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Southern comfort: Attitude and training breed local hospitality

By Sam Boykin

In inspired moments of sly calculation, Becky Farris sometimes will drop her pen.

Then Farris, the general manager at the Duke Mansion, will watch as the job applicant she is interviewing wonders what to do.

Like hospitality providers throughout the Charlotte area, the Duke Mansion, a historic bed and breakfast in Myers Park, requires employees to offer service, and a dropped pen is an opportunity to do just that.

“Do they just look at it,” Farris said, “or do they offer to pick it up?”

A picked-up pen is a little thing, but local hospitality specialists meticulously point out that exemplary service is not necessarily a grand gesture; rather the people who truly will serve know to smile at the right time, greet guests by name, even choose words as carefully as they choose a spouse.

The equation, those specialists say, is simple to put on paper, not so simple to put into practice: A good performer in the hospitality industry must have the proper attitude augmented by solid training.

This is the season for Charlotte, as a host city, to shine. The Quail Hollow PGA tournament just drew thousands here. Thousands more will visit in May for the NASCAR Hall of Fame grand opening and the 139th National Rifle Association annual meeting at the Charlotte Convention Center. And such new Uptown entertainment spots as the EpiCentre and NC Music Factory are attracting dozens of concerts and special events this summer.

Lots of hotels in cities everywhere provide a room with a comfy bed and great view.

But as Amber Merrill, director of human resources at the Charlotte Ritz-Carlton said, “You can have the most beautiful room, but if the staff isn’t warm and friendly, it’s just a shell.”

And while providing service may seem a no-brainer — after all, how hard can it be to show someone to a hotel room or hail a cab? — those in the industry say first-rate hospitality requires hard work.

“That’s one of my pet peeves,” said Bill Moore, general manager at the 193-room Crowne Plaza in Uptown Charlotte. “A lot of people think it’s easy, but it can be difficult and challenging.”

Moore oversees about 70 employees, the majority of whom interact with guests.

“When we hire someone, we do what any business does as far as checking their background and work history. But in the hospitality industry you’re also hiring a personality. You can train someone to make a bed, serve a meal and cook a hamburger, but it’s trickier to train a person to smile, or how to react when there’s an unhappy guest across from them.”

Moore said that all potential Crowne Plaza employees go through three rounds of interviews, during which he asks a lot of open-ended questions about the applicant’s own experiences with customer service.

“I’m really looking for someone with a hospitable personality,” Moore said. “It’s hard to define that, but you can get a lot from the interviews, including everything from body language, attitude and basic grooming standards. After all, these people are the face of the hotel.”

Farris, general manager at the Duke Mansion, also is a student of the small gesture. The dropped pen is not her only tiny but telling test.

For instance, she’ll hesitate at a doorway to see if the applicant allows her to pass through first.

Farris is dedicated to ferreting out in applicants the “hospitality gene,” which she said includes such abilities as multi-tasking, anticipating problems, acting with service in mind and responding quickly and calmly in chaotic situations.

Charlotte starts with a big advantage. That “gene” Farris talks about, that “personality” Moore looks for, are part of the city. It’s the Southern influence, the automatic “Sir” or “Ma’am” in the briefest exchange, the apology for the nonexistent slight, the way even the most serious business conversation inevitably wanders into small talk about families or dogs or the Tarheels versus the Blue Devils.

“Historically, people who are raised in the South are friendly, outgoing and gregarious,” said Bob Boll, an Ohio native who lived in San Francisco and New York before moving here. “So without any hospitality training whatsoever, I think we’ve got the jump on a lot of other cities in the country.”

Boll is in a position to analyze Charlotte’s treatment of visitors. He is director of Central Piedmont Community College’s Hospitality Education Division, which offers associate degree programs in the culinary arts, baking/pastry arts and hotel and restaurant management.

The area has “a plethora of culinary schools and hospitality programs,” Boll said. “So I think we usually make a good first impression.”

Johnson and Wales has a renowned College of Culinary Arts, but it also offers bachelor’s degrees in hotel and lodging management, restaurant, food and beverage management as well as sports, entertainment and event management.

Ann-Marie Weldon is the department chair for Johnson and Wales’ Hospitality College. She said the various degree programs provide students with not only an extensive classroom education, but also hands-on experience at a number of local hotels and restaurants. Through the university’s Experiential Education & Career Services Department, students can intern at luxury venues including The Ritz-Carlton, The Ballantyne Hotel and Lodge, The Westin, The Doubletree Hotel and The City Club.

But even the prestige of a Johnson and Wales’ education doesn’t guarantee success. Terry Young, human resources director at The Ballantyne, said, “(S)ometimes you get that kid who’s just going to Johnson and Wales because mom and dad put him there.”

While gracious hospitality may look easy, Weldon said, it requires a broad skill set including diplomacy, creative problem-solving, and the ability to delegate and communicate well with others.

Katie Reandeau graduated from Johnson and Wales in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in hotel management and a concentration in meeting- and event-management. An executive meeting specialist at The Westin Charlotte, she said, “I’m like a conference concierge” who helps make sure meetings run smoothly, overseeing everything from room temperature and meal service to seating configurations. “I’m the liaison between the hotel and the meeting planner.”

