Hotel puts heart and soul into service standards

by Ella Lee

Sonia Lau, director of human resources, The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong

To provide personalised services, Hong Kong's hotels need top-quality staff

As business visitors and tourists continue to arrive in record numbers, Hong Kong's hospitality industry is seeing sustained growth with new hotels opening every year. Many of these are small or medium-sized and compete for business by targeting a specific market sector for which they can offer tailor-made specialised services.

According to Sonia Lau, director of human resources for the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, the increasing number of so-called boutique hotels is a sign the market is becoming more fragmented, but also more mature. "They have around 200 to 300 rooms, and this size allows them to have a more personal touch and give their customers dedicated services," she explains. "In our own case, we target the upper end of the market and business travellers, who tend to require more attention."

The hotel's strategy has always been to focus on aspects of service, rather than just the "hardware", in order to give guests a memorable experience. Ms Lau points out that a worldwide customer database makes it possible to check the profile of guests who have stayed at other group hotels and may have certain preferences. This makes it possible to add a personal touch on arrival in Hong Kong by, for example, greeting by name, arranging a speedy in-room check-in and deliverying a specific choice of newspapers.

"If we know the guest prefers a non-smoking room with a king-sized bed, and to have a massage after arriving on a long flight, everything will be ready," says Ms Lau. "The aim is to anticipate our guests' needs and to fulfil even their unexpressed wishes." She adds that this leads to better customer retention and a high proportion of repeat business. Technology also plays a big part in getting things right. Most business travellers now rely on their notebook computers and having high-speed Internet access, so connections and networks must be fully reliable.

To assist the growing number of mainland visitors, who currently account for 12 per cent of the hotel's guests, staff are expected to speak Putonghua. Language training is provided, supplemented with training on cultural differences, correct usage, and the appropriate way of addressing VIP guests. However, no specific changes have been made to the interior design to attract more Chinese visitors. "Guests from the mainland usually want to be exposed to something different when they travel," Ms Lau notes.

Recruitment priority

Since expectations are now higher than ever, it is vital for new recruits to have not just the basic skills, but also the right "heart and soul". That means staff must start out with the right attitude about providing service and be ready to keep acquiring additional knowledge. For this reason, there are two types of training - in technical aspects of the hotel's day-to-day work and in "philosophical training". The latter is intended to inspire staff by showing them the different ways to create a unique experience for their guests.

"It is how we stand out from the crowd," says Ms Lau. As an example, she recalls how the hotel helped one guest propose to his girlfriend. They set up a romantic dinner inside their room, with champagne and a beautiful bouquet, rose petals formed a heart shape on the bed, and the engagement ring had been specially hidden in the dessert.

At the moment, intense competition is making it difficult to find enough recruits of the right calibre. This is largely because of the demand created by new four- and five-star hotels opening in Macau, which are attracting middle managers in various functions away from jobs in Hong Kong.

Workplace situations

Although there is a steady stream of graduates from local institutes which offer hotel management courses, Ms Lau has found the quality is uneven. She thinks the younger generation may not fully understand what it takes to cope with real-life situations in the workplace. This perhaps explains why the turnover rate is highest among staff with less than two years' experience.

To attract and retain good employees, the hotel focuses on opportunities for career development, rather than the basic financial rewards. Ms Lau also insists on employees having a say in their own training and career progress. "If they have stayed in one position for six months, they are welcome to apply for job rotation and will be considered for promotion," she says. "The staff themselves, rather than their supervisors, decide what they do and where to go. We want to cultivate a culture where people have ownership of their learning and growth."

More than room service

  • Emphasis on providing personalised experience for guests, which attracts repeat visits
  • Hotel staff must be creative and service-orientated
  • Competition from Macau is making it more difficult to recruit personnel with the required skills and experience
  • Policy of letting staff discuss training options and their preferred career path

Taken from Career Times 04 August 2006
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