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Retailing is Detailing: Why Hotel GMs Must Sweat the Small Stuff

27 June 2024
Picture this: you've just checked into a hotel after a long flight. You're exhausted and excited to unwind in your room. You open the door, eager for a hot shower and a soft bed, only to be greeted by a faint smell of mildew and a flickering lightbulb. It's a minor inconvenience and easily overlooked, right? But as you settle in, you notice a coffee stain on the carpet and a chipped tile in the bathroom. Suddenly, the hotel you paid for feels a bit... tarnished.
This seemingly insignificant series of missteps might not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme. But a growing body of evidence suggests that sweating the small stuff for hotels isn't just about aesthetics – it's about cold, hard cash. A single negative experience can quickly snowball into lost revenue, scathing reviews, and a damaged reputation. In today's hyper-connected world, one unhappy guest can easily reach thousands of potential customers with a single tweet or review.
The adage "retailing is detailing" rings truer than ever in the hospitality industry. Yet, many hotel general managers have lost sight of this fundamental principle. They focus on occupancy rates, RevPAR, and other financial metrics while neglecting the seemingly minor details that create lasting impressions on their guests. In this blog post, we'll delve into the undeniable connection between guest experience and revenue, exploring why even the smallest details matter. We'll uncover real-world examples of hotels that have thrived – or floundered – due to their attention to detail. We'll also examine the crucial role of the general manager in fostering a culture of excellence, where every employee understands that their actions directly impact the hotel's bottom line. So, buckle up and get ready to discover why the devil is in the details.

The "Retailing is Detailing" Principle in Hospitality

The phrase "retailing is detailing" emphasizes that success hinges on meticulous attention to every aspect of the customer experience. From how products are displayed to the interactions with staff, each detail contributes to the overall impression and influences a customer's decision to purchase and return.
This principle translates seamlessly to the hospitality industry. A hotel is essentially a retail establishment selling experiences rather than tangible goods. Each touchpoint in the guest's journey, from the initial booking process to the final checkout, is an opportunity to delight or disappoint. The "product" sold is not just a bed and a bathroom but a collection of experiences, memories, and emotions.
Today's travelers are more discerning than ever before. The rise of online review platforms, social media, and increased competition has empowered consumers with unprecedented access to information and choices. A single negative review can quickly go viral, deterring potential guests and impacting a hotel's reputation. Conversely, positive word-of-mouth can generate significant buzz and attract a loyal following.
In this environment, the power of details cannot be overstated. A flawlessly made bed, a personalized welcome note, a prompt response to a request – these seemingly small gestures can leave a lasting impression and significantly influence a guest's overall perception of their stay. A chipped coffee mug, a lukewarm shower, or a dismissive staff member can just as quickly sour the experience and lead to negative reviews.
The key takeaway is that there is no such thing as an insignificant detail in the hospitality industry. Every interaction, every amenity, and every element of the physical environment contributes to the guest's overall impression. By focusing on the details, hotels can create memorable experiences that resonate with guests long after checking out, driving repeat business, positive word-of-mouth, and increased revenue.

The General Manager's Role

The general manager (GM) is the linchpin in ensuring that a hotel's "retailing is detailing" philosophy becomes a reality. Their role extends beyond managing finances and occupancy rates —they are the architects of the guest experience, shaping a culture where every employee understands the importance of details and strives for excellence.
Leadership and vision: The GM sets the tone for the entire organization. Their passion for guest satisfaction should be palpable, inspiring and motivating their team to deliver exceptional service at every turn. This involves clearly articulating the hotel's brand promise and ensuring it is reflected in every aspect of the guest experience. The GM's vision should permeate every department, from housekeeping and maintenance to front desk and concierge services. By establishing a clear vision and communicating it effectively, the GM empowers its team to take ownership of the guest experience and make decisions that align with the hotel's values.
Empowerment and training: A motivated and well-trained staff is crucial for delivering consistent, high-quality service. The GM must ensure employees have the necessary tools, resources, and training to perform their jobs effectively. This includes providing ongoing training on customer service best practices, conflict resolution, and product knowledge. Additionally, empowering staff to make decisions and take initiative within their roles can foster a sense of ownership and pride in their work. Employees who feel valued and empowered are likelier to go above and beyond to exceed guest expectations.
Accountability and feedback: Establishing clear accountability systems is essential for maintaining high standards of guest experience. The GM must set clear expectations for each role and department, outlining specific metrics and goals related to guest satisfaction. Regular performance reviews, feedback sessions, and recognition programs can reinforce positive behaviors and address areas where improvement is needed. Additionally, implementing a system for collecting and analyzing guest feedback can provide valuable insights into areas where the hotel excels and can improve. By holding themselves and their team accountable, the GM can ensure that guest experience remains a top priority.
In conclusion, the general manager is pivotal in translating the "retailing is detailing" principle into tangible results. By providing strong leadership, empowering their team, and establishing clear accountability, they can create a culture of excellence where every detail matters. This, in turn, leads to satisfied guests, positive reviews, increased loyalty, and, ultimately, a healthier bottom line for the hotel.

