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The Call of Hotel Duty

These employees know how to put guests first. The question is does your staff live up to the people in this story?

Friday, September 26, 2014
Caryn Eve Murray
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Sizing up what had clearly been a difficult, if not impossible situation, hotel manager Brent Haste could draw only one conclusion: Members of his hotel staff in Chapel Hill, N.C. had unquestionably overstepped their bounds.

But that turned out to be a good thing - and, in fact, it was something to celebrate. When the so-called Snowpocalypse of 2014 left most of the Southeast immobilized earlier this year, nearly five percent of the staff stepped up – and out of their job definitions - to offer some creative ways, and their own personal time, to keep the Rizzo Conference Center moving.

"As long as I'm around," Haste wrote the staff in a memo afterward, "I don't think I could ever express the appropriate amount of gratitude for the effort and dedication that all of you exhibited over the last two days. I'm humbled and proud just to be a part of this group. It wasn't about job description or titles; it was simply let's get this done the best way we can to help one another."

According to Laura Negrete, the Rizzo Conference Center's director of human resources, not only did associates offer to stay overnight for those two consecutive nights, some did so under makeshift conditions since a full house had left little traditional room for staffers’ sleeping arrangements.

"Our FB Manager and Restaurant Supervisor spent two nights sleeping on the sofas in our DuBose house. Our Director of Instructional Technology slept in the A/V office on the floor," Negrete wrote in a recent email. "Everyone, of course, performed more than what is in their normal job description and seriously went into crisis (but calm) mode to ensure that service was seamless and the guests were taken care of."

Not far away, in that same community, the Carolina Inn had also gone into crisis mode. "On top of the snow and hazardous driving conditions, there were several compounding factors that made Feb. 12, 2014 a very difficult day in Reservations," wrote Jim Phelan, the inn’s director of revenue optimization. In this college town, that very date had been designated as the "call-in date" for guests to make reservations well in advance of UNC football season.

"The demand for these games is very high," Phelan said. On top of that, the scheduled men's basketball game that weekend between UNC and Duke was cancelled due to the weather, the Raleigh-Durham airport had been shut, and many local residents who found themselves without power at home were also looking for alternate accommodations, he said.

"These factors had a tremendous effect on our call volume," Phelan said. Incoming calls spiked from the daily average of 150 to an overwhelming 900 calls fielded by the reservations department. He said the reservations leader, Charmain Cale, “stayed the entire day from open to close and slept at the hotel that evening to ensure that all agents were able to get home safely and our guests were serviced. While she is still very new in the position, she became the main point of contact for the multitude of questions and needs of our staff and guests … Our success during this period is directly tied to her leadership and service.”

When the going gets tough at busy hotels, the tough don’t always get going – they sometimes stay instead: one, two, three or more days, if necessary, to keep hotel business and reputation intact.

Tina Beverly, director of human resources at the Oak Brook Hills Resort in Illinois, considers engineer David Leffler a "knight in shining armor" for stepping in and, as she described it, "leading the charge" in frozen-pipe repairs this past January, after Chicago's extreme weather that month had wreaked havoc. With the director of engineering unavailable, Leffler "identified the issue and resolved it without having to call outside assistance, which resulted in minimal cost to the company," she said. On that same day, she said, he also replaced 25 feet of cast-iron piping where wear-and-tear had caused the kitchen and hallway to flood. Leffler did an encore performance of those above-and-beyond heroics later that same month when more water-main issues were stirred up by yet more unrelenting weather, this time affecting 9 guest rooms.

That is not to say hotel heroes go unsung: At the Resort at Squaw Creek in Olympic Valley, Calif., Erika Stohl, director of human resources, said monthly associate recognition luncheons, a commendation program, association of the month and leader of the quarter are part of the formal programs to celebrate those extra efforts.

At the Stonebridge Inn in Colorado, associates may nominate another associate, supervisor or manager for recognition, and in addition to being treated to a monthly all-associated lunch, honorees get a $25 gift card to the local market. The Mile North Hotel in Chicago has a Rockstar of the Month recognition, which is peers nominating peers, a “Shout Out” recognition, which displays their name on a prominently seen bulletin board, and a $100 raffle for employees whose performance inspires nomination by hotel guests.

“Despite what is happening with the travel industry, we have some very dedicated staff and they are there, kind of as a ‘do or die’ for our guests and they have a passion about it,” said Becky Rogers, director of operations for IDM Group Hospitality, which has a portfolio of 12 boutique hotels. Ten of those hotels participate in the 3-year-old corporate recognition program, held twice a year, known as Heart of Hospitality. Winners receive a gift card, presented at a luncheon, a barbecue or other major celebration for the staff.

“This is not about ‘you did this, great, now here’s your prize,’ ” Rogers said, “but we try to find people who live and breathe it every day. And especially in boutique hotels, that is sometimes more of a challenge.” It is also a peer-to-peer nomination program, she said. “This is not selected by management. I am really proud of that point, this is you nominating your own team members, it is not selection by management or corporate.”

The goodwill sometimes spills over, quite literally, from the hotel premises into the nearby community, as was the case in Sunriver, Oregon, which was besieged earlier this year by flooding.

“Many homes in the community were flooded completely,” said Daney Breault, the Sunriver Resort’s HR coordinator. Two members of the resort’s golf team joined with work crews from the local utilities to help homeowners move their furniture and belongings from homes – and then assisted with cleanup. “This is particularly special,” Breault said, because the relationship between the resort and the Sunriver Homeowners Association has known strained moments. “Any opportunity we have to show community support, we try to do that, but in this case the guys just felt an obligation to help out the community and answered the distress call.”

In better times, the resort treats its employees to barbecues, parties and a program known as IGNITE, which rewards associates’ performance by granting points they can redeem for privileges and perks, ranging from free room nights and meals, to paid health insurance premiums to gym memberships, Breault said.

“I believe that in our industry, our associates are always providing our guests with the best possible experience and they often don’t have the budget to take time for themselves,” Breault said. In this way, the resort gives something back too, going above and beyond to say thanks.
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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