Let me tell you a story about the absolute worst (that turned out to be the best) day ever running the reception at a hotel.
It was a busy autumn afternoon. The hotel was at at 100% capacity, full of visiting professors, guests of the university, prospective students, and parents of current students. I was a fairly new manager – within the first 3 months of serving as Manager on Duty – but I had been a shift supervisor for over a year. I arrived at about 2:30pm for my evening shift, looked over the arrivals for the day and met with the morning shift manager to get the scoop on how the morning went. I greeted the receptionists and valet staff who were clocking in and preparing for their shift. We had about 65 arrivals still due to arrive; so a busy afternoon but nothing out of the ordinary for this time of year.
As I was speaking with one of the receptionists at the front desk, a lovely family approached to check-in. The typical tableau for a prospective student visiting the university with her family: two parents and two teenage girls. They had reserved two connecting rooms: one room with a king-sized bed and a connecting room with two double beds.
We greeted them warmly and welcomed them to the university. We confirmed the reservation details with them, took ID and form of payment, and swiftly checked them into the rooms. As we took out a map to highlight our location and anything else that would be helpful, the father was quick to inform us that he knew the university very well since he’d earned his doctorate here. In fact this trip was 30 years in the making; not only to show his oldest daughter the school but also reconnect with one of his former professors who had meant a great deal to him. He then told us that his friend would be coming to visit them in the hotel, so when we arrived we had authorization to give him a key to their room. We made note of his friend’s name and prepared the key to be ready when he arrived. We signaled our bellman to assist the family to their room, wished them a pleasant stay, and I got back to briefing my receptionist.
About 2 hours later, I heard a disgruntled man arguing with one of our bellman over a set of car keys clutched firmly in the man’s hands.
It’s our policy to hold possession of all car keys for cars parked at the entrance of our hotel. Not only do these cars block circulation for other guests but also block the fire lane which must always be kept clear. Occasionally guests of the hotel (or more often than not, guests of guests of the hotel) don’t want anyone touching their car and cause an issue. This was one of those times.
I came outside to ask the gentleman how I could help, and he explained that his car (a pretty beat up Toyota or something) was touchy and didn’t want any of the ‘kids’ (many of the valet drivers are current students) to break anything. I said I understood, and just asked what brought him to the hotel. It turned out he was the long lost professor coming to visit the lovely family from before. I explained that we have a private lot for guests a few hundred feet up the road and he was more than welcome to park himself. I asked a bellman to assist the gentleman into the parking lot, and returned to the front desk until he came back.
A few minutes later he came in rolling a suitcase behind him. I smiled and simply showed him the room number as I gave him the key to his friend’s room. “This room is just for me, right?” he asked, in an angrily suspicious tone. I explained that I didn’t know the sleeping situation, but that there was a room with a king bed and a room with two doubles. He quickly became annoyed and demanded that we give him a separate room. I tried calling his friends but got no answer. I wasn’t told he was staying the night; he didn’t have a reservation and the family before didn’t tell me explicitly that he was staying in their room. Evidently, they hadn’t told him either. I explained that unfortunately this evening we are completely sold out, so I’m unable to offer him a separate room. The best I can do for him now is place him on a waitlist if a room becomes available. He found this absurd, and promptly left mumbling to himself under his breath. It was a strange altercation that left me perplexed.
About an hour later, I saw the family come through the lobby and I approached them to explain what happened.
“You let him go!? How could you be so STUPID!?”, he yelled at me. In the center of the lobby and in front of everyone.
I apologized for any miscommunication, and asked what I could do to remedy the situation. “Nothing! He has no cell phone and we have no contact information for him. All you had to do was give him the key!” I was confused and frustrated for being thrown under the bus. I knew that I hadn’t handled the situation incorrectly but felt the need to do more.
I went back to my office and began to come up with a plan. The hotel was fully booked, and none of the arrivals were no-shows from the day before (a common way to predict no-shows for today). I decided I first needed to find where this man ran off to. He was from out of town and was here to visit his friend, so I figured he must have gone to a different hotel. I began to call each hotel in the area to see if he had checked in or at least to be alerted if he showed up. My persistence paid off. After calls to nearly two dozen area hotels, I found him at the Motel 6 outside of town.