Real-World Examples

The "retailing is detailing" principle isn't just a theoretical concept—it has real-world consequences that can make or break a hotel's success. Let's explore concrete examples of how attention to detail (or lack thereof) has recently directly impacted my stay.
During my stay at a mega-brand hotel for HITEC 2024, I was struck by minor oversights that diminished the overall guest experience. For example, the housekeeping and food service carts were fitted with noisy wheels, creating an unpleasant racket in the lobby. The coworking tables were paired with uncomfortably high chairs, making it difficult to work productively. In my room, the absence of a safe was a surprising omission for an upscale hotel, and the shower lacked proper cleaning. A missing bathmat, a free-standing fridge that seemed like an afterthought, and scratched furniture further detracted from the sense of upscale. Additionally, the room was noisy due to traffic and air conditioning, and the door appeared outdated and did not meet current safety standards.
These seemingly small details, when combined, created an overall impression of neglect and a lack of attention to the guest experience. While this reflects poorly on the hotel's management, it raises a broader question: Is the general manager solely responsible for these shortcomings? In many cases, GMs may be acutely aware of these issues and actively advocate for improvements but are constrained by budget limitations or reluctant ownership. They might be caught in a frustrating cycle of requesting funds for essential upgrades like new doors, furniture, or a proper refrigerator enclosure, only to be resisted.
This scenario highlights a fundamental dilemma in the hotel industry. GMs are tasked with upholding brand standards and delivering exceptional guest experiences, yet they may lack the financial autonomy to address critical deficiencies. In such cases, the GM and the mega-brand are responsible for educating the owner about the long-term consequences of underinvestment. By demonstrating how neglecting maintenance and upgrades can lead to declining guest satisfaction, negative reviews, and, ultimately, decreased revenue, they can build a stronger case for allocating resources toward improving the guest experience.
Ultimately, the mega-brand also bears responsibility for upholding its brand promise to guests. If a hotel consistently fails to meet brand standards due to ownership's unwillingness to invest, the brand should consider terminating the agreement. This protects the brand's reputation and sends a powerful message to owners that guest experience is non-negotiable.

The role model Ritz-Carlton

Ritz-Carlton is always used as an example of the highest standard in hospitality. The guest experience is excellent, and the reviews are among the best in the industry.

The "Ritz-Carlton Myth vs. Reality"

While the Ritz-Carlton is renowned for its legendary service and attention to detail, the reality is more nuanced:
  • Training and Empowerment: While Ritz-Carlton invests heavily in training and emphasizes empowerment and personalized service, it's important to note that service quality can vary between individual properties. Factors like staff turnover, management style, and local labor markets can influence the consistency of the brand's high standards.
  • Brand Culture: While the Ritz-Carlton has cultivated a strong service culture, it doesn't mean that other Marriott brands lack unique cultures. Different brands prioritize different aspects of the guest experience to align with their target market and brand identity. For instance, a brand like Moxy might focus on creating a vibrant and social atmosphere, while a brand like Courtyard might emphasize efficiency and convenience. However, all brands should deliver a clean, well-maintained, and friendly atmosphere.

Why the Ritz-Carlton Model Should Be Replicated (In Spirit)

While the exact level of luxury and personalized service offered by the Ritz-Carlton may not be feasible for every brand, the underlying principles can and should be adopted across the board:
  • Obsessing over the Basics: Every brand, regardless of its target market or price point, should be obsessed with delivering on the fundamental promises outlined in its brand standards. This includes maintaining cleanliness, ensuring the property is well-maintained, and providing functional amenities that meet guest expectations. These essential elements are non-negotiable and form the foundation of a positive guest experience.
  • Building a Strong Culture of Service: While the specific service style may vary depending on the brand's identity and target audience, every brand should strive to cultivate a strong service culture. This involves clear communication of service standards, comprehensive training programs, empowering staff to take initiative, and recognizing employees for their contributions.
  • Delivering on the Brand Promise: Each brand has a unique value proposition and a set of promises it makes to its guests. Whether focusing on affordability, convenience, or luxury, every brand should strive to consistently deliver on those promises. This requires a deep understanding of the target market, meticulous attention to detail, and a commitment to continuous improvement.
While the Ritz-Carlton model might not be a one-size-fits-all solution, its emphasis on delivering brand promise through a strong service culture and attention to detail is a valuable lesson for all hotels. By prioritizing these core principles, brands can create positive and memorable experiences for their guests, regardless of their budget or preferences.

