Full Service Airlines And Hotels Have Forgotten They’re In The Hospitality Business

Here’s an interesting take I came across from the former owner of Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York, who came out with a last fall Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect. He was able to create a ‘moment’ for diners one time by going outside to a hot dog cart and plating it for the guests. And that was the memory for them of the night.

One time I was having dinner at Tetsuya in Sydney. Now, my Aussie readers will know that their country isn’t known for service. This was many years ago, and the restaurant kitchen was known to be especially high tech. So I asked our server if it might be possible for my wife (a former restaurant chef herself) and I to see the kitchen. His immediate response wasn’t “let me check” it was “of course, it is your evening.”

And by the way one of the really nice touches at Tetsuya was their truffle butter. I think that butter is an oft-overlooked opportunity for a wow moment in a restaurant. Too often it’s an afterthought or add-on rather than something to do special.

It’s the little things that I appreciate most, and the attitude of someone who goes out of their way to accommodate a guest, that makes for hospitality. The first time I really thought about this was my sophomore year of high school. A bunch of us went out to dinner after a debate tournament. My debate partner (who would later go on to work in food and beverage in senior roles at MGM and as SVP of restaurants and bars at Kimpton before it was acquired by IHG) – at just 14 years old – commented that a good restaurant will serve you whatever you wish, not merely what’s on the menu.

Too many hotels, high end ones even (!), have forgotten hospitality. They’ve replaced single use toiletries with wall-mounted and won’t provide a bar of soap on request. If a $23,000+ per year customer (a Marriott Ambassador, say) has their flight cancelled and their luggage lost and they show up without deodorant or a toothbrush the hotel will point to where they can buy these travel-sized items rather than taking care of their guest. Or while they may no longer deliver newspapers to each room they no longer have one – and won’t get one – for a guest.

At a W hotel one time I hit the “Wherever Whenever” line, which is their button for service and meant to suggest that they’ll take care of any need or request, and asked for something simple: a pot of coffee, albeit at 5 o’clock in the morning (on the West Coast those of us from the East Coast will tend to get up early). The Wherever, Whenever line told me they couldn’t help me.

Ritz-Carlton supposedly gave each staff member license to spend on surprise and delight for guests when they noticed an opportunity but in many Ritz stays this is not something I ever experienced, though I did once arrive at a room to find an unmade bed with a used condom in it.

Randy Petersen taught me an important lesson. I visited his office for the first time two decades ago, a building with an address of Frequent Flyer Point in Colorado Springs. He had a training room for new employees and a note was up on the board. It instructed staff to never say no. Instead they should offer, “what I can do for you is.”

That’s the same thing as no! But it also listens to and understands the need of the customer, and offers them a solution. It may not even be the solution they wanted, but it shows a willingness to go out of your way. Do your job!

Former Starwood CEO Adam Aron came up as a loyalty marketing executive. He worked at Pan Am. He launched Hyatt Gold Passport. And he was a Senior Vice President at United. He once told me that airline customer service is bad because of their focus on safety. I don’t think he’s right, though it’s clear that a focus on safety doesn’t filter down throughout the company in the form of sweating the small details.

  • When Aron started at Pan Am he was taken into a dark room and put in front of a screen where he was shown a two hour documentary on the runway collision of two Boeing 747s at Tenerife in 1977, known as the deadliest accident in aviation history.

  • A KLM flight tried to take off while Pan Am’s 747 was on the runway. Everyone onboard the KLM 747 was killed, and 335 people onboard the Pan Am aircraft lost their lives.

  • As the video ended his colleague walked into the room, and told him that every decision at the airline matters. Lives are at stake. Don’t screw up.

  • And that to him is the difference between airlines and hotels. Airlines are focused on safety as the undercurrent in everything they do, while hotels have the luxury to focus on customer experience.

But hotels are losing their edge in hospitality and some airlines even provide it!

I once forgot my camera at my seat on a Singapore Airlines flight inbound from Bali. An employee met me on the jet bridge of my connecting flight to Hong Kong with my camera in hand.

