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Columbia Business Monthly

A High Level of Service

Jul 01, 2024 11:09AM ● By Albert Metz

Within the hospitality sector, our business model is based on crafting memorable experiences and positive engagement. Virtues such as compassion, integrity, perfection, and pride play key roles in how we carry out service delivery. These lay the foundation of my personal philosophy on hospitality. 

Labor markets are at a historically challenging phase, and the practice of recruitment has quickly become one of the greatest obstacles in providing service in our industry. In a recent study, The American Hotel and Lodging Association reports 67 percent of those surveyed suffer staffing shortages. 

In an era of immediate gratification and elevated expectations being the norm, we rely on our service teams to engage and craft memorable experiences.

It is said, “hire the best,” but to “hire” is, in my point of view, taking the wrong approach. The key to success in my 30 years in luxury hotels, clubs, and restaurants around the world, is not to “hire,” but to selectively “cast” the right people for the role. 

As seen in theater, the right person must be cast for a specific role. I base this on personality traits, talent, and the ability to perform, however the key element is with “heart.” In hospitality, we are all entertainers and hotels and restaurants are our stage. 

I seek what is inside the person. Are they engaging? Kind? Genuine? Willing to learn? Experience is always welcome but specialized tasks can be taught and learned with the proper mentorship and training.

Ensuring that candidates are positioned for success is vital, seeking traits and virtues which are in alignment with the service culture we create is quickly becoming a complacent practice. “Hire to hire” is a malady faced in the industry.

What was previously typical in my selection process, selecting one out of 10 candidates is now one out of 30-plus. An alarming statistic and one not to be taken lightly. This is a sign of the times and further illustrates the importance of attracting the right candidates, investing in them, and creating practices to retain them. Genuinely caring and developing talent is key. 

Seek those who want to be the best, and train them on how to be the best. 

When opening Hotel Hartness and needing to build a team of 90 colleagues, over 400 applicants were met with. Many positions were not filled. It is my best practice to be patient and not do what has at times become acceptable in the industry: Fill positions keeping only staffing guidelines in mind. The goal must be to find dedicated and ambitious candidates.

In a shrinking labor pool where candidates are limited, it is fundamental to highlight the benefits of joining your organization. What is our purpose? What are our service beliefs? How do we operate? What training do we offer? What are our goals and how do they contribute to the overall success of the operation? Candidates must see the difference in what we stand for and how we lead the team. Highlight the value they bring to the organization.

 A vital part of the equation as general manager is to personally meet all candidates. This has proven to be successful for me for decades. I need to know you are willfully embarking on a journey at one of the most challenging yet rewarding industries worldwide.  

This is the opportunity to openly have a conversation (versus an interview) and take the time to get to know the candidate, and equally, the candidate be offered the opportunity to meet their potential leader and team and understand our beliefs. 

This is a mutual conversation. While I wish to know the background on what got them to us and why they wish to join, I seek to understand what a person is made of. Is this the right fit for them and for the very high expectations of our service culture? Is this a temporary stop, or are they committed and seeking more?

When the right candidate is cast, it is then our responsibility to provide the culture, tools, and coaching to elevate their knowledge and achieve the desired results. These being the levels of service offered and the growth of the person. Training does not mean follow or look at how I do, but personally teach, enable, and inspect. 

During my career, I learned that a strong culture supports the growth of the team, achieves the desired goals, and is key to financial results. A mentor and the power behind a particular brand at the time was Horst Schulze, and this man lived this culture. He coined the phrase “ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.” Not because we are servers but because we are equal as human beings. We are the providers of a service. This must be exercised with genuine care. He walked the talk and thrived in it. It became a cultural way of life. This was a way to care for the guest, both internal and external. Meaning guest and staff alike.

I have carried this with me my entire career as a hotelier and have experienced the power of it positively impacting both my guests and my teams. 

Hotel Hartness is a perfect example. Our differentiation goal was service from the start. We knew we would have a beautiful property, but in the end, it is just that, a beautiful property. The soul of the property is its human element. Without investing in this, all that is left are four beautiful walls. 

A quote discussed and lived by me personally is, “Excellence is never an accident.” These are powerful words which call for action to achieve the desired result, excellence in service. It does not just happen by coincidence. 

I have personally seen how each member of our team has embraced this philosophy. This was carried out by gaining the alignment of purpose – to delight our guests and each other. 

We are in the business of selling an experiential product. We are in the business of creating an experience. A nontangible product that makes you feel good.

Hospitality is business and must be financially liquid. But without the service component it is a tough journey where many have failed even with creative concepts, beautiful establishments, and delectable cuisine. 

One may heavily invest millions of dollars in a facility, but the investment in the people must be equally important.

Hospitality can be a rather imperfect “science” in my view. When simplified, it is taking genuine care of people and providing a memorable experience. As human beings we want to be recognized, feel good, enjoy the moment. 

We must take the time to develop and mentor those who will deliver this. 

A simple question, where should the focus be? The guest or the colleague? The immediate reaction in our industry is, “the guest always comes first.” But does it? Without the prepared and supported staff, there will be a compromised guest experience. Without the guest, we are out of business. 

To develop the positioning and loyalty that must be earned, we as leaders in the industry must be willing to accept and nurture our human capital – our most valuable asset. 

Take the time to find the right people, invest your personal time in them, have alignment and buy-in on organizational purpose, and never settle for mediocrity. 

Take great care of your staff and they will take great care of your guests. Be kind, be relentless, be involved. Lead with passion, and always, have FUN. 

Albert Mertz is general manager of Hotel Hartness, a family home turned luxury boutique hotel in Greenville, South Carolina.  During his 30 years of international luxury hospitality experience, Mertz has held positions with notable brands including The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, providing strategic planning, financial management, and operational knowledge for concepts spanning the globe.