What Is Hospitality?

Every restaurant operation has systems -- whether formal or informal -- including those for food quality, menu structure, site selection, financial reporting, marketing, and developing the competence of kitchen staff, servers, managers and support personnel.

Properly designed and implemented, these systems help assure the efficient delivery of products and services. While it is important that all these systems be functioning properly, none of them -- either individually or collectively -- generate hospitality.

Because they are rigidly systematized, many franchise operations can deliver their product with consistent efficiency but also without the experience of hospitality. Perhaps that is all their customers expect, but impersonal efficiency leaves patrons with a flat feeling. They have been fed but not nurtured. It is like a relationship without love and passion.

We commonly speak of service and hospitality as if they are one in the same, but they are actually quite different.

  • Service is a Monologue -- the efficient execution of a series of actions. Service is about efficiently doing what is expected. It can be delivered without any direct involvement from the guest.
  • Hospitality is a Dialogue -- an exchange between staff and guests, a bit of a dance. Hospitality is about doing what is UNEXPECTED ... and uniquely personal to that guest in that moment. It cannot exist without another person being involved.

Another way to think of this is that service is about what you DO. Hospitality is about how you ARE ... and that creates a problem: You already know how to teach people to become better at the things that they DO ... but how do teach people how to BE?

In many ways, hospitality is out of control. It comes from the expressed humanity of the provider not from a rigid series of actions. You recognize it when you experience it and yet you really cannot define what it is any more than you can adequately define your love for your children. You can talk about what you do for them or how they make you feel, but that isn't it.

So while we really can't define hospitality, it does have several recognizable characteristics;

  • Respectful - guests are treated with esteem for their worth and excellence as people
  • Present - the staff is AT the table when they are at the table with no distractions; they listen effectively
  • Responsive - complaints are quickly resolved in favor of the guest
  • Personal - guests are addressed by name; their likes and dislikes are known and respected
  • Non-Judgmental - guests are never made to feel wrong; they always receive the benefit of the doubt
  • Non-Intrusive - just as good service is invisible, hospitality does not call attention to itself
  • Relaxed - there is no feeling of being rushed or processed; the staff never shows signs of stress
  • Personable - the staff is always smiling and friendly, even with unfriendly or irritable patrons
  • Perceptive - guest needs are met before patrons even realize they had the need
  • Consistent - guests leave feeling connected although the specific execution may differ each time
  • Appropriate - the service always perfectly fits the occasion
  • Uplifting - the experience makes guests feel more positive; they "pay it forward" to others
  • Surprising - the staff goes beyond simple job requirements to do something memorable for guests

When coupled with effective support systems, all of these qualities create a compelling personal connection between your guests and your restaurant. The result is a stronger draw than either product or price. As top New York restaurateur Danny Meyer once told me, to rule your market you don't have to be the best at everything, you just have to be their favorite.

We have all patronized restaurants where the climate of the establishment draws us in. Every team member genuinely and warmly welcomes us and naturally treats us in a warm and friendly manner. It is obvious that their great pleasure is to be in service to us. We FEEL it ... and it feels good. These extraordinary establishments make it possible for us to have a memorable dining experience. We are drawn to return and tell others.

The difference is invisible and impossible to define, yet it is very tangible. You know when you have it and you know when you don't. That invisible "something," that spirit of hospitality, can be your compelling point of difference in an otherwise impersonal marketplace.

But the question still remains: What is Hospitality?

The best way we can describe that difference is to recognize that it shows up as a feeling. The feeling is generated by the prevailing state of mind of the restaurant's leadership and employees. It is invisible. However, like the wind, we feel its effects.

The Bad News: The spirit of hospitality is not something that can be taught as you might teach service sequence or job skills.

The Good News: The spirit of hospitality is an innate quality of all human beings. You don't need to "teach" it -- you just need to create and sustain a climate where it can emerge and blossom.

The Better News: We have learned how you can do exactly that ... if you can open your thinking to some fresh possibilities. We are even designing a support structure that will help you stay on track while this new understanding weaves itself into the fabric of your operation.

Hospitality is often defined as the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous manner. What's missing in the dictionary definition is the feeling.

Hospitality is not what you DO. It is the nature of your thinking when you and your staff interact with your patrons. The nature of your thinking always manifests as a feeling. So, hospitality may not be easy to define, but we know it when we FEEL it.

People generally look for the source of their experience in outside circumstance ("she made me happy; this business is stressful.") We are much like the magician's audience. When we watch the distracting hand we experience the trick as magic. If we watch the other hand we understand the trick and appreciate the skill of the misdirection.

The source of the feeling of hospitality will not be found in what you or your staff are doing. The tone or climate of your business is generated from the way you and your staff are thinking. Just as you cannot fake love, you cannot pretend hospitality -- everyone recognizes a lack of genuine caring.

Hospitality begins with the leaders of the organization and the way they think. To evolve the climate of your operation, genuine hospitality must originate within your own thinking. From there it will eventually shift the thinking of your entire staff. Anyone who has experienced hospitality knows that it MUST be genuine or it won't have real impact ... and it won't last.

Restaurants Build Communities