In search of the Holy Grail

What is the most important aspect of a hospitality business? Read this . . .

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What’s the most important attribute of a hospitality business? Ask people who work in the industry and the answer you’ll get from most is that good product, good service and an appropriate environment is the secret of success. Other, more broad thinkers might tell you it’s value for money that’s the priority.

These are all reasonable assertions and you won’t get an argument from me that they are all important, but I don’t happen to share the opinion that any one of them or a combination of them is the be all and end all. I think the most important thing of all is something that seems to be missing in a disturbing number of businesses.

It’s all to do with the difference in perception the public have of a business, compared to the perception the business owner and staff have of that very same business. Perception is a very powerful thing.

Do your customers judge you on your best standard, your average standard, or your worst standard? I put it to you that it’s your worst standard that will dictate their loyalty in the long run. When a customer visualises your business it’s usually the bad experiences that will come to mind first.

I’ll bet when you or your staff visualise your very same business you imagine it differently, at its very best standard — you see it in your mind at those times when you’ve accidentally rostered the ‘A’ team on a shift and you’re pumping and you’re invincible. You know how good you can be, and my God, it’s awesome.

But what about those times when the ‘D’ team are assembled, ‘cause a couple of people are sick and you did the roster with a hangover? Those times when your customers come in and you get it wrong and present them with Fawlty Towers. Come on, you know it happens and you even realise it’s happening at the time it occurs. You knuckle down, battle on and avoid the cold gazes of the disappointed public as they leave . . . but you probably still charge them the same.

It might be different if you placed a sign out the front saying ‘We are having a few problems tonight, so there will be a 50% discount on all meals’. In other words, charge them an appropriate amount for what has been delivered, but you don’t do that. You’ll throw a minor freebie to those who bother to complain, but you know others are leaving bitter and twisted because you’ve extracted your part of the bargain, and short changed them in theirs.

In most hospitality transactions above the mid level there is a host or visit initiator who the ‘where will we for lunch/tonight/this weekend?’ argument, and there are their guests or those who follow along. People rarely come to you to just eat or sleep; they are there for ulterior motives — to seduce, to reward, to transact business, to celebrate a special occasion, etc. The food, beverage, accommodation you supply are mostly sophisticated tools the host uses to achieve various hidden personal agendas.

Imagine you’ve been to a place a half a dozen times and it’s been really good. You shoot off your mouth, win the argument and off you all go, brimming with anticipation — right, smack into the chaotic arms of the ‘D’ team on one of their horror nights.

There are major social brownie points to be lost on these occasions. What do your guests think of you now? You said this place was good. You vetoed a half a dozen other choices. Not only do you feel humiliated, but your right to choose where you go is withdrawn for the next six months, or maybe forever depending on the consequences.

What I’m getting around to is that I feel the most important attribute of a hospitality business is consistency — above everything else. Consistency leads to predictability and reliability, and these are an incredible asset to a hospitality business, but they’re all to often missing — especially at the top end.

To illustrate this I had to stop giving restaurant and hotel recommendations many years ago. People who knew what I do for a living would ring me up and tell me they had an important guest and could I give them the name of a restaurant or hotel that would not screw up. I used to give them a name or two, but it caused me grief one too many times and I stopped doing it.

Now, I know many fine restaurants and hotels, but I don’t know any I can absolutely guarantee for a $1,000,000 business deal, or the night of your engagement. That’s really sad — but I do know lots who will charge you as though you’re getting the meaning of life — they’re all reliable at that.

So, consistency is my holy grail. Look around you, I bet you can find examples of pretty average places that seem to get a disproportionate share of trade. Why is this? There are some restaurants around my area that do staggering numbers of meals. Their food is often ordinary and their service is often unsophisticated and most of them are not cheap, yet they’re full while others around them struggle. I think it’s because the businesses that are full are reliable while the others around them aren’t, and the owners of the others are visualising their businesses at their best and their customers are remembering them at their worst.

If you want to make money it’s far better to be consistently average than inconsistently brilliant.

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