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Lucy & Johnny MaddenEnding the year on an optimistic note, Lucy Madden finds encouragement in the observation that a more relaxed approach in restaurants and hotels does not have to mean a lessening of standards, more a shift in emphasis

A local shopkeeper told me that she had overheard two of her customers who were availing of a midweek break in a hotel in town complaining that, unlike on a previous visit, they had not found a bowl of fruit and a vase of fresh flowers awaiting them in the bedroom. Diddums!

She and I both know that the hotel in question has struggled, as have so many, over the last few years just to keep in business and that they have drastically had to cut their prices to stay open, keep their staff and maintain a level of occupancy to keep afloat.

Hence the ridiculously small amount the couple were paying for their three nights and one dinner. That these guests should be indifferent to the difficulties facing the hotel and expect a level of service for which they were not paying, is a measure of the problems facing the business. Trying to compete with Nama hotels and at the same time deliver the little extras is not always possible. And yet.

In his recently published book ‘Grow’ JIM Stengel, an ex Proctor and Gamble CMO, states that research shows that the best performing companies are those who are driven by a clear purpose to make customers’ lives better. An observation, you might think, for the book of the blindingly obvious, and one especially relevant to the hospitality sector.

The recession necessarily hit especially hard in areas of discretionary spending. With corporate business gone, weekends away becoming ‘one night’ and the expectations of the public driving prices ever lower, survival has been at the cost of trimming unnecessary expense; but do we think like this at our peril? Not, I suggest, if we major on the one thing that costs us nothing – our smile, our welcome and our willingness to help.

The supermarket wars currently being waged between the German discounters Aldi/Lidl and the older stores are an example of what happens when Steigel’s theories of customer pleasing are ignored. A couple of decades ago our aforementioned local town had a thriving and permanent fish shop. Tesco opened a superstore and within it a fish counter selling similar produce. Our little fish shop could not survive the competition and within weeks it closed.

It was not long before Tesco had closed down its abundant fish counter and took to offering a narrow range of pre-packed fish in its chill cabinet. Was this an example of giving customers what we wanted or was it a cynical exercise in dominating the market?

We have seen countless similar practices down the years that no little tricks like branding the shopping aisles with Irish street names are going to disguise. ‘Every little helps’ indeed, but helps Tesco first.

Then along came retailers who have discovered what it is we really, really want, which is a limited range of high quality goods at low prices, where the shopping experience is designed to please rather than confuse with silly offers and is it any wonder that there must be a lot of worried people running the more established supermarkets? And as for loyalty cards, don’t get me started.

People should take heart from this shift in the market place because it demonstrates that less can be more, even in the world of hospitality. Masterchef judge and chef Marcus Wareing has relaunched his 2 star restaurants, recognising that people are bored with listening to waiters describing 10 ingredients and has said that chefs are relieved to shed the fine dining style; they don’t feel comfortable looking down on their customers. If we are seeing a more relaxed approach in restaurants and hotels it does not have to mean a lessening of standards, more a shift in emphasis.

Do we really need chocolates on the pillow and fruit bowls on the dressing table when we can get a nice smile instead.

Hilton ParkTogether with her husband Johnny & family, Lucy Madden runs their magnificent 18th century mansion, Hilton Park, Clones, Co Monaghan as a country house which is open to private guests, groups, small weddings and conferences. The restored formal gardens are also open by arrangement. Lucy is a keen organic gardener and also a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.




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