The Most Valuable Asset

Last week I traveled with my nine and ten year old daughters to visit a school we’ve been considering for next fall.  With two flights, we were in the less than friendly skies and at airports for almost eight hours.  By the time we reached our hotel, we were not in the best of spirits.

This is a hotel we stay at frequently.  It has a long and storied history, represented by pictures in the dining room of past guests, including Shirley Temple and Winston Churchill.  For decades, it boasted a legendary Sunday brunch that was a must for occasions like Easter and Mother’s Day.  But the brunch was no longer and several years ago the hotel was bought by another chain.

We checked in, rode the elevator to our floor, and dragged our luggage down a long hallway to the last room.  When I inserted the key card, the light on the door flashed red. I tried again and again with no greater success.  So we dragged our luggage back down the hallway, took the elevator down to the lobby and walked back to the front desk.

I explained what had happened, and was promptly asked if I had inserted the key card the right way. The conversation went down hill from there.  By the end of it, my prefrontal cortex was working overtime to control my anger-generating amygdala.  My innocent daughters looked up at me and asked why the woman behind the counter was so mean.

As we went back to the elevator, a bellman walked up to us and immediately started apologizing.  He asked if he could ride up with us, and once in the elevator, he again apologized.  I told him that we had often stayed at the hotel and nothing like this had ever happened under the previous management.  He said that the new management had kept most of the old employees, but also had hired some new ones and we were unfortunate enough to have encountered one of them.

This man was masterful at making us feel better and at almost overcoming the bad taste in our mouths from the treatment we had received.  For the rest of our stay, he made us feel at home, and so did the rest of the staff.  It felt just like old times.

If it had not been for the bellman and his obvious love for the hotel, this would have been our last stay.  It isn’t hard to calculate the incremental profit that would’ve been lost, and given how often we stay at this hotel, it adds up to a significant amount over the course of the year.

What makes this hotel work is it’s story.  It’s a bit worn and there are newer and nicer hotels near by, and ones that are less expensive.  But there’s no other hotel where people are quick to call you by name, where your waiter has been there forty years, and where the feeling of pride is palpable. Almost the entire staff lives the story of this landmark.

But not the entire staff.  I suspect being a desk clerk is not an easy job.  After seven or eight hours, I’m sure customers become quite annoying.  But being a bellman or a waiter isn’t an easy job either, yet the story they lived overcame any annoyance they might have felt.  Our bellman had only started his job a year or so before the hotel changed hands.  One suspects the difference between his attitude and that of the desk clerk was management.

The role of management should be to convey the story that takes people beyond feeling annoyed.  When the new chain bought the hotel, they also acquired this intangible story that made the hotel what it was.  Apparently, they failed to realize what they had bought. Their new employee was never told the story.

All the standard lessons are here: the importance of customer service, the cost of the weakest link in the chain, and the need to attend to details.  But there’s also another lesson and it’s about the story that takes people beyond themselves.  Although it doesn’t show up on the balance sheet, it may just be the most valuable asset of any business.

Several days after we had checked in to the hotel, my wife went for a run.  When she returned, she stopped at the front desk for another key card.  Sweaty and exhausted, she rode the elevator to our floor, walked the length of the hallway to our room and inserted her key card.  It didn’t work.

Leave a Comment