By Mark Ricketts President & Chief Operating Officer, McNeill Hotel Company
“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” ?? Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
The roots of hospitality stretch back into those proverbial mists of time, well before recorded history. Making space for others-physical, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually-is at first an intrinsic survival tactic in many situations. Achieving concord, not destruction. Within a given community, it leads to socialization, as we gradually extend our comfort zone beyond the nuclear family. Practically, the roots of hospitality encouraged exploration of new lands and the development of trading routes, in addition to mutual aid between nearby communities.
The word hospitality further signifies friendliness to guests and from the Middle Ages to more modern times, a “hospital” was more like a way-station on a journey, inn or place of refuge. Today, our modern medical hospitals and the practice of hospice; the hostels where tourists worldwide seek shelter and community; and our own industry share linguistic roots and sentiments.
Implicit in the act of being hospitable and the relationship between host and guest are not just a comfort in one another’s presence, but, also, the willingness to be open and honest with each other; to be trusting and non-judgmental. Therein lies the powers of those spaces between, as we realize the potential connections of mutual benefit.
Carrying the meaning and spirit of hospitality a step further, we must interpret the relationship between guest and host in a broader sense. This means extending hospitality not just to our paying guests, but, also, to our relationships with team members, related partners and host communities. These latter groups will be the focus of this article, although the connections made, of course, also apply to our services to guests.
It is hardly possible to over-estimate the personal, organizational, educational, health care and public safety disruptions and challenges we have faced over the last year. Like other industries, hospitality finds itself impacted by economic and social powerful crosscurrents. These include the seemingly unpredictable pandemic, with its serious illness and significant loss of life, giving rise to issues over access to health care and, more recently, delivery of promising vaccines.
Moreover, even as these vaccines are proving effective and gaining population penetration, we still face spikes of Covid-19 cases, more transmissible variant strains and demands on health care facilities. To these we can add disrupted education at all levels; severe unemployment and economic loss; and social disharmony that keeps boiling over in strange ways.
As monumental as these impacts have been, the reality is that we must find our way forward. There remains an urgent need for all of us in the United States and globally to find common ground, as we look forward to recovery and a semblance of normalcy in the coming year.
Without being judgmental of any one person’s values or goals, it is incumbent upon business leaders to, as much as possible, “Be a part of the solution.” Fortunately, our hospitality industry is well suited to a local and national leadership role, helping out in practical ways wherever and whenever possible, while encouraging common courtesy and mutual respect in our dealings with each other. Who is better suited to this task of recovery and healing than an industry founded on people serving people. It’s in our core DNA.
As admirably as the hospitality industry has responded to business and personal disruptions brought about by the pandemic, there is no denying the profound effects it has had on each member of our hospitality organizations. At times, half or more of our hospitality staff have been unemployed or underemployed, while often being charged with new responsibilities, whether it is helping care for an ill family member or becoming a teacher’s assistant for remote schooling.
We must seriously consider the impact of these experiences on the career progression of individuals within our organization for whom we hold high regard, as well as how we will be able attract new talent to an industry so drastically impacted by the pandemic. This era of reduced personal interaction may have strained relationships, letting uncertainties creep in.
Maintaining solidarity begins with trust and, for leadership, that begins with frequent, straightforward communication, as well as corporate sponsorship of realistic, cost-effective programs. Supporting team members in this way can take a variety of forms, including vaccination or voting drives, helping staff find needed childcare, addressing mental health issues, or offering confidential professional consulting help.
National organizations like Marketplace Chaplains or working with social services groups in the community can be extremely valuable, both, practically, in helping team members address family or personal issues and, organizationally, in demonstrating concern for every person’s well-being as a core value.
Simple, thoughtful gestures are also important. They include shout-outs of appreciation at daily staff meetings, sharing positive guest reviews or holding weekly lunches. Let’s treat our own people as “guests” now and then, reinforcing what we stand for as hoteliers.
“The discipline of hospitality might be the greatest example of this idea I’m desperate to advance: our political beliefs and advocacy are not primarily built on grand, sweeping claims to which we mentally assent; they are often built on ordinary impulses and biases that we inherit and absorb in small, everyday actions.” ?? Kaitlyn Schiess, The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor
Furthermore, this is the time to forge ahead with other meaningful programs like addressing issues of diversity and inclusivity in our society. Now, we do have everyone’s attention. We live in a diverse nation and society and our industry gains when it reflects that reality, which includes the guests we serve. A diverse workforce and executive team offer perspectives different from that with which any single one of us may be familiar. It brings more voices and objectivity to the table.
Research also indicates that organizations with executive diversity achieve enhanced performance. Moreover, the more diverse we are, the better we will be able to attract new people to our organizations and industry as a whole. This is extremely important as we emerge from this pandemic.
This policy can be formulated through a Diversity & Inclusivity Council working group that functions independently of one’s human resources department, with its own bylaws and budget. Such groups can also be tasked with developing their own agendas and monthly programs, which will build upon the initial diversity training sponsored by brand partners. Valuable programs could include Black History Month, Women’s History Month, recognition of individual cultures, examining and supporting access to voting, or addressing the issue of unconscious bias.
In this way, we step outside our comfort zone and have an excellent platform with which to honestly and openly discuss the many facets and challenges we face in working together, whether at the property level or our greater society. Programs like this must be part of what we mean when we say that our associates should be empowered on the job. Clearly, programs like these only work when great communication and trust already exist within an organization.
Our Ties of Humanity With Our Host Communities
This leadership role that all our people can embrace extends to our friendly and generous reception of guests, visitors and strangers to our properties. A hotel, metaphorically and often in reality, is one of those rare buildings without any locks on its doors.
We have already stepped up to the plate as an industry as the pandemic unfolded, even as we were slammed with dramatic drops in occupancy and our staffing levels were reduced, whether hosting first responders, National Guard units, medical personnel or those who needed to isolate from a family member. The American Hotel & Lodging Association has volunteered hotels as community vaccination centers.
At the same time, many properties have made sure to continue their contributions to and involvement with valuable community organizations and programs. These efforts include on-site activities like blood drives, raising funds for groups like Make a Wish Foundation or the Humane Society, or preparing gift kits for seniors or children of need. Hotel teams are discovering creative ways to stay involved in their communities, while still being careful about social distancing and other precautions.
To say this last year has been a profound learning experience is an understatement. No one has been error free, but, on balance, our industry can be extremely proud of the way we have handled adversity. Our training, organizational structures and passion for hospitality had prepared us well.
Moreover, we have learned important lessons about ourselves. Our resourcefulness. Our passion for our loved ones, our friends and neighbors and the people we work with daily. In ways only our industry can do best, let us continue being hospitable in its fullest sense, contributing to the healing for which we all long.