The Hotel Service You Didn’t Know You Wanted

Four Seasons Punta Mita

Infinity Pool at Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita (Courtesy of Four Seasons)

I noticed this tidbit in a recent press release from a new luxury hotel on Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit.

[The Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita has] introduced the first Four Seasons amphibious waiters. Beginning at noon, these waiters suit up to deliver different amenities to swimmers every half hour—be it a smoothie, frappe, Gatorade or Evian spritzer.

The amphibious waiters also take drink orders.

While I applaud any hotel’s efforts at extreme service, this one made me laugh. It brought to mind an image similar to a scene in the movie Wall-E, where the humans who have left Earth are now so obese they cannot walk and are perpetually holding super-sized smoothies. It also had me trying to picture what the job interview was like for the amphibious waiter positions.

I guess I never found it a hardship to exit a pool to get a beverage.

When You Think of Bitter, Who Comes to Mind?

Seth Godin wrote a powerful post today on generosity. And I wasn’t surprised that the single example he used to illustrate the opposite of generosity was airlines.

And the killer of generosity is bitterness. You may have noticed while traveling on airlines like American that many of the employees you encounter act as though they’re trapped. Trapped by a race to the bottom in efficiency, trapped by a long history of bureaucracy that offers no control and no room for humanity. In those situations, it’s easy to give up, to shrug one’s shoulders and to soldier on, just doing your job. It’s not surprising, then, that any attempt at organizational kindness instead feels like a poorly constructed marketing come-on, not the human act of generosity we seek.

I experienced this bitterness recently on US Airways when a flight attendant barked at me about where I wanted to place my carry-on. As I obediently did what she demanded and then sat down, I thought about why I felt so rotten. Was I really wrong to want to place my bag one row in front of my seat instead of one row behind? I was one of the first people onboard, so space was not lacking. On the other hand, what she instructed me to do was not unreasonable. I realized it was the way she said it. A generous flight attendant could have accomplished the same thing, but made me feel good about it.

I love Seth’s final line:

We long to connect, all of us. We long to be noticed, to be cared for, to matter. Generosity is the invisible salve on our wound of loneliness, one that benefits both sides, over and over again.

It’s good to remember that no matter what our job, each interaction is an opportunity to connect generously with someone, to help them know they matter.

I’d Love to Start my Work Day with this Leader

Extraordinary inflight service: Every airline aspires to it, but few pull it off. I’ve written and read a number of articles about how Asian carriers are able to offer a superior soft inflight product. Much is attributed to hiring practices. But that can’t be the whole story, because the grueling lifestyle of a flight attendant could quickly wear down even the youngest, sweetest person.

Last week I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong operation. On this visit, I met the airline’s secret weapon, an inflight service manager named Crystal. Here’s how she (and others like her) prepares cabin crews to deliver what they call “service straight from the heart.”

After checking in and gathering the paperwork, the crew meets in a conference room to get acquainted. Sometimes the group is quiet, and she has the next 20 minutes to excite them. Conversely, sometimes there’s a hyper individual or two, and she works to calm them or share their energy amidst the full group.

More measurable tasks follow. She checks the languages spoken—crews are assigned to ensure at least one flight attendant on the flight can speak every language represented on the passenger list. She also checks the experience level of every flight attendant, so she knows who will still be learning and may need special mentoring.

Then she’ll ask a safety question: How are oven fires handled? How do we treat nosebleeds? Each flight attendant feels a great deal of pressure when called on to answer correctly, and after they answer, sometimes Crystal will add an anecdote about an actual experience she’s had, to follow up and add more context.

Then, it’s off to customs and the airplane. CX in Hong Kong has a customs/security facility within its operations center, so crews are bussed straight from Cathay City to the aircraft. (Some airlines actually prefer to have their crews seen walking through the airport.)

During the flight, Crystal keeps an eye on things. She says, “Being the best is not doing everything perfectly. We all make mistakes. We help each other fix problems and learn something.” The inflight service manager gives marks to every flight attendant for his/her performance on the flight, and prizes are awarded for those who score well on this and other feedback like customer compliments.

I have to say, I was totally impressed by Crystal. I would love to start my work day under the leadership of an individual like this. And there’s no doubt in my mind that she is able to evoke “service straight from the heart:” from all who fly with her. Well done, Cathay Pacific and Crystal. Now, if only some of the American legacy carriers could pull this off….

Airfares: What I’m Willing to Pay More For and Not (You’re certain to disagree with one.)

People who whine bother me. And I hear too much whining about ancillary fees. I believe the unbundling of airfares that occurred in the last few years has been a brilliant development. Airlines are finally gaining some financial stability (which benefits passengers), and passengers continue to enjoy low base fares. It makes perfect sense to me that we only pay for what’s important to us.

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be on the inaugural flight of American Airlines’ new A321T service between SFO and JFK. (You can read my trip report on The Bay Area Traveler here.) I sat in first class on the way out, and business class on the way back. I am most often a back-of-the-bus passenger, so this was a real treat. And this aircraft and its inflight service is lovely and amenity-heavy. The trip caused me to think about which features on a flight are of particular value to me. (A caveat: I am not a natural spender, whether or not the fare is being footed by me or the company.)