Reandeau has worked for Westin for nearly four years, first as an intern, and then front desk agent and sales administrative assistant.

She said she hasn’t used a lot of class experience at the Westin, but has benefited more from on-the-job, hands-on experience. “Westin is lifestyle and a brand, and they train and teach how things are to be done.”

This includes empowering employees to spend up to $1,000 a day on any guest through its World of Wonders (WOW) reward program. Reandeau said that through the program, guests can use vouchers for meals at the hotel or to cover transportation costs to area restaurants.

Employees are also taught to never tell a guest no. “We always offer inspiring options,” she said. “If we can’t give the guest exactly what they are asking for, we must come up with an alternative.”

Reandeau said they’re also instructed to use certain brand language when speaking to guests. “We can never say, ‘Yeah I’ll take care of it,’ or, ‘How can I help you?’” Instead, it’s, “‘I’ll be delighted to arrange for a town car to pick you up,’ or, ‘How may I assist you?’”

Quiana White, 23, knows about customer service, and said it’s not always pretty. A senior at Johnson and Wales studying hotel and lodging management, she has worked since August at the front desk at the Doubletree Hotel.

Before joining the Doubletree, she worked at another hotel. There, she said, “I’ve had to plunge toilets, call cops on people and discipline kids. You do a little bit of everything.”

White isn’t plunging toilets or summoning the police at Doubletree, but she is dealing with a whole new set of challenges.  “The more money people spend,” she said, “the more they expect.”

She said she has been yelled at by guests because they had to pay for parking or couldn’t get a free breakfast. “I‘ve been called every name in the book,” she said.

She even broke down and cried after one guest, annoyed over the hotel’s cancellation policy, berated her over the phone.

“One thing my classes taught me is the customer is not always right, but they’re always your customer,” White said. “You have to bite your tongue. I’ve learned to just create a wall so my feelings aren’t involved. I’m not going to allow a bad guest to ruin my day.”

How they do it: A look at how three handle hospitality

They are among the upper-crust dispensers of Charlotte hospitality, and one of the questions they decline to answer is: “What was a hospitality disaster your hotel or club experienced?”

What the representatives of the Ritz-Carlton, the Charlotte City Club, The Ballantyne Hotel and Lodge are glad to talk about are the dedication and caring their staff members offer, and  all three emphasize training.

At the Ritz-Carlton, interviewers are well-trained

The Ritz-Carlton opened in Charlotte last October. Company spokeswoman Bonnie Crail said every employee receives about 300 hours of training a year, including a week-long, dawn-to-dusk program that focuses solely on customer service.

Amber Merrill, the hotel’s director of human resources, said a prospective employee first submits an “online assessment” that gauges his or her job skills and business acumen. Candidates then move on to interviews by staff members who have taken nine hours of training on how to interview.

Some people can interview well and give answers that the interviewer wants to hear. Merrill said the Ritz-Carlton interviewers know to look for a candidate “who is trying too hard” to make himself or herself look qualified.

Candidates who are hired then go through extensive training; some drop out, realizing the job wasn’t what they expected.

“We practice assertive hospitality,” Merrill said. “We teach (employees) to read guests’ body language. If they see that someone sneezed, offer a Kleenex, don’t wait for (the guest) to ask.”

At the Charlotte City Club, note-taking is a priority

John Scharer, general manager of Charlotte City Club, a private Uptown restaurant popular with the business community, said the restaurant’s assistant banquet chef, dining room supervisor, banquet supervisors, and party coordinator all started as Johnson and Wales interns.

“They have to start out being eager to learn with a passion about what they’re doing,” he said. “Then we mold them into the way we want them to be.”

Part of this molding includes what he called the three steps of service: provide a warm welcome using the member’s name; provide memorable moments by anticipating and fulfilling the member’s needs; provide a fond farewell using the member’s name and a wish for his or her return.

One touch at the City Club: Employees take notes about members’ likes and dislikes.

One member, for instance, “likes his martinis ice cold,” Scharer said, “so when we know he’s coming, we chill the glass and even chill the Bombay (gin) for him.”

At the Ballantyne, looking for ‘franchise players’

At The Ballantyne Hotel and Lodge, Human Resources Director Terry Young works with Johnson and Wales interns as they rotate through such departments as housekeeping, sales and food and beverage.

Within each department, managers train and grade the interns, taking note of how well they listen, pay attention to details and take pride in their work. Employees who work at the front desk go through a training program of three to six months.

The standards for a new hire are spelled out, literally, at The Ballantyne. Its parent, the Bissell Family of Companies, lists 14 “franchise player traits,” the first nine of which the job candidate must have: team-player, flexible, motivated, knowledgeable, integrity, self-esteem, service-oriented, continuous learner and creative.

Employees are expected to develop the other five over time: pride; a constant striving “to determine and apply standards of excellence”; an understanding of the Bissell Family of Companies “mission and vision”; a desire to stay with the company; and an effort to “capitalize on opportunities to achieve extraordinary results.”

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