Understanding the Difference Between 'Hospitality' and 'Guest Service'

My job in the hospitality industry as a conference speaker and trainer grants me opportunities to speak with lodging industry leaders from a broad spectrum of management companies, brands, and independents.  

Based on my observations, I think there are a lot of leadersincluding some with decades of experience that work at top-tier companieswho do not fully understand the difference between “hospitality” and “guest service.” I often hear these terms used interchangeably, yet while they are related—and while guest satisfaction requires both—they are fundamentally different concepts. Understanding the difference and being able to convey this to frontline staff is essential for taking both to the next level at your vacation rental company.

So, what IS the difference?

To me, providing “guest service” is more about delivering experiences that at least meet—and hopefully exceed—expectations. Fundamentally, this requires providing a safe, secure, clean, updated, and comfortable rental, which is of course is the starting point. On top of that, excellent guest service requires using communications essentials that rise above merely being polite. A few examples would be:

  • Holding eye contact with guests long enough to exchange smiles.
  • Using open body language.
  • Excellence in telephone communications; (i.e., a positive greeting, asking for and using the caller’s name, asking permission to place them on hold, supervising call transfers, and ending the call by offering additional assistance, restating the caller’s name, and thanking them.)
  • Using guest names conversationally.
  • Using the language of hospitality. For example:
    • Say, “Allow me to check on that,” not, “I’ll have to check on that.”
    • Say, “May I suggest that you…” instead of, “You’ll have to…”
    • Say, “You are most welcome,” as opposed to, “No problem.”
  • Expressing empathy and apologizing when things go wrong.

And yet, I would argue that it is entirely possible for our frontline staff to use all these communication techniques and still not even come close to delivering a hospitality experience. As a case in point, I’m sure all readers have had customer service experiences where the associate delivered the “product” as expected, and on top of that, said all the right things. However, it was all spoken in a way that felt scripted, robotic, and considered disingenuous.

Top leaders know that hospitality is, at its core, a philosophy for living—much more so than it is a script or list of “service standards.” To start, let’s look at the root of the word itself, which is derived from the Latin word “hospes,” a word having the diametric meanings of “guest” and “host.” Dictionary definitions of the word “hospitality” all generally include some version of receiving guests in a way that is warm, generous, and friendly.

For decades now in my on-site hospitality training workshops, I often ask participants to work in groups and to formulate one collective definition. Their results are always interesting and insightful, but the best one yet came out of a group many years ago when they reported back with this definition, "Hospitality means caring about, as well as [caring] for, others."

In this industry, when we care for others, we’re basically doing our jobs. We clean the spaces, fix what is broken, and provide a key in exchange for their credit card. Yet when we care about our guests, we understand that the person on the other side of the desk, counter, phone line, or text message exchange is a real person going through a uniquely personal travel experience. This is especially true in the vacation rental segment of lodging, wherein we are hosting larger parties for longer stays that are typically centered around special occasions or annual get-togethers. However, many guests are also experiencing more somber occasions.

We need to train our associations to not only imagine that guests might be in town for a wedding, a milestone birthday, or an annual family vacation, but also for more serious or somber occasions, such as a memorial event. Those who have achieved KTN’s “Certified in the Heart of Hospitality” status should definitely remember another definition of hospitality we at KTN use, “Hospitality is the delivery of human kindness, especially to strangers.” 

However, perhaps the very best definition I have ever heard or read anywhere was uttered by a true industry icon Howard Feiertag, who has been my personal mentor and friend for 33 years. In fact, to this day Howard is still a mentor to many, as he has been a fixture on the hotel conference speaking circuit for longer than I have known him. Around 1990, Howard joined Virginia Tech as an adjunct professor, where he still teaches and inspires students every day. In 2019, Virginia Tech honored Howard with a lifetime achievement award and simultaneously announced that they were renaming the entire program in his honor (it’s now known as the Howard Feiertag Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management). During his impromptu “off the cuff” acceptance speech—obviously spoken from the heart that night, Professor Feiertag gave, what I think, is truly the best and certainly the pithiest definition ever spoken. “Hospitality is making people feel good,” he said, “and when we make them feel good, it makes you feel good too!”

So leaders, at your next weekly departmental meeting or pre-shift lineup, take a few moments to discuss with your team the true meaning of hospitality, making certain to differentiate it from the concept of guest service techniques.

 

Watch the above segment of Howard’s speech in this video at the 6:20 timestamp.

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