I apologized for any miscommunication and requested that he return to our hotel. I offered him a complimentary room for the night, which he accepted. I called the lovely-turned-viperous-family to let them know he was on his way back. They were relieved, but still far from gracious.
This only solved half the problem. Once I created the new reservation, the general hotel inventory was at -1. That meant I now had to either walk a guest to a nearby property or pray for a no-show. The problem is, a no-show can only be confirmed after midnight and walking a guest at that time of night is far riskier than the afternoon. Furthermore, walking guests was especially difficult because our guests – typically wealthy New Yorkers coming straight from their Manhattan high rise apartments – chose our hotel specifically for its convenient location; it’s the only hotel located on the University campus.
I first checked the notes in our system if we had guests staying with us but visiting the other college in town. I figured I could walk them to a hotel with a more convenient location to the other school. No dice. Fortunately, however, we did have a family of a prospective student with a California address. Being from California myself, I always feel a connection to these guests. I was able to identify them as they drove up to the hotel and caught them before checking in. I offered them a complimentary night at the nearby hotel as well as parking on campus in our private lot. They were easy-going about the situation (halleluja!), and I freed up the extra room I needed. I single-handedly created and resolved the problem, and it was going to be ok. After a great big sigh of relief, I recorded the whole episode in our guest’s profile, and the rest of the night ran smoothly.
Needless to say it wasn’t my best night. Actually it was one of my worst. We ended up with a no-show, which brought my night’s score to 1 comp’d room, 1 walked guest on the hotel’s dime, and 1 room left to sell in the hotel: pretty much the absolute worst scenario for optimizing hotel revenue. But I learned a lot that night about handling stressful situations and about making split-second decisions. I could have done nothing. After all it wasn’t my fault that our guest’s disgruntled friend decided to leave when he discovered he didn’t have his own room. He could have stayed at his downtown motel, and I could have just put him in contact with our guests. But I didn’t feel that was the right thing to do.
I also didn’t want to participate in our guest’s disappointment for a ruined 30-year reunion with someone who was very special to him and his family.
A few days later as I was coming back in for my shift, I ran into the family in the lobby. This time all smiles. The father graciously thanked me for the extraordinary service in finding his friend and ensuring that their reunion was a memorable one. He apologized for his reaction and blamed it on all the excitement leading up to the reunion. I felt totally vindicated. In that moment, it made me realize that while I may have not made the decision that most benefited the bottom line of the hotel – it made all the difference in the world to these guests. And that’s what I’d come here to do.
I believe managing is trait that you either have or you don’t. Over years and through various experiences, you can hone your management skills but only if you have them to begin with. I first became a manager for a restaurant at the clubhouse on a golf course. I was just 16, but I was reliable and ambitious. In the beginning I wasn’t confident in myself as a manager – mostly because everyone I managed was older than me – but soon I grew into the role, was taken seriously and got the job done.
I’m proud of the success I’ve had as a manager and the achievements of the individuals in teams I’ve led. From managing a group of unmotivated Chinese teenagers to take out the trash 10 hours a day, 6 days a week for a 6,000-seat restaurant (where I discovered using smoking breaks as a bargaining currency worked wonders) to supervising a few rough-and-tumble maintenance guys around a 40-property portfolio of vacation rentals in Rome, and finally to the comfort of a 4-star, 153-room property in upstate New York. Management is in my blood, and I love all of it.
So I decided I’d like to share my seasoned perspective and management expertise with my readers, through a weekly advice column dedicated to the hospitality service industry. I’ll egotistically call it, Ask Jonathon, so you’ll never forget who’s writing it. I invite you, my readers, to send me your stories and challenges – from handling diva employees to difficult requests from your neediest guests – and I’ll respond with what I would do in your place. And just like everybody’s favorite “Dear Abby”, we’ll keep people and places anonymous so we can keep the advice real and raw.
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