From silver service to gold standard

Channel 4’s The Hotel Inspector regularly exhorts the hapless hoteliers featured on the programme to adapt to suit the needs of their target market, only to regularly find ingrained resistance to such management and marketing thinking. As with the Fawlty Towers episode with which it shares a name, these institutions find it hard to embrace change. One moment from that Fawlty Towers show stands out – when the customer is forced to move tables, after initially having been seated at Table 1, because “It’s Wednesday – Room 7 is Table 5.” Intentional or not, it does reflect a certain reluctance, in the trade, to move with the times.

Catering to business travellers has changed considerably in the past decade, and not only because the digital revolution has brought information, and expectations, to the fingertips of prospective customers. As with the rise of no-frills airlines, the emphasis has shifted from opulence, luxury and extravagance, to reflect changing corporate values by offering lean, high-quality service and experience. Food and Beverage, however, has been slower to adapt.

With city centres offering an abundance of dining options, glh Hotels – whose diverse range of hotel brands include Thistle, Every Hotels and Amba, as well as the Guoman range of luxury London hotels, which includes the Dorchester –found that a growing number of their residents were choosing to eat out, rather than staying in to enjoy the glamour of hotel dining.

When glh asked us to help them understand why business travellers were rejecting their Silver Service dining option, we had to adapt our own approach. Some of the observational techniques, such as Eye-Tracking and filming, that we can call on in a retail store are neither appropriate nor practical in a leisure setting. Studying actual behaviour in real time, however, is critical. We conducted in-depth research on site, through a combination of intercept interviews (catching people on the stairs or in the lobby, at the actual point when they were making their decision over where to eat) and in-situ observation.

The feedback confirmed that business customers prized speed, flexibility and value-for-money over old-fashioned opulence. It also confirmed that operators in the travel, leisure and hospitality sector should explore how to capture information on customer experience “in the moment” to gain accurate understanding of behavioural triggers.

Another key lesson of our experience in the leisure industry is that operators do need to think beyond the confines of their own category when looking to evolve, considering customer needs, not simply their own expectations of what constitutes quality. It isn’t the Hotel Inspector they need to impress these days, but the discerning opinions of Tripadvisor.