Issue 30

The Art of Hospitality

The Art of Hospitality

When I was 10 years old, I earned my first-degree black belt in Taekwondo. My instructor, Ken Brooks, had a reputation for earning respect. He gave us the tools to succeed, and the personal room to fail; the choice was ours. I didn’t know it at the time, but my early exposure to martial arts was the foundation of my passion for hospitality. ‘Martial’ means ‘same’. ‘Art’ means ‘different’. What seems like a contradiction in ‘martial art’ is actually the perfect embodiment of the paradox…the constant push and pull – the Yin and the Yang – that both work against and require one another for balance.

A critical component of most martial arts is the constant attempt to perfect ‘The Form,’ which is a sequence of stances and maneuvers assigned to each level for the individual artist to then apply his/her skill and style to, over and over, for both physical practice and mental exercise. The goal of perfection is asymptotic. Practicing the form teaches discipline, humility, attention to detail, patience, focus, and respect for the ever-present room to improve. Ten artists can perform the same Form with ten very different results. The movements are muscle memory, but the execution is all passion. In a similar sense, service constitutes the same, ‘martial’ component of the required movements of The Form. Hospitality, then, is the artful way that service is carried out. If hospitality is to be sustainable, it must come from passion.

There are fundamental components of service that we all recognize. The average exchange with a guest has a certain Form: There is a greeting. There is an explanation of options. An order is placed. Products/services are delivered. There is a financial transaction. Goodbyes and gratitude are exchanged. These are the basic elements of a service exchange; It would be quite easy to follow along with these recognizable motions in a silent film portraying a server/bartender, and a guest. As a hospitality professional, I have come to appreciate the value of both the motions, and the WAY those motions are carried out. Everything from tone, timing, attitude, eye contact, body language, knowledge and humility is critical, and the requisite levels of each need to be adjusted for the needs of individual guests. I often say that the true hospitality professional rarely gets to be himself/herself. Forget your personality that you think is so great, and become an equalizer of experience for each guest.

True hospitality is spiritual. It becomes more elusive the more you think about it. That is one of the reasons why many organizations, including hotels, caterers, and healthcare, tend to opt for facilities management services to wow their guests. When a company tries too hard, it becomes contrived. Don’t try, and it disappears completely. The consummate host is in the center of the room, and not in the room, at the same time. You have to look for your place in the dialog, and you have to know when to shut up. You are a mirror, answering reflectively to the individual needs of your guest. Within the parameters of your brand, you want the line of hospitality to be invisible, as if the guest is serving himself/herself with zero effort. As a hospitality ambassador, you are an interpreter of body language, and your goal is to offer services before your guest is even aware they are in need. You want the guest to leave with an incredible experience, and the inability to articulate what, exactly, made the experience incredible. Hospitality is the ideal exchange rate between the desires of your target clientele and the products/services that meet those desires.

I’m not sure whether my natural inclination to seek balance and truth in the world was the cause vs. the effect of my interest in martial arts. The same inclination also led me to study philosophy in college, where I encountered the same principles of Yin and Yang – albeit reworded as ‘Virtue Between Vice’ or ‘The Art of Dialectic’, etc. I often joke about my philosophy degree resulting in my ability to make a lot of drinks. The fact is, however, that my appreciation for truth helps me to maneuver every guest to the best of my ability. Hospitality is just another manifestation of Yin and Yang – the balanced push and pull between a guest’s expectations and our brand. Every guest is a potential exercise in The Form: an opportunity to practice, and to improve, to choreograph a memory, and to disappear into it, at the same time.

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