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Lots of Languages, One Hotel

For some hotels it’s critical to communicate in myriad languages. Here’s how they do it.

Friday, February 20, 2009
Caryn Eve Murray
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Hotel Interactive®, Inc.
Hotel Interactive®, Inc.
News, tools, and events for hospitality.

In the heart of the casino city that is Las Vegas, there is one thing Bellagio hotel executives aren’t willing to gamble on: ensuring that non-English-speaking guests can talk to someone in their own language -- whatever language that might be.

It is simply not enough to have an international, multi-lingual staff, which the luxury property has. Since its opening in 1998, Bellagio has maintained agreements with outside providers for special linguistic needs such as these.

Especially with its high ratio of international guests – and a record number of international visitors recently -- such arrangements have become a must, said spokeswoman Yvette Monet.

She said Bellagio’s outside service, based in California and available by phone, provides interpreting and translating services on a 24-hour basis, whether the guest’s needs are for something as simple as fresh towels or a sewing kit for the room or something more complex, such as an emergency situation.

With the dollar’s value on the world market making travel to the U.S. an increasingly better bargain every day, the lexicon of success in the hospitality industry has come to include – now more than ever – potential fluency in the lexicon of everyone who checks into a room.

Oftentimes a hotel can handle a guest’s simpler needs in-house, using staffers and the concierge service, and other times they rely on translation services –such as the company on call around the clock for Bellagio guests.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotels of New York and Boston have found their language solutions closer to home: They find they can still rely on staffers most of the time.

“Luckily we have not had a situation where an employee does not speak the language of one of our guests,” said Jennifer A. Oberstein, area director of public relations, in a recent e-mail. “If it is someone in the kitchen [being asked to assist], we will have someone fill in for them while they go and translate for the guest.”

And at other hotels, such as the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, it is the concierge who most often becomes the point person in such instances – by knowing who to turn to who can provide just the right words in just the right language. It can be someone in the housekeeping office or perhaps a business across town.

Sometimes the ideal person to fill that need directly just happens to be the concierge.

That is often the case for Antonio Barrios, chief concierge at the St. Regis.

“We are getting a huge influx of Europeans visiting the U.S., but interestingly enough, most Europeans speak English,” said Barrios. “What I encounter and have assisted with are the Latin Americans – and I am a Spanish speaker. My second language, since I was raised in Japan, is Japanese.”

Kevin Hendzel, a spokesman for the American Translators Association, a 10,000-member group based in Alexandria, Va., said that while in-house multi-lingual staffers can often handle the day-to-day needs of non-English-speaking travelers, call centers with professional interpreters provide a critical hotel service for highly specialized cases.

“Some large hotels will have on staff a person whose job is to be a translator or interpreter and they may do that, along with something else too,” he said. “A fair number of desk personnel hired in the middle- and high-end hotels are multi-lingual enough to check people in and out … and if that is all you are doing, using your staff [for translating] is fine. But if you go much beyond that, you need to have phone service for interpreting, or document-translation services,” he said. Many of these carry added fees that would be passed along to the guest requesting it. But that price buys a necessary expertise, one critical in business dealings - for instance, in medicine, law or technology, Hendzel said.

“In order to translate or interpret a subject, you have to know not just the words but the meaning behind the words. All legal translators have spent years in the courtroom studying law, some are even lawyers….I often say that translation is not about the words. It is about what the words are about.”

In Barrios’ case, the foreign-language assignments often begin even before the guest arrives.

“A lot of the Latin American guests, prior to coming to San Francisco, will e-mail me and correspond in Spanish; they have questions. I typically put itineraries together for my guests, and when they do arrive, I am there to assist them in every way,” he said.

The hotel would use a translation service if the need ever arose, he said, “but we have never had to use it. We have been pretty fortunate at the St. Regis. A lot of our employees speak Russian, Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, and we have a fair amount of employees from the United Arab Emirate.”

There is also a network outside the hotel, created out of a professional association of concierges, of which Barrios is a member.

That widens the talent pool even more, allowing Barrios to field calls from colleagues at other hotels across town too.

And yes, also to make some of those calls himself.

“With the association, you are always in the loop with whatever is going on,” he said. “So if it ever comes down to having someone who doesn’t speak a particular language, I can call someone else in the concierge community.”

Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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