It’s also the hotel’s staff—not just the furnishings and amenities—that drive the guest experience.
While periodic capital upgrades are essential for hotels seeking to remain competitive, sources said a sure way to waste those renovation dollars is to overlook related staff training that should be held in tandem with the relaunch. Generally speaking, cultural and service retraining occurs periodically throughout the renovation and then intensifies two or three weeks prior to reopening.
“You can get so focused on the ownership and management side and repositioning or enhancing the position of an existing hotel, and it’s important not to forget that people are what make the experience,” said Naveen Kakarla, president and CEO of HHM Hospitality, which is in the midst of a dozen meaningful renovations this year. “We need to put just as much energy on the operational side into upgrading or enhancing the culture and service experience and training levels at our hotels.”
Kakarla said HHM’s retraining process could even include having a renovated hotel’s existing teams re-apply for positions so management can focus on putting the right people in the right spots. The company prepares extensive internal training programs, and in some cases has partnered with Forbes on external training modules. Meetings begin with the executive team, then move to senior management and finally to associates to drive enthusiasm and culture at newly renovated hotels.
“In addition to empowerment and obvious things that we’d want to do from a service standpoint, it’s really about trying to drive a team that really believes in guest experience, continuous learning and this concept of supporting each other to drive experiences,” Kakarla said. “What we’ve learned from that is these processes are as important as all of the effort we put into the fit and finish of the hotel itself. They (employees) breathe life into the hotel.”
For Texas-based hotel management firm Benchmark, the idea of service renovations begins with a thorough understanding of what the repositioned hotel will be—and the kinds of guests it will target—which informs the pre-opening staff training. That includes the future star or diamond rating of the property, the intended average daily rate it will charge guests, projected occupancy and the hard cost of the renovation, to drive the return on investment derived from the work.
“I typically start with what the service-level expectation is, and then what’s the expectation from a cost perspective,” said Calvin Banks, director of training and development for Benchmark. “What’s the cost to the customer going to be? Because if it’s a property that’s been previously open, and the property is going to have the same name, that customer is going to come in with a similar expectation from a cost standpoint. When that cost is raised, we have to show value. It all starts from an expectation standpoint of what the product is going to be tomorrow.”
That objective is defined as a two-part process at HP Hotels, focusing on both internal and guest-driven objectives, according to Chief Development Officer Kerry Ranson.
For the internal portion, he said, management works to instill a sense of pride and ownership among staffers, urging them to treat the hotel as if it were their own, and to speak up and take action when needed to protect the investment.
Then there’s continual re-investing in the product, through ongoing training, results monitoring and researching the best maintenance tools and techniques, he said.
The guest portion, meanwhile, focuses more on spreading the message of the renovation through multiple mediums, Ranson said.
“Every touchpoint is important in the transformation because we have to make the story resonate with everyone that interacts with the guests, and we also want the guests to leave and share the story as well,” he said. “Our design and concept-building go into our training, culture and sometimes even the uniform designs we use.”
HP Hotels recently renovated its DoubleTree Hotel in Columbia, South Carolina, and is in the process of renovating the Campbell House, Curio Collection hotel in Lexington, Kentucky.
At Davidson Hotels & Resorts and its subsidiary, Pivot Hotels & Resorts, the service renovation process begins with universal service standards that apply to all employees. These standards include fundamentals like posture, appearance, presence, using guests’ names, holding doors open, greetings and property knowledge.
From there, the companies review how employees should communicate with guests, such as using genuine greetings, saying “please” and “thank you,” body language, how to enter a guestroom, special touches and service recovery.
After that has been addressed, the companies hold breakout sessions and go down the line, department by department, to review and role-play to practice service guidelines. In conjunction with the training, the companies ask branding agency partners for a brand book for that specific property, which includes details like approved fonts, logos, the story behind the design elements, the thought process behind the uniforms and the art in public areas.
“We want interactions to be natural, not contrived or robotic, and it can be done with warmth, polish, and all the nuance in the world if you hire the right people, set the right expectations and support them in the process,” said Albert Smith, SVP at Pivot Hotels & Resorts. “It’s usually a weeklong process, maybe two, with general sessions and specific breakouts by discipline, and a lot of interactive role-playing.”
Sources said it’s also important to note that motivating employees to embrace a new service culture—especially one that’s to be executed on a higher level than at the previous incarnation of a property—only works if those employees are happy and satisfied with their jobs.
Management needs to work with staff, not against them, and renovations should also include employee areas, like cafeterias, locker rooms and the back of the house, sources said. That way, staffers can enjoy an upgraded working environment that matches the guest-facing portions of the property.
“You have to focus on taking care of your employees, and that doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re the highest-paid; it just means you’re treating them well, and you’re taking care of them,” said Matt Huss, task force general manager at Davidson Hotels, who recently led the renovation of Davidson’s Atlanta Marriott Perimeter Center hotel. “That, I think, is the most important part, especially as you’re going through the renovations. You have to make sure you have the correct leadership in place.”