Singapore Airlines sweats all the small details, not just the mechanical ones. They built a model Airbus A380 using manila envelopes and the seats inside the plane even reclined. Tag line: “It’s the small details that make giants in the sky.” Bingo.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Your last anecdote said it all, Gary ! The headline should read “US and US-Based Full Service Airlines And Hotels Have Forgotten They’re In The Hospitality Business”

  2. And Ryanair became the largest airline in Europe by cutting everything to offer lower prices.

    Never assume that the customer will pay for service.

  3. Airlines would conveniently argue they’re in the transportation business (our FA’s are here primarily for your safety).

  4. Hahaha Eleven Madison Park now has a $200-$365 plant-based tasting menu only. I’m guessing no hot dogs…

  5. Every time I eat in a high-quality-seeming (I judge largely by the menu and prices) restaurant, I tell my waiter “Please ask the kitchen to please make me a meal that makes the kitchen and restaurant proud. I have no constraints, including price.”

    When this is in your budget (or specify a budget to the waiter), try it. If the restaurant and kitchen provide good hospitality, they will view this as an opportunity and agree. The meal often can be exciting and delicious.

  6. My theory is that this is rooted, in part, in our economy’s/culture’s valuing service as “unskilled labor” (and paying commensurately poor wages).

    Hotels are no longer run by lifers who started as bellhops. They’re run by 3rd tier MBAs who have cycled out of the Accenture grind.

  7. “… They’ve replaced single use toiletries with wall-mounted…”
    Isn’t this a law in California?

  8. It’s Always been about the money. Just nowadays they don’t care about being so obvious about it.

  9. Last weekend the wife and I stayed at the Chatwal in NYC on 44th street. Formerly a SPG then Marriott and now Hyatt property. Our experience there is always excellent, nice property. Great location if you are going to shows.

  10. Airlines are in the transportation business, not in the hospitality or entertainment businesses.

  11. The W Whatever line has also told me no on simple requests. I have not been there in a while but its more marketing than what you think it could or should be

  12. My uncle was a master chef and owned a classical French dinner restaurant on Miami Beach for a while. I worked for him while I was in high school and remember some of his anecdotes. One time around 1983 a semi-regular customer wanted an omelette of all things. My uncle said to make him an omelette and charge him $15. The customer got his pricey omelette and never ordered one again.

    I got some different lessons from that story, including to give people what they want, beware what you wish for, and check the price on something before you buy it.

  13. As Scudder and Deva point out there is simply no concept of service in north America. And this has also percolate to the carribean.
    And looking at some other comments things will never improve as the persons who should demand decent service themselves provide the excuse for not doing so.

  14. “So I asked our server if it might be possible for my wife (a former restaurant chef herself) and I to see the kitchen. His immediate response wasn’t “let me check” it was “of course, it is your evening.””

    Ha, I just watched the Alfred Hitchcock Presents classic “Specialty of the House” where a sought-after visit to a mysterious kitchen spells doom. You should check it out (the series is on Peacock).

  15. Delta is a premium, full-service airline that offers an elevated and finely-crafted experience to its discerning guests.

  16. As this site points out, rather than pay, most people want either free upgrades or to use points for the premium cabin. Tough to give world class service when people expect it for free.

  17. Airlines, and FA unions, aren’t focused on safety. If airlines were so focused on safety , then there would be discernable differences between airlines regarding safety. There isn’t.
    They do what is required by law, no more. They use safety as an excuse to not provide good service, that’s all.

  18. I think $15 (so $35 in today’s money) is actually great for an omelet. Obviously, I would expect the best omelet I’ve ever tasted, and it sounds like that’s what happens. Some hotels have re-vamped themselves (Westin, for example. If you want a room with complete black out shades, high water pressure, and can set the temperature below 65 (Which is what I love!), they are the chain for you, and that’s relatively recent!). Marriott, unfortunately, is sliding in the other direction, relying on their good name to provide what is mediocre service. Sigh.

