Rachel Gaffney’s Letter From Texas - Hospitality versus Service

I spent almost three months in Ireland this summer. Some of it was personal time, but the majority of my time was spent working. I stayed in hotels, dined in restaurants and cafés, hired rental cars, hired private drivers, escorted a tour group for eight days, booked sight seeing tours, used public transport and went shopping. I experienced some wonderful hospitality, but sadly, I (and some of my clients ) also experienced some terrible hospitality. And it is hospitality and service that I want to write about.

When I returned to Dallas, I was greeted with a leak in our shower. The plumber was called. He repaired the leak and that was that. Simple enough. I consider this to be a service or service. I did not expect the plumber to chat with me about my travels and ask how my flight was. I simply needed and expected him to repair the shower. When I check in to my hotel and the receptionist asks me for my reservation number and a credit card and issues me with a key, then a service has been provided. But when and if that same receptionist smiles and welcomes me and notices my address and asks about the climate in Dallas and proceeds to engage in conversation, then I am experiencing genuine hospitality.

Certain properties stood out this summer when it came to experiencing great hospitality. Tony Frisby at Dromoland Castle, Co Limerick, Shane Brett at Ashford Castle, Co Mayo, Carol Barrett at Dunmore House in Clonakilty, Harringtons Post Office & Cafe in Ardgroom, Co Cork, Kerry Coaches, Hertz Car Rental at Cork Airport, Jane O’Callaghan at Longueville House and Daphne Spillane at Ballymaloe House. I mention some names here, as these people seem to have ‘hospitality’ in their DNA.

When we arrived at Dromoland Castle, some of the ladies did not have anything planned and I thought it might be nice to book a carriage ride around the property and learn all about the history. Unfortunately, I did not pre book (I strongly recommend you do if you think you are interested) and there weren’t any times available until the following day. Then, whilst I sat enjoying afternoon tea with a few of the ladies, Tony Frisby walked up to me and asked if we could meet at the steps of the castle at 2pm and our carriage would be waiting for us. They had taken one of the horses out of the field and sought out our tour guide.

When staying at Ashford Castle in August, I was with a family from Dallas. We had enjoyed oysters for our lunch and they all remarked that these were some of the best oysters they had ever had. Later, I mentioned this to Shane Brett and asked where these came from. We had a dinner reservation that night. We were all invited to meet at Stanley’s 30 minutes prior to your dining time. We all sat around the raised bar and to our surprise the executive chef, Phillipe Farineau greeted us with different samples of oysters cooked and displayed on beds of seaweed. As if this weren’t enough, there was yet another surprise. In walks John Ward of Connemara Oysters. It was thoroughly enjoyable and as a result I plan on going back to arrange just such an experience with clients.

Carol Barrett, the proprietor at Dunmore House in Clonakilty looked after my group like a Den mother or house mother from an old novel. During dinner, (during the Taste of West Cork festival period) I distinctly remember leaning across to her and saying “ I feel as though I am in the middle of a Maeve Binchy novel”. I could not explain why I said that thing exactly to her, except to say that it felt warm and right. When we were leaving for the beach the following day, she had rugs, cushions and water bottles neatly stacked in wicker baskets for our afternoon. This was completely unsolicited and most welcome.

While spending a week in Ardgroom, on the Beara Peninsula, I met the Harrington family. Harringtons is the centre of the universe, well in Ardgroom anyway! It is the post office, the store, cafe, petrol station, bus service and hackney cab service. A bus broke down outside their door and a group of sodden German ladies walked in without much English between them. I watched in awe as Noralene Harrington brought them all in to the back of her home, made them cups of tea and coffee and ran their outer clothes through her tumble dryer to ease their discomfort.

I hired a car on two occasions at Dublin Airport. I had a problem with the first car in June and again another incident with the second car in August. On both occasions, the folks at Avis and Hertz at Cork airport could not have been nicer. Not only did they address the problems but they chatted and engaged and asked if I wanted to sit and have a coffee while I waited.

Jane O’Callaghan at Longueville House, well what can I say about Jane. Jane is possibly the elder lemon when it comes to hospitality and how things should be done. One of the ladies on my trip was commenting on a jacket her son had worn at the Great Taste Awards in London. It was indeed beautiful. True Irish craftsmanship. Jane insisted on getting the name and contact details of the tailor and then insisted on taking the lady the following morning to Limerick to be fitted for a jacket..

At Ballyamaloe House, we all sat outside and enjoyed tea, coffee and cream scones. Daphne Spillane walked out and heartily welcomed everyone to Ballymaloe. She chatted with them about their travels and asked where in the USA they all lived. The ladies have not forgotten this warm welcome, nor have I.

And lastly, but by no means least, someone or a group of people whom I believe need to be applauded loudly are the drivers in Ireland. These guys (I say guys loosely, forgive me if there are female drivers, I have yet to meet one) are simply amazing. Now drivers, I believe, almost belong in a category all by themselves. This is a topic I could talk about quite a bit. From the fabulous Dublin taxi driver who greets you at the airport to the coach driver to the private driver, these people are invaluable, talented and are at the very heart of hospitality. They act as more than driver. They need nerves of steel and have to deal with some very difficult personalities for hours on end and sometimes for days on end. A great driver makes a trip extremely memorable. I know my clients boast that they had ‘The Very Best Driver In Ireland’. Hats off to all the drivers over the years at Kerry Coaches and this year to the wonderful drivers at Emerald VIP Services.

I am not going to say where I experienced some terrible hospitality. It is not my place to publicly admonish, but these places have been noted. But what do we do? When you have a genuinely bad experience, and you speak to a member of staff about this and the reply you get seems somewhat rehearsed or contrived, does it inspire confidence? Here are some examples that I believe will only fuel your customers discomfort or anger. “Really, that’s very unusual, we don’t normally hear that”; “Thank you for letting us know, we will do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again”.

My favourite one this summer was when staff proclaimed something was not their job. “I don’t work in the restaurant”, or “I don’t work in room service”. During the late 1980’s I was working and training at the London Tara Hotel. Some may remember Eoin Dillon, the General Manager at the time. During my days working on the Reception desk in this 830-room hotel, if a guest asked me for a cup of coffee, it was my job to find someone to make that coffee and, if not, go get it myself. If I told a guest that I did not work in a restaurant, that I was a receptionist, I’m pretty sure Eoin Dillon would not have been too happy!

Surely, these are not fixes that cost money but simply the reminder to use some common sense? Ah but, it seems nowadays, that common sense is not all that common and that hospitality and service are two very different things.

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