In a divisive, financially drained, fear-deluged post-9/11 era during which every cent counts, the choices we make around travel and dining out are fraught with anxiety. If we're already worried about whether the stranger behind us in line is the next Fort Hood gunman and whether we'll still be employed -- or alive -- six months from now, then hotel rooms and restaurant meals take on whole new meanings, from Can I afford this? to Is this meal my last?
"The economy has played psychological warfare on our industry," affirmed Andrew Freeman, founder of San Francisco-based Andrew Freeman & Co. Hospitality and Restaurant Consultants, when I interviewed him recently about the psychology of hospitality. Tough competition mandates new strategies. In what Freeman calls "an era of experiential living," traveling and dining out are about much more than just being hungry or needing shelter for the night: "You have almost unlimited choices and everyone's vying for your business, so what it comes down to is how you expect to be treated in someone else's hands."
Those expectations play on a wide array of very personal issues of which the customer might not even be fully conscious, "such as the way a chair feels and whether the lighting makes your skin look good when you feel haggard," and even the design and condition of restaurant menus.
"It starts with the phone call when you're making reservations. How does the voice on the other end sound and what does it say? You wouldn't believe how psychologically loaded simply making a reservation can be," mused Freeman, who worked for ten years with Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants and was vice president of public relations and marketing at the World Trade Center's Windows of the World, guiding its re-launch after the first WTC bombing in 1992. As for restaurant menus, "if the menu has a typo or your copy is stained, then there's a perception -- yes, your mind can work that fast and make these judgments -- that the kitchen is dirty or that the management is careless." Listing menu items in increasing price order, starting with the least expensive, is a grievous error, Freeman explained, as it makes diners hyperaware of their wallets and hypersensitive about being perceived by companions as "cheap."
As leisure travel becomes more of a precious rarity and business trips are further and further curtailed, a primary concern among hotel-seekers these days is ultra-convenience.
"Face it: Traveling isn't as much fun as it used to be, and the guest today is thinking: Please just make my life as easy as possible," Freeman told me. As a result, hotels strive to find ways to save their guests time and trouble, whether this means offering high-quality dining and shopping on the property; maintaining personal-preference profiles for repeat visitors; or offering extra safety options for female travelers. The message is one of reassurance and competence; Freeman sums it up as: "Forgot it? We've got it."
"If you do it right, then hopefully you get that big 'sigh moment,' when the guest says: Yes. They really get me. They understand what's important to me," Freeman said.
And what is important? While the answer varies as much as guests do, a key factor in the psychology of hospitality is the abiding sense that "hotels are an extension of home -- but with an air of escapism. At hotels, you don't have to make your bed in the morning. One of the pleasures of a hotel is coming out of a shower, throwing your towel on the floor, and knowing that when you get back to your room later that day, the towel's going to be picked up and your bed's going to be made."
Now more than ever, that old hospitality-industry cliché "at your service" is a selling point. Some hotels are offering mini spa treatments. Others offer on-site activities such as art workshops, fashion or cooking demonstrations and social-networking events such as wine evenings and teas. "A lot of hotels now are going after the gay market," Freeman said. For the gay traveler, as for all travelers, "the big psychological issue is: How am I going to be treated? I don't want to feel any disrespect. I don't want them to automatically offer me and my partner two separate beds because we're two men. I want the staff to understand this when we arrive."
In hotels and restaurants, stuff goes wrong and stuff goes right. And it's human nature, Freeman said, to focus on the wrong. "We all love to tell war stories of our own bad experiences as diners and guests. It's much more fun to say, 'I found a piece of glass in my salad' than 'Mmm, I had this amazing salad the other night.'
"We in the industry have to always be prepared for the wrongs, because they happen. If a server walks over to your table and he's clearing away the entree dishes and you haven't touched your food and he asks you why and you say it's because you weren't hungry, you're almost certainly lying. I'd rather the server just dig in and find out the truth. I want him to ask you, Was there something you didn't like about the dish? You can change a negative to a positive in the moment, but once that moment is gone -- it's gone."