    I agree with Gary that some in the airline business (here’s looking at you United!), have forgotten that they are ultimately in the hospitality business when they sometimes find themselves in the commodity business.

    Anyone can take Spirit, Frontier, or RyanAir. People like me choose not to, because the service is typically terrible and unreliable. But if saving money is your thing and you don’t care about being abandoned, I say great! Take them! Even SouthWest is not immune to this either.

    At least American, Delta, JetBlue, and (yes) even United do put a priority over just getting people from A to B.


  19. Hotels are no longer run by lifers who started as bellhops. They’re run by 3rd tier MBAs who have cycled out of the Accenture grind.

    Scudder, February 19, 2024 at 1:10 pm

    1000% this. American culture has decided that the bottom line on a balance sheet is more important than anything else. Hotels run to please their investors, not their guests. Absent a GAAP measurement of the intangible value of high quality service and the positive brand effects and societal externalities — and the legislation to hold for-profit entities to account — the interests of investors and guests will remain opposed.

  20. Sometimes I think that some passenger airlines are really in the freighting business, moving their equivalent to livestock. EVA was very different from a lot of airlines when they recovered my book and called me up to the front to get it at the gate for my next flight. I remembered it so late that I didn’t even bother to put in a lost and found request for it. The cleaning crew (it could have been the cabin crew) found it in the seatback pocket and cross referenced who was assigned to that seat, got it transported and then the gate crew delivered it. A great airline based on transportation “and” service.

  21. I’ve said this in the past and it remains true. US airlines are quite good at listening to their customers. Unfortunately, the majority of domestic passengers place the airfare well ahead of service or legroom. Therefore, the airlines understand investing in service will cause higher prices and fewer paying passengers.

  22. While that may be true for coach class, this low grading isnt necessarily true for many business (first in US) class passangers.
    So providicrappy meals in business class or a banana, a granola and a yogurt for a 3.5 hour early morning flight from Barbados because” we can’t do eggs” Is a a clear reflection that service is a lat priority

  23. When you put profits over people that’s what you get. The US airlines CEOs are more concerned with keeping their shareholders happy rather than their passengers.
    Keep than bonus comin.

  24. My favorite SQ moment was when I got to the gate, only to realize that I had left my wallet back at checkpoint. I told the SQ staff member I lost my wallet. He promptly reached into his pocket to offer me his wallet.

    I told him this was a very generous gesture, but really *my* wallet would be much more useful, and he would probably miss his- all I really needed was to get released from the gate area, so I could go back to the checkpoint and pick it up.

    Another time, I was on a 1 hour delay at Changi. Not only did they bring out meal boxes for everyone, but I also saw an SQ staffer take money out of his wallet to send someone to the store to get baby food for a passenger’s child.

  25. Conrad singapore: I could tell you many stories of how they went above & beyond, but a simple one is that I walked downstairs to get a replacement room key. Mentioned I might not really need it since I was leaving the next day. “Would you like coffee and takeaway breakfast to your room at 5am? And let me schedule a taxi for you at 530am.” And it was all taken care of.

    One more: we went to the executive lounge most of the five nights there. On the last one, as we were out the door halfway to the elevator, we heard our name. The manager and one of her staff wanted to give us a (new) bottle of the Pinot Grigio we’d been enjoying each night. They CHASED US DOWN to give it to us.

  26. There seem to be many US airline employees commenting here.

    What I suggest if you are one of these supporters, go take a field trip (hell, even in coach) on – in no particular order – Singapore, Emirates, EVA, Japan, ANA, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM.

    I once took a 22min flight time on LH in coach and everyone was served a drink, a snack, a drink refill, and trash picked up. Compare that to a 30min hop in biz class on the US Big3 and most of the time FA’s are too lazy to even bring out water…in the name of “safety”, of course.

  27. Do people still read newspapers? Huh. I do agree with bar soap and the stupid mass dispensers on the wall, what’s next hand dryers on the wall in hotel bathrooms instead of providing towels?

