The phrase “the new normal” has permeated the lexicon, but for businesses opening or reopening, times are clearly not routine. Restaurants in particular must take reopening seriously because the outcome will determine if the already strained business survives—or not.
Both employees and guests are ready to resume a pre-pandemic lifestyle that they remember, and the fundamentals for success in bars and restaurants remain the same as in 2019. But the industry underwent serious turmoil in the past year. Though it sounds strange to think of 2020 as a gift, this opportunity does allow leadership to examine various aspects of the organization.
While restaurant operators have a legitimate need to focus on financial metrics, financials are not the only area we need to focus on optimizing. Luckily, the second area of critical development is cost neutral and revenue accelerating: empathy.
Examining the hospitality culture of an organization allows us to re-establish our core beliefs and ensure that they are adopted by every employee. Hospitality is the reason guests come back, and as we look to shaping our business for success in the next decade, empathy is our competitive advantage.
As we continue to find unique ways to do more with less, now is the time to invest in creating relationships with new or returning guests in a safe way, while also ensuring that customers feel cared for, and know we care about them.
Conveying care and safety
Guests may be excited to add to their entertainment options, and employees want to see business-levels increase, but it’s important to recognize many patrons and staff still have underlying concerns that may cause stress. Sanitizer stations and removal of seats are gentle reminders that operations prioritize safety, but even as the allowable capacity of guests is increased, restaurants can convey safety in many ways.
Hospitality dictates that we take care of the obvious and unseen needs with equal focus. Do you have a host? Now is a great time to re-instill the habit of opening doors for guests.
The general reminders to wash your hands have been revived with great emphasis over the past year, but for hospitality workers this basic act has always been an impulse. You’re already buying hand soap; providing moisturizing soap for the staff is a simple way to show you understand, and care equally about your internal guests.
Adding a hands-free door opener for restroom doors can decrease the need to touch high-traffic surfaces. But moving a trash can closer to the bathroom door so guests can open the door with the towel they used to dry their hands achieves the same goal—for free.
Instead of impersonal sanitizer distribution stations, how about providing guests with a single-use sanitizer and moisturizer at the beginning of their experience as the new “hot towel”? These examples show how hospitality can be meaningfully applied even in the seemingly mundane, and these are easy wins for everyone’s enhanced safety and experience.
Non-verbal communication is said to be the largest factor is conveying meaning. Regardless of the timeframe hospitality’s primary tool hides in plain sight: the smile.
Think of a loved one smiling; now focus on the warmth you feel. Facial expressions evoke powerful emotions; and as a main expression of hospitality, smiling is one of the key elements of engagement.
Face masks obviously make it harder to offer emotional warmth to a guest, especially from a distance. During a busy service, a smile suffices as a symbol of understanding or acknowledgement.
Now, as staff and guests move around the establishment, we won’t be able to rely on our non-verbal expressions to respond to and connect with guests. We have to remind staff to slow down and speak more intentionally, clearly and empathetically during guest interactions.
A manager might have an initial reaction of, “I cannot justify encouraging my staff to slow down—we have a year of business losses to recover.” Fight this reaction, and replace the concept of slowing down with building meaningful connections.
As management teams plan their opening, or reopening, it is imperative to invest for the next decade of growth by prioritizing meaningful guest connections now. Guests that leave feeling cared for and cared about have a higher likelihood of returning when compared to guests who received high-quality products in a purely transactional experience.
By slowing down and prioritizing connecting with guests, staff members can gather more specifics about customers’ preferences, background and the reasons why they come in. When guests return, having an accessible profile that offers a comprehensive outline of their hobbies, preferences and desires allows anyone in the operations to better curate individualized experiences.
Customization and personalization increase the value equation for the guest, encouraging more return visits, which ultimately strengthening the long-term competitiveness of the operation. How do we encourage a guest to share enough meaningful information that we are able to create an avatar? By investing the time to build meaningful connections.
As we move forward from last year and into the unknown challenges of reopening, take care of your staff so that they work from a place of emotional stability, allowing them to meaningfully engage with their guests. As you balance the tightrope walk of financial and emotional management, remember that people crave genuine comfort and care.
Empathy is more critical now than ever before. The world has seen major changes, but our core mission has remained unchanged; caretaking, that is what we do.
The reality is that this moment in time is what we have been training for. Now go out there and make someone’s day.
Rory Brown is a lecturing Instructor, Culinary Arts – Restaurant Education & HVP at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.