Rachel Gaffney's Letter from Texas

Rachel Gaffney

The famous foodie who’s flying the tricolour for us in Texas reminds us that businesss is business and beautiful properties are not enough - people will vote with their feet if hotels don’t provide the best possible service as well

The sun was shining in Dublin. The white linen tablecloth was starched and, coupled with the freshly cut flowers and streaming sunlight, the table was perfect. And, that is where the perfection ended.

There were three of us seated for breakfast. A waitress walked to the table and handed us a menu. She did not utter a word, merely handed us the menu and walked away. Two waiting staff stood like soldiers surveying the bright and cheery drawing room, but sadly their demeanor did not match the atmosphere of the room.

When the waitress returned to the table one of our guests expressed a desire for a fresh fruit smoothie and asked what his choices might be. The first thing out of her mouth was “ Sir, you will have to pay extra for these, as they are not included with your breakfast “ Now we had at least established she was able to speak. He replied “ Right, ok, but what are my choices?”

The exchange that followed can only be described as embarrassing. Embarrassing to her parents (and yes, I blame parents for not raising children with manners) embarrassing to herself and probably more importantly it was embarrassing for the hotel, as it would be these experiences that decided whether or not he would return to this property.

I ordered a coffee and the third member of our party asked for some hot chocolate as, since arriving in Ireland, she had become rather partial to all Irish milk and was ordering creamy drinks wherever we went. I am not going to go into the conversation verbatim but suffice to say it was infuriating.

The feeling that began to arise from all of us was one of frustration. Just the simple task of ordering a beverage was laborious to say the least. I could tell that my travel companion was getting uneasy and I immediately tried to diffuse it by being the anodyne here. She had an air or indifference about her, as though we were inconveniencing her in some way.

I have not written about this topic, but after six weeks this summer travelling around Ireland and staying in many different types of properties, I felt it might be time to address it. There seems to be a pattern here, or at least there certainly was for me.

The properties I experienced this lack of service, I am very sorry to say were what are generally considered to be the best, the four and five star properties, the big box properties, the chains and so on. Hopefully you understand where I am coming from.

This topic is very probably going to upset a lot of people and I am bracing myself for some negative tweets and emails just like the ones I received before when I did not name or single out a property I had a difficulty with. In this article I am aiming to address the age old topic of service and hospitality.

If housekeeping staff spend endless hours cleaning and tending to every detail in your room, freshening your towels and turning down your freshly made beds in the evening, if the grounds keepers toil in the rain and cold ensuring the lawns are mowed and the roses are pruned, the kitchen staff labour in the heat, peeling and chopping, frying and boiling, artistically creating dishes and introducing us to local and sustainable ingredients, then I have to ask this one very important question: “ What is their time and energy worth if a guest leaves your hotel, remembering that getting a smoothie was so difficult, that someone threw your bill on the table, or made you feel that you were inconveniencing them, that staff could not be bothered to greet you, and that the bar tenders were so utterly cold? ” (The latter is probably another topic, to address separately.)

I could list each and every place where I, and many of my clients, have experienced this lack of service. I am not going to do this. Again, as I said in a previous article, I am not an hotel critic, nor am I in the business of shaming people publicly.There are many people out there who make it their business to do this, and even seem enjoy it, but I will leave itto them.

Rather, what I would like to do is to open a constructive dialogue about service in hotels. Should we blame that individual? Should we blame their manager? Should we blame the general manager? In my opinion, probably all of the above but, more importantly, what is happening and why is this happening?

How is it that I can travel to certain parts of the country and the service in a small country house, guest house, castle or guest house can be exceptional and then travel to other parts and the service, especially in what is seen as the upper end of the market, is appalling. This is not exclusive to Dublin. I experienced the same disappointments in other areas.

I spent many years training and working in the hotel industry in Ireland and England, so I know only all too well about the long and unsociable hours, the low pay - and the very difficult guests too. Yet, that cannot and should not be an excuse.

While I was in Ireland people said to me that Irish people are not going in to the service industry any more and these jobs are all taken by Eastern Europeans. Let me set the record straight here, the people I found to be exceptionally rude and arrogant were not Eastern European but Irish, so let’s leave nationality out of this.