What I’m willing to pay more for:

1. A seat with a view. My flying life changed a few years ago when I switched from being an aisle person to a window person. Previously a stressed passenger all too aware of flying in an aluminum box, I became a relaxed spectator as the amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty moved by. My claustrophobia eased by having a big space to look at over my shoulder. AA’s A321T first class seat is fabulous, don’t get me wrong, and it’s hard to complain about a ginormous seat that is both window and aisle. The first class 1-1 configuration is pure indulgence. But the seat is so darn huge, and the window so far away, that I could hardly see out: the horizon, perhaps, but certainly nothing below the plane. (Apologies: perhaps I’m whining.) In economy, I am happy to pay more for a seat with a good view.

2. Early boarding. Thanks to the relatively recent development of fistfights over carry-on space, I appreciate the knowledge that I don’t have to concern myself with the possibility of gate-checking my bag. An additional perk: Not having to climb over someone (most times) adds to the illusion that I’m having some kind of civilized experience.

3. Personal attention. I appreciate being called by name and having a pleasant chat here and there with the crew in the premium cabins. I hope that’s not my ego talking, but just my human-ness. I wish we could have this option for a fee in coach. Human interaction can make or break an inflight experience for me. Occasionally and randomly, it comes free of charge.

4. Continuous wine pour. I don’t want to sound like I have a drinking problem, but there’s something I like about wine service in the premium classes. It’s certainly not the wine itself. But to have a glass refilled generously without paying feels a bit like I’m at someone’s house and my thoughtful hostess is keeping me comfortable. I realize this is, again, only an illusion, but it’s one I welcome.

What I won’t pay more for:

1. Food. I really don’t care about eating on a plane anymore. I always pack healthy snacks (and meals sometimes), and I like that the new normal requires that I do so. My first class and business meals on the A321T were decent, and there’s something nice about being offered food. But really, I’d rather not. I like healthy, well prepared food choices. And even the best airplane food isn’t tempting enough to make it matter.

2. Entertainment. I have to admit, the jury may be out on this one. The premium cabins on the A321T service have deep choice in their inflight entertainment systems. And I liked getting caught up on things with the “still in theaters” category. But then I didn’t get a speck of work done during my SFO-JFK-SFO trip, and I cracked nary a book. While the entertainment is pleasant, I’m not sure I like that. Perhaps I just need more self-discipline. Something’s wrong when you wish for a moment that the flight were longer so you could catch another movie.

3. The seat. I know I am in the minority on this one—in fact, I’m perhaps the only person on the planet who doesn’t care about seat pitch or recline (exception: a red eye or international flight at night). My legs are short and stretch nicely out in front of me. My rear must be average, because I have a few inches of comfortable air space on either side of me in even the smallest seat. I don’t see what the big deal is for someone my size to sit in a typical airplane seat for five or more hours. A business class seat or better is totally wasted on me. My feet do not reach the ottoman. The recline functions just leave me fiddling with the adjustments—because I can–and usually to no avail, comfort-wise. When my status allows me a free seat in premium economy, I couldn’t care less about the leg room. (But I do like the early boarding, as noted above. Also, sitting in the front of the plane helps me feel less like I’m in a mass experience. If you can’t see those other 200 people, they aren’t there, right?)

Every individual on every flight values a different set of offerings. I love that we pay for what we value. But airlines, please, let’s not get carried away and over-marketize this concept. American’s economy fares are now listed in categories from cheapest to most expensive, named like this:  Choice, Choice Essential, and Choice Plus. With Choice, you get nothing. That feels a little offensive to me, not much of a choice (or with another meaning, not exactly a “choice” option). If you’re giving me nothing but the seat, let’s call it like it is.

What do you value most or least in an inflight experience? (Come on, I know you tall people will have a bone to pick with my willingness to give up leg room….)

When Cheerless Flight Attendants Offer Cheerful Greetings

Yesterday I came across a when-the-marketing-department-goes-too-far term: branded salutation. In a blog post this week, Annie Murphy Paul, a journalist who focuses on the science behind learning, writes that Walgreens employees have been instructed to complete customer transactions with the branded salutation, “Thank you and be well.” Huh? A Walgreens public relations comment notes the purpose of the script is to align the employee communication with the company’s goals.

Noble thought. That doesn’t work. The branded salutation falls flat because there is another piece of alignment to consider. According to Paul, research indicates that when there is not alignment between the scripts given to employees and how employees are actually feeling, the result is toxic. She says social scientists call this surface acting:

Surface acting is when front line service employees, the ones who interact directly with customers, have to appear cheerful and happy even when they’re not feeling it. This kind of faking is hard work—sociologists call it “emotional labor”—and research shows that it’s often experienced as stressful. It’s psychologically and even physically draining; it can lead to lowered motivation and engagement with work, and ultimately to job burnout.

I suspect surface acting is toxic not just for the employee, but also for the customer.

The customer-facing segment of the travel business is all about hospitality, and hospitality is built around warm welcomes, something not well faked. Here’s an example of a hotel company that “gets” authentic service.

But in the airline business, a large number of customer-facing employees (think flight attendants) have been beaten down by decades of rancorous labor disputes and increasingly exhausting job demands. Yet customers and management expect them to exude warmth and friendliness. (For the record, many do.) United has even built its brand DNA around the friendly skies.

The next time you board a plane, notice which flight attendants standing in the galley and greeting you are surface acting and which truly mean their “Welcome aboard.” I will be feeling more compassion for those who exude surliness, perhaps forced to do the emotional labor of acting cheerful when not.