This article originally appeared in the April 11, 2012 edition of The Wall Street Journal.
By ANDREA PETERSEN
Hotels are amping up their efforts to make a good first impression.
The goal: Dazzle guests during the first, crucial 15 minutes of their stay—or at least avoid annoying them.
Some hotels train front-desk employees to glean information during check-in chitchat that they can later use to impress guests. (Sending complimentary cups of tea to people who say they have a cold, perhaps.)
Others are prettying up lobbies—and even driveways—to enhance views and make them easier to navigate. Some lavish welcome goodies on kids and pets. And at least one brand, Denihan Hospitality Group’s Affinia, has hired a body-language expert to train employees how to read travelers’ moods to help figure out the best greeting approach.
“If you lose them at the beginning, it is very hard to recover,” says Mickael C. Damelincourt, general manager of the Trump International Hotel & Tower Toronto, a 261-room property that opened in January. “In their mind they’ve decided it is a bad hotel.”
A guest’s first impression is even more critical these days because of social media. In the past, guests usually waited until after they checked out before posting a review on TripAdvisor or Expedia, so hotels would have time to recover from an initial service snafu. Now, with guests tweeting and posting Facebook updates about their vacations almost in real time, a bungled first impression can be immediately broadcast to hundreds — even thousands.
Hotel executives say the miserable state of air travel has also made achieving a good first impression harder. “Guests show up totally stressed with their shoulders up to their ears. They’ve gone through travel hell,” says Niki Leondakis, president and chief operating officer of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, a chain of 54 U.S. properties.
Affinia put employees through half-day body-language-training sessions last summer to help them, in part, deal with grumpy customers. The training, run by Patti Wood, an expert with clients ranging from law enforcement to celebrity magazines, offered tips such as: When talking to a frustrated man, stand to his side. With a woman, talk face to face.
“Men go to war face to face,” she explains. “A man will feel less combative if you show your cheek.”
The tiniest tweaks can have an impact, hoteliers say. Hilton Worldwide Inc.’s DoubleTree by Hilton hotels have offered guests warm chocolate-chip cookies at check-in for 25 years. At the start of last year, the brand decided to “choreograph” the presentation to “get as much mileage out of the cookie that you can,” says Jim Holthouser, Hilton Worldwide’s global head of full-service brands. Now, all associates are trained to hand guests the cookies first thing. “Doing that before money changes hands has a bigger impact on guest perception,” he says. Indeed, customer satisfaction scores on the “overall arrival experience” have improved, Hilton Worldwide says.
Orna Shulman, a 53-year-old private investor in New York, says she spends about 60 nights a year in hotels. One pet peeve is loud, difficult-to-navigate lobbies, where reception desks are hard to find. “I won’t use [the lobby] if it is too cumbersome,” she says. “You want it easy.”
At the new Trump hotel in Toronto, the lobby is small and the reception area is separated into two smaller desks, allowing front-desk agents to walk around and introduce themselves with a handshake.
Doormen are trained to surreptitiously look at luggage tags and radio arriving guests’ names to the bellman and agents. That way, guests can be greeted by name, reservation details can be pulled up and a silver platter holding warm towels can be readied.
While escorting guests to their rooms, “I really try to think of funny things to say within the first five seconds,” says bellman Joshua Schwartz. “If you’re from Chicago, I’ll say ‘Did you bring me a deep dish pizza?’ “
A personal welcome can sometimes backfire, though, especially when it comes to repeat guests. A prior visit could have been with a previous girlfriend, for example, or a mistress. “You don’t always say, ‘Welcome back Mr. and Mrs.,’ ” says Mark Harmon, chief executive of Auberge Resorts, a collection of nine properties. “You have to be careful.”
The first 15 minutes don’t end at check-in. Once guests walk through the door to their rooms, cleanliness is critical, hotel operators say. Besides ensuring there are no obvious turnoffs, like hairs in the bathroom or stains on the towels, subtler signs can signal a room isn’t quite pristine.
Lopsided lamp shades, crooked desk pads and magazines askew on coffee tables are no-no’s for the housekeepers at the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, a 14-month-old, 267-room, luxury hotel. “That sends a signal to the guest that something is not quite right and maybe the room is not so clean either,” says Tim Terceira, the hotel’s general manager.
High-end hotels often try to impress guests with extra goodies in the room. At the Peninsula Chicago, children are welcomed to rooms with cookies, martini glasses filled with gummy bears and tyke-sized robes and slippers.
Social media can amplify the goodie-induced goodwill. The Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan puts treats in the rooms of many first-time guests and those celebrating special occasions. One couple recently posted a photo on TripAdvisor of the cake they received for their anniversary. “Your guest can become your advocate,” says general manager Elizabeth Mao.
If employees at the Peninsula Chicago see a tweet from a hotel guest, they’ll try to give the person a box of chocolates with the note, “Thanks for the Tweet! Enjoy this treat!”
Some hotels bet that a good first impression includes a special scent. When people walk down the hallways at the Gramercy Park Hotel, for instance, motion-sensor devices trigger machines to emit a puff of a sandalwood and cedar fragrance.
When Mr. Damelincourt worked at the Trump in Chicago, the hotel tried pumping a scent into its lobby. But after two or three weeks, he yanked it. While many guests liked the smell, Mr. Damelincourt says, some complained, saying “it stinks.”