A lot of leaders, including some with decades of experience who work at top-tier companies, do not fully understand the difference between “hospitality” and “guest service.”
These terms are often used interchangeably, yet while they are related, and while guest satisfaction requires both, they are fundamentally different concepts. Understanding the difference, and being able to convey this to frontline staff, is essential for taking both to the next level at your hotel, resort or inn.
What Is the Difference? Guest service” is delivering experiences that at least meet, and hopefully exceed expectations. Fundamentally, this requires providing a safe, secure, clean, updated and comfortable accommodation, which of course is the starting point. On top of that, excellent guest service requires communication that rises above merely being polite. A few examples:
Holding eye contact with guests long enough to exchange smiles;
Using open body language;
Excellence in telephone communications (a positive opening greeting, asking for and using the caller’s name, asking permission to place them on hold, supervising call transfers, and ending the call by offering additional assistance, restating the caller’s name and thanking them);
Using guest names conversationally;
Using the language of hospitality (“Allow me to check on that,” not “I’ll have to check on that”); and
Expressing empathy and apologizing when things go wrong.
It is entirely possible for a hotel colleague to use all of these communications techniques and still not even come close to delivering hospitality. As a case in point, I’m sure all readers have had customer service experiences in which the associate delivered the “product” as expected, and said all of the right things, but in a way that felt scripted, robotic and disingenuous.
Top-tier leaders know that hospitality is, at its core, a philosophy for living more than a script or list of “service standards.”
To start, let’s look at the root of the word itself, which is derived from the Latin word "hospes," meaning both “guest” and “host.”
Dictionary definitions of the word “hospitality” all generally include some version of receiving guests in a way that is warm, generous and friendly.
In my hospitality training workshops, I often ask participants to work in groups and to formulate one collective definition. Their results are always interesting and insightful, but the best one yet was: “Hospitality means caring about, as well as for, others.”
In the hotel industry, when we care “for” others, we basically do our jobs. We clean the rooms, fix what is broken and provide a key in exchange for their credit card. Yet when we care “about” our guests, we understand that the person on the other side of the desk, counter, phone line or email exchange is a real person going through a uniquely personal travel experience. We take time to imagine that they might be in town for a wedding, birthday or a vacation, but also it might be for a funeral, memorial service or at the start or end of a hospital stay. They might be in town on business to capture new sales, hire new staff, testify in a lawsuit or perhaps to layoff an entire team.
Another definition of hospitality is “the delivery of human kindness, especially to strangers.”
Howard Feiertag, a true industry icon who has been my personal mentor and friend for 33 years, said in a 2019 speech accepting a lifetime achievement award from Virginia Tech that “hospitality is making people feel good ... and when we make them feel good, it makes YOU feel good, too!”
Around 1990, Howard joined Virginia Tech as an adjunct professor, where he still teaches and inspires students at what is now known as the Howard Feiertag Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management. You can watch Howard’s speech on YouTube.
Hotel leaders: At your next staff meeting, shift lineup or management conference, take a few moments to discuss with your team the true meaning of hospitality, making certain to differentiate it from the concept of guest service techniques.