When was the last time you left a restaurant or hotel feeling more at ease and content than when you arrived? Where you found yourself telling your wife, coworkers, and complete strangers about this amazing meal or hotel stay. What made the experience so memorable?
Sure, I imagine the food, service and atmosphere were all above par or special in some way. And the company was pleasant too. But that wasn’t what did it for you.
Time and again, what we find is that the meals and experiences that resonate the most with us share one thing in common – that they had something unexpected. Think back: whether it was that surprise ingredient or a friendly greeting; a gift given for no reason; or a touching detail, thoughtfully attended to beyond what was necessary – those are the things that you find when you peel back the layers of a pleasurable experience.
Bean Counters Beware
Too much time is squandered in corporate strategy sessions, placating bean counters and analyzers with seemingly intangible virtues of being generous beyond the sharp lines they see of what’s expected or necessary; dissecting operations in pursuit of the highest profit yield for the company rather than the highest pleasure yield for the guest. Restaurant strategy has become number-driven. It has lost the essence of hospitality — the whole purpose behind the business. And in so doing, the thing that would most drive loyalty, footfall, and long-term financial victories is dismissed as an idealistic fantasy.
Look at Starbucks.
When artist Phil Hansen was searching for a new art medium, he walked up to the counter at Starbucks and asked for fifty cups. Rather than turn him away or limit him to one cup, the barista simply handed over fifty empty cups.
A work of art. Graphite on coffee cups.
These cups and their origin story of true hospitality were seen by the audience of Phil Hansen’s “Embrace the Shake” TED talk along with over 650,000 viewers between TED.com and YouTube. That’s a lot of publicity for the cost of a few cups.
Starbucks could have said no. They wouldn’t have lost anything by saying no and would have even been justified – they’re a coffee shop, not an art supply store after all – but that’s not who they are. They believe in going above and beyond for each one of their guests and that is why there will always be a stream of stories flowing in about how amazing Starbucks is.
The CEO’s Conviction
Amazing experiences have to start from the top, though.
Show me a company that has been a game-changer in any industry and I will show you a company that was once led by an idealist CEO, one who was considered unreasonable in his quest to do something amazing. History sees them quite differently after they’ve achieved their success than how their boards and investors saw them in those early days.
There are the big examples like Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, or Richard Branson, who put the guests’ needs and experiences above anything else, but this same sort of conviction and passion are just as present throughout the restaurant industry.
For Ray Kroc of McDonald’s, it was his unbending fanaticism with instilling consistency and cleanliness in his restaurants. For Dave Thomas of Wendy’s, it was his insistence on using fresh, never frozen beef. For Howard Schultz of Starbucks, it was his dedication to creating a safe and happy work environment for his employees who, in turn, provide better service to the guests. And for Steve Ells of Chipotle, it was his commitment to free range, non-factory-raised ingredients, “Food with Integrity”.
Can you imagine being in the board room with one of these guys proposing to spend extra money on organic produce and happy pigs? It doesn’t make business sense. But then, what would the brand be without it?
Next, the brand needs to take the CEO’s convictions and incorporate them into everything they do.
Think Magic, Not Marketing
Marketing is often associated with principles of economics, the dreaded marketing P’s diagrams, and advertising people proclaiming some new scientific black box contraption that – if you pour money into it – will grant you increased sales and brand awareness. The reality, though, is that the best restaurant marketing has more to do with magic than advertising. And I don’t mean magic like the magician who uses sleight of hand and trickery. I mean it from the point of view of the spectator, who desires to be enchanted and transported, to have their disbelief suspended, to feel a childlike sense of wonder and excitement again.
A joking tweet sent out from Shankman before a flight home caught the company’s attention. Morton’s found out which terminal he was arriving in, as well as what time he would land, and arranged to have a waiter standing at the gate to deliver him a steak dinner, complete with sides.
Sure, that was a lot of work, but then look at his face:
When was the last time a guest left your restaurant looking that happy? In fact, when was the last time you even had a one hour meeting to discuss how to make your guests this happy?
It’s not a mystery.
Give Them Something Extra
Do something unexpected. Something more than was necessary. With your guests and your associates. Surprise them. Delight them. Generosity is the glue of hospitality. A dollar less on an entrée or a dollar more per hour on a paycheck doesn’t go nearly as far as the act of exceeding expectations. Being cheaper or paying better than the competition is just one of many tactical approaches to this strategy of doing more than was expected, but it’s the most expensive and least effective of all of the choices.
Nando’s flew all of their associates to South Africa to celebrate their 25th anniversary and recouped the entire cost of the employee excursion in their first few weeks back due, in large part, to improved morale.
Starwood has one of the best guest loyalty programs around (I’ve written about my experience with Starwood before), providing the most loyal guests with a private ambassador that sees to their every need, complimentary room upgrades to Presidential suites, and, for all of their guests, a constant attention to detail – even when it’s something as small as a handwritten note and biscotti thanking the guest for their stay.
Getting the Bean Counters On Board
Every audience has its heckler and in every crowd gathered to watch a magician, there is someone looking for the hidden strings and trapdoors. In restaurant marketing planning, this person is usually the accountant. Keep in mind, though, they view it as their job to do this, but in reaching for that bottom line, it’s important not to dig yourself into a hole.
Your restaurant isn’t four walls and a waiter and guests aren’t looking at your hotel as a service rendered: it’s a home away from home. It’s a night out to enjoy, to restore (the root of the word restaurant branches off the same word as ‘restore’). It’s an experience they’re looking for and that’s why the bare minimum doesn’t cut it.
The Point of It All
The point I want to make in this article – and I appreciate you hanging on to the end while I try to connect all of the points above – is that, as CEO, your job is to be the most unshakably determined force in your company. And as a hospitality company’s CEO, you must be fixated on infusing the magic back into your guest experience.
So call a meeting with your team. Not in the conference room, but in your dining room. Look at your operations through the lens of the guest, not the accountants. Spend one hour discussing how to add some more magic to the experience for your guests and associates. It’s time well spent. The extras you give that go above and beyond what was expected isn’t a cost but an investment, and what you will find is that guests and associates will do all they can to surprise you in unexpected and meaningful ways too that you never could have anticipated.