    Anyway, the reason airline service is so bad isn’t because of the focus on safety it’s that they use their focus on safety as an excuse not to provide service.

  28. “Hotels are no longer run by lifers who started as bellhops. They’re run by 3rd tier MBAs who have cycled out of the Accenture grind.”

    Not really. You very much do not need an MBA to be a GM at a limited service property. Hell, you don’t even need a BA and if you do have a BA, chances are it’s in something unrelated. I’ve been in the industry for twenty plus years and out of the GM’s I’ve worked for, 0 had MBAs, 2 had BAs in hospitality, 4 had BAs in various things like English-Psychology-Law Enforcement and the rest had associates. Old joke is that if you wash out your career field, there’s always hospitality.

    Up the chain at full service and resort properties you need a larger degree but there is usually more of a heavy emphasis put on people with hospitality/finance/accounting degrees or backgrounds.

    “Or while they may no longer deliver newspapers to each room they no longer have one – and won’t get one – for a guest.”

    Newspaper delivery to rooms hasn’t been a standard at most hotels/chains in a solid decade. I mean I guess you’re referring to top .000001% of properties that still might do this but for the other 99.9%, they got rid of papers a loooooong time ago. And at that 99.9%, you’re right, they won’t get you one. What staff is there to do that?

  29. It is intolerable that 3+ star hotels no longer provide daily room cleaning service. It is intolerable that American Airlines can change one’s itinerary to provide for a tiny (likely to be missed) connection, then refuse to refund the fare because the change was “less than four hours.” It is intolerable that tipping for no service is becoming the norm.

  30. With no notice AAL changed the DFW-CDG portion of our trip from a B789 to a B772-ER (dice roll on Concept D or RC seats) and moved my wife (we’re celebrating a milestone anniversary with 6 weeks in Europe) from the seat next to me on the left bulkhead to the smaller business class cabin five rows away. My complaint to AAL, they did thank me for 21 years of loyalty with our Citi MC, was so condescending, aloof and frankly confusing I won’t bother posting it here. And that was after noting our anniversary and as an aside that I was retired ATC and have forgotten how many control instructions I issued to AAL flights during my career. I’m aware of the ‘flexibility’ airlines have in equipment/seating changes, but that doesn’t make the excrement sandwich they shoved down our throats any tastier. Short rib anyone ?

  31. I should have added that I did discover the AC/seating change in plenty of time (the trip isn’t for a few months) and moved my wife back next to me on the left bulkhead with selections that will ensure our heads are next to each other if we get the less desireable Concept Ds, a 4 in 10 chance on that AC type. And as a result of all this, I check our seating assignments pretty much every day. We’re coming back to the states on BAW codeshare LHR-PHX, A35K.

  32. Around 20 years ago, we stayed along with a number of family members at the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire (now it’s an Omni I think, it was independent then).

    My brother and I each had little kids, we had infant twins and he had a year-old baby and a newborn. The hotel is well over 100 years old and has a wide semi-circular central staircase with landings at each floor, and they have small tables and chairs at each landing.

    One evening we decided to eat dinner at the hotel dining room, and we agreed that one of us would eat with the rest of the family (our dad, some other siblings and their spouses) in the dining room, and would order and bring food up to landing, where the other three of us would eat, so we could be within earshot of the rooms with the babies – without being in the room so they would sleep.

    At the start of dinner, whoever was downstairs brought up some glasses and maybe an appetizer, and a waiter walking through the hotel noticed. He went downstairs, came back up with a tablecloth, three place settings and a menu, and proceeded to serve us the entire meal at the third floor landing. He never asked why we were there, just served the full meal without any questions, and with excellent service.

  33. Hotel GM with 20+ years in the business. If you book direct rather than through an online aggregator, 15-25% more of your money goes to the business itself. That’s less money available to whip your truffle butter, deliver your newspaper or pay the housekeeper a living wage. If you prefer to collect Expedia points, please stop complaining about how things used to be better. We’re trying to give the same service while paying excruciating commissions to monopolies and lowering every other cost commensurately.

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