Luxury Hotels Face New Conundrum: Offering Service Without the Smile
A doorman outside the La Reserve hotel, in Paris, on Aug. 12, 2020. (Photographer: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg)

Luxury Hotels Face New Conundrum: Offering Service Without the Smile

Tyra Banks has emerged as an unlikely hospitality icon in 2020. No, the model-turned-businesswoman hasn’t opened a splashy resort. Her signature “smize,” a portmanteau for smiling with your eyes, has become inspiration for how to offer “service with a smile”—a hotel industry standard—when nobody can see your mouth.

Six months into the pandemic, with sanitation standards thoroughly reinvented and remastered, conveying warmth is the new hot topic among hoteliers and restaurateurs. Sure, there are tangible amenities—a bottle of Champagne with a note, perhaps—that convey welcome, but nothing substitutes genuine interpersonal service throughout the duration of a stay.

“Everyone is seeking a real personal connection,” says Jannes Soerensen, general manager of the Beaumont in London. In Europe, an industry magazine even launched a contest for hospitality employees with the best behind-a-mask smile.

Luxury Hotels Face New Conundrum: Offering Service Without the Smile

Tyra’s technique is simple. As anyone who watched America’s Next Top Model knows, it takes just a few minutes in front of a mirror to perfect. But it works best when it’s genuine. According to Raia Margo, a counseling psychologist whose work focuses on how we communicate emotions: “You can hear a smile when someone speaks, and you can certainly see it in their eyes.”

“Smizing” is just the start. Around the world, hotels have crafted a wide range of strategies to protect personal space while offering personalized service. After all, the stakes are high. As Soerensen says, “Individualized care is what sets one hotel apart from another.”

Chatting Is Out, Signaling Is In

Nailing the first impression is especially challenging when guests arrive with their guard up. “We have to really read the cues,” says Dino Michael, senior vice president of luxury brands at Hilton. “If you’re sanitizing your hands the second you get out of the car, we’ll offer to help but from a distance—rather than heading straight for your luggage,” he continues, adding that service is now more important than ever.

Hand gestures allow bellboys, doormen, and front desk staff to extend the feeling of hospitality, even when guests demand further distance. Already common in Asia—think Thailand’s hands-pressed wai or the ubiquitous bow—the practice is taking root now in U.S. and European hotels.

Among Hilton Worldwide’s 6,200 hotels, one gesture has become particularly commonplace: placing a hand over one’s heart. Hyatt, meanwhile, has recruited 30 of its hotels to create their own welcome gesture as part of its #NewHyattHello campaign, resulting in the heart-shaped joining together of arced hands at the Hyatt Regency Mainz in Germany, a double thumbs up at the Hyatt Regency Cartagena in Colombia and an air high-five at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue in Seattle. 

Marriott’s directive, according to Kristi Taglauer, general manager of Aloft New Orleans Downtown, was for each hotel to “come up with something that conveys listening and being present.” Her choice: the shaka, the sign for hello in Hawaii and hang loose elsewhere. “It’s easy, fun, and familiar.”

Eye Contact, Not Skin Contact

Luxury Hotels Face New Conundrum: Offering Service Without the Smile

More squarely in the smize camp is Oliver Schuschner, the resort manager of Nayara Springs, a sprawling resort in the Arenal region of Costa Rica. Compelled to formally retrain his staff in the science of human interaction after Covid-19 restrictions began, he stumbled across motivational speaker Vanessa van Edwards’s Science of the People, an online leadership and communications program meant to sharpen emotional intelligence. That’s where he learned about micro-expressions, which Schuschner describes as “brief, involuntary movements that appear on a person’s face according to the emotions being experienced.” Think smizing, but with less intention. 

Nayara’s staff got schooled in van Edwards’ philosophy ahead of reopening, and now do weekly 15-minute sessions to practice facial expressions with and without masks. “This is only the first phase of training,” Schuschner adds; learning to interpret body language will come next. After all, making the right facial cues matters only if you’re responding correctly to what guests are saying—be it with their words, eyes, or hands.

Smiles All Around

At London’s Beaumont, nothing replaces a real grin. After much deliberation, Soerensen outfitted his team with whisper-thin, see-through masks that cost $19 apiece and are made of a breathable, synthetic membrane. Now his staff has nothing hiding the pearly whites.

Other creative workarounds have emerged, too. When guests check into the Hilton Cartagena, for example, they’ll find happy headshots of the front desk attendants on duty visible along the plexiglass divider, so it’s easy to divine what they look like without face coverings. The 41-room Orania.Berlin, meanwhile, has taken a cheekier route: Everyone on staff sports a photo of their own smile on a lapel pin. Less literally, the Hilton Mexico City Reforma is applying smile stickers to the paper slots that hold your key card.

Not only hotels are getting in on the act. At Disney theme parks, employees have been spotted propping up a smile-on-a-stick of various characters (Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Pluto) in front of their masks. After all, what’s the happiest place on Earth without truly happy faces?

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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