I should imagine that there will be people reading this article who know exactly what I am talking about. Perhaps you too had a similar experience. Staff who seem to have a chip upon their shoulder, who seem worn and out and ragged, generally uncaring or rude. It seems that demarcation is alive and well.

When I asked one lady for a coffee in a small hotel bar one morning, she said I needed to go to another part of the hotel to get the coffee as she was only serving in the bar. I was the only customer in the bar! This, I might add, was a luxury resort.

When I walked outside and found someone in the lobby I asked if they could help and she said “There should be someone in the bar to help you”. She even went as far as to escort me in there to prove to me there was someone working in there. I turned to her and said, “I beg your pardon, but did you not believe me?” WRONG, WRONG, WRONG…. what they should have done or said was so simple: “Absolutely, what kind of coffee would you like and we will bring it to you.”

Why is that during all my years working in the bar, working at reception, working in reservations departments and reception, and later in sales and marketing, that I would always say “Absolutely, what kind of coffee would you like, and we will bring it to you” even when it was not my job?

The reason quite simply was that it WAS my job. It may not have been my job to abandon my current task and go grind the beans, boil the water, lay the tray and pour the cream but it absolutely was my job to find someone who could do this, someone who did work in room service or in the kitchen or even in the worst case scenario (which I have done many a time) make it myself. After all, what was the worst that could have happened to me? I was hardly going to be fired for helping a guest.

I spent many a year working and training in the London Tara Hotel, which was owned and operated in the 1980’s by Aer Lingus and managed by Eoin Dillon. Service and quality always did and always does come from the top down.

Who is monitoring our service people? Are we training them and leaving them simply to their own devices? Are we sending in people casually to observe and follow up with further training and pointing out how they can handle things differently? I do not know the answers to these questions. What I can share with you is this. During my stays at these properties, I did ask to speak to the managers. I felt as if I could that because I was a paying guest. I have to wonder if all of these free stays for reviewers, bloggers and social media gurus are contributing to this in some way.

Consider this if you will. You are a blogger and/or travel writer, you have an Instagram and Twitter account and you have thousands of ‘followers’ so you get a complimentary stay at a beautiful property. They spoil you with a day at their spa, they know you are staying so you get a great room with a wonderful view and your meal is included. Now consider this, you experience what I experienced with the wait staff and/or the bar staff, do you write about this negative experience and do you ask to speak to the general manager.

If there is a blogger/travel writer out there, who can honestly say they have hand on heart received a complimentary stay and complained or written about the poor service then I tip my hat to you. I commend you for your bravery, for it is indeed a difficult thing to bite the hand that feeds you. How does one complain about something when it was free?

My clients over here in the United States are very good at giving me their feedback and there is a pattern with their experiences also. They have told me about the poor service in the very same places where I have experienced it too.

I think what bothers me most is that when I, or my clients, have addressed this with a manager, they often seem to get defensive. For anyone in the hotel industry who is reading this, let me give you an actual a monetary example. People will and do vote with their feet. I did.

Whilst I was in Ireland, I received a call from Dallas. It was from the CFO of a technology company. They were planning an executive board meeting for 9 people and needed an hotel for a weekend.

I know from experience, that any property would like this piece of business. Why? Because they needed everything from suites, all meals, board rooms, afternoon coffees and teas, bar in the evening, room hire, projectors etc. In other words they were spending substantial money in that hotel.

Well that hotel where we started with our embarrassing breakfast experience lost the business, and it was worth €17k. I had to move it somewhere else simply because of a junior member of staff who was not listening to my requirements and was not following up with proper communication, despite the fact that I was staying in that property.

I am now charged with finding somewhere for this company again next year as they eventually enjoyed their stay in Ireland so much, but I will and do point out to my clients that, although some properties look really lovely, they should choose the places where I know they will get great service.

Have you experienced any of the above and if so I would love to know how we can open the dialogue in a constructive way. After all, getting things right is a win win for all of us.

Rachel Gaffney's Real Ireland


: Rachel Gaffneys Real Ireland
Follow me on Twitter: @Rachelgaffney

Email: Rachel@Rachelgaffneys.com

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