Strategies for Improvement

Pursuing exceptional guest experiences is an ongoing journey, not a destination. To stay ahead of the curve and consistently exceed guest expectations, hotels must adopt a proactive and data-driven approach to improvement. Here are some key strategies that can help hotels elevate their guest experience and reap the rewards of increased revenue:
Data-Driven Decision-Making: In the digital age, hotels can access a wealth of data that can provide valuable insights into guest preferences, behaviors, and pain points. By leveraging analytics tools and platforms, hotels can track key metrics such as online reviews, social media sentiment, guest satisfaction surveys, and operational data like room service orders and maintenance requests. This data can identify trends, pinpoint areas where the guest experience is falling short, and prioritize improvements that will have the most significant impact.
For instance, if data reveals that guests consistently complain about slow check-in times, the hotel can implement measures to streamline the process, such as adding more staff during peak hours or introducing mobile check-in options. By making data-driven decisions, hotels can ensure that their efforts are focused on the areas that matter most to guests, leading to measurable improvements in satisfaction and loyalty.
Regular Audits and Inspections: While data can provide valuable insights, assessing the guest experience on the ground is equally important. Regular audits and inspections can help identify issues that may not be apparent from data alone. This can involve everything from checking for cleanliness and maintenance issues in guest rooms to observing staff interactions with guests. By conducting regular audits, hotels can proactively address problems before they escalate and ensure that their service standards are consistently met.
These audits can be conducted by internal teams or by external consultants, depending on the hotel's resources and needs. The key is establishing a systematic approach to evaluating the guest experience and identifying areas for improvement. This can involve using checklists, conducting mystery shopper programs, or gathering feedback from staff and guests. By taking a proactive approach to quality control, hotels can maintain a high level of service and avoid negative surprises.
Employee Engagement and Recognition: Employees are the heart and soul of any hotel. They interact with guests daily, shaping their experiences and influencing their perceptions. Engaged and motivated employees are more likely to go above and beyond to delight guests, while disengaged employees can quickly turn a positive experience into a negative one.
Hotels must invest in employee engagement and recognition to foster a culture of excellence. Creating a solid culture involves providing ongoing training and development opportunities, creating a positive and supportive work environment, and recognizing and rewarding employees for their contributions. When employees feel valued and appreciated, they are more likely to be passionate about their work and take pride in delivering exceptional service.
In addition to formal recognition programs, hotels can encourage employee engagement through initiatives like employee suggestion boxes, team-building activities, and regular communication from management. By creating a culture where employees feel heard and valued, hotels can tap into their creativity and passion, leading to innovative solutions and a more personalized guest experience.
By implementing these strategies, hotels can continuously improve their guest experience, create a loyal following, and drive revenue growth. Remember, in the hospitality industry, pursuing excellence is an ongoing process. By staying vigilant, embracing data, and empowering their employees, hotels can ensure that they consistently exceed guest expectations and reap the rewards of their efforts.

Conclusion and Takeaways

In hotels, where guest expectations are higher than ever, the "retailing is detailing" mantra is not merely a suggestion – it's a survival imperative. This holds regardless of whether a hotel caters to budget-conscious travelers or luxury-seeking clientele. While the amenities and price points may differ, the fundamental promise of a comfortable, clean, and enjoyable stay remains the same. A guest in an economy hotel expects a comfy bed, a working TV, and a clean bathroom just as much as a guest in a luxury suite. Hotels that fail to sweat the small stuff – at any level – risk losing customers, revenue, and their hard-earned reputations.
Our explored examples demonstrate that even the smallest oversight can snowball into significant consequences. Conversely, a commitment to excellence in every detail can elevate a hotel to legendary status, fostering loyalty and driving sustained revenue growth.
Hotel General Managers should embrace a holistic approach to guest experience, regardless of the hotel's target market. It's about fostering a culture where every employee, from the front desk clerk to the housekeeper, understands their role in creating memorable stays. It's about leveraging data and feedback to identify and address pain points continuously. And it's about empowering staff with the tools, training, and autonomy they need to deliver exceptional service consistently.
In short, it's about recognizing that every detail matters, regardless of the hotel's category or star rating. The perfectly brewed cup of coffee, crisp linens, and warm smile at check-in transform a stay from ordinary to extraordinary. They are the building blocks of a loyal customer base and a thriving business.
So, to all the hotel GMs and industry leaders, I urge you not to underestimate the power of details. Invest in your people, empower your staff, and create a culture where guests feel valued and appreciated. Embrace the "retailing is detailing" philosophy, and watch your hotel's reputation—and revenue—soar to new heights.
Remember, the difference between success and mediocrity in hospitality often comes down to the smallest details. It's time to start sweating them, no matter what type of hotel you manage.