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Mon 1 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Guest relations

Guest relations officers working at the coalface of the hotel industry discuss how their jobs can make or break a guest's experience.

Guest relations officers working at the coalface of the hotel industry discuss how their jobs can make or break a guest's experience.

What originally attracted you to work in guest relations?

Yvonne Boots:The University where I studied International Hospitality Management, CHN University in the Netherlands, constantly taught me the importance of guest satisfaction.

Besides all the theory they basically teach you in four years a way of thinking: make sure that everyone leaves the hotel with a smile on his or her face. 

Being a telephone operator is the first and, in my case, the best avenue to learning everything about a hotel.

During my internship at Courtyard by Marriott I realised how passionate I was about guest relations. Working as guest relations supervisor means that I have the freedom to go beyond expectations via innovative and creative signature touches.

Mary Lou Ortega:It is really nice to know that colleagues from previous hotels had enough confidence in me to recommend me for the job and I have found that I love what I am doing and it is now deeply ingrained in me to be of service to others. When I see a satisfied guest, it just means double the satisfaction for me as well.

Oscar Van Der Veen:Working in guest relations seemed like a natural progression. I originally started my career in luxury retail in London and Sydney and then moved into the airline industry. Hotels encompass a lot of similarities to the retail and airline industry and with my passion for the luxury industry Jumeirah Beach Hotel was an obvious choice.

Wojtek Orlewicz:I like challenges and people too. You have to have these two characteristics to even want to apply for this job.

Additionally, working in guest relations gives one a sense of freedom as you are not stuck behind the desk all day and have a great sense of responsibility. What can I say; I like to have a new challenge everyday.

Asmae El Haddad:I've always wanted to be in direct contact with guests and that was the reason I joined the cabin crew institute back home four years ago. Even though I am not flying now I am still in a place where I'm interacting with different guests on a daily basis and I am really enjoying the day-to-day tasks which are never boring as you have to deal with so many different tasks. This makes it interesting.

How did you get into the job?

Boots:I started at Courtyard by Marriott as a trainee about a year and half ago. During my traineeship at the front office, I set up the complete ‘pre-arrival experience' and ‘virtual concierge' but also I started getting guest relations agent responsibilities.

Directly after my traineeship Courtyard by Marriott asked me to stay and they offered me full-time employment as guest relations supervisor.

Ortega:I started my career in Dubai as a telephone operator. The position helped me first to become confident in talking to people, listening to their requests and complaints carefully.

This is where I started to understand the flow of the hotel industry and I do believe that being a telephone operator is the first and, in my case, the best avenue to learning everything about a hotel, about the area where the hotel is located and getting to learn about guests and guest service. It inspired me to continue asking questions and learning more and more and filing all the information away for the future.

I became so enthusiastic to learn the job of front office receptionist/cashier and reservations that I began cross training during my free time. It all eventually paid off because one morning as I reached my job I was offered the position of a reservations supervisor by my department head and I jumped on it.

As time progressed and I was fortunate to learn more and more about my chosen profession and industry and I had the opportunity to move into my present position here at the Radisson SAS Resort in Sharjah.I was honoured to become part of such a prestigious family of hotels.

Van Der Veen:I started my hotel career as business development manager, where I made sure that all my guests and partners received VIP treatment, looking after their preferred room allocations as well as amenities. After several years my passion for service drove me to work within operations as I wanted to be closer to the guest.

Orlewicz:It was autumn in Poland; I was a young smiling, energetic, completely-in-love-with-Fawlty Towers student and I met Sanne Emborg. She held the post of director of rooms at the time and I was filling in for the front office manager during my interview at the Marriott Executive Apartments Dubai Creek.

I got the job and fell head over heels in love with the atmosphere, the guests and fellow colleagues.

El Haddad:After my graduation my young age did not allow me to be cabin crew so following a recruitment trip of the Jumeirah group to Morocco I decided to take this challenge until the time when I would be able to fly.

However, later I totally changed my mind and decided to stay on the ground where I can have a normal life.

What type of challenges do you face in your role?

Boots:You have to be very organised to succeed as guest relations supervisor. You have to know exactly who is arriving when, which arrivals are part of our loyalty program, which issues require a follow up; good preparation will avoid stressful situations and avoidable mistakes.

Great service means for a guest that they never have to ask for anything. It is my responsibility to make sure that this is happening.

Ortega:I think it has to be the guest that I cannot manage to assist to their satisfaction, much to my sadness.

I am confident that I have represented my hotel well and given 100% of myself and my service but sometimes it just doesn't succeed.

I am fortunate that these are few and far between, but I remember each one and think what more I could have done. A dissatisfied guest will never be acceptable to me and I continue to strive to improve myself and my abilities to always offer 100% guest satisfaction.

Van Der Veen:Working in guest relations brings ‘surprises' everyday that really challenge you and make your job more interesting and motivating.

As Dubai's premier lifestyle destination, Jumeirah Beach Hotel has many activities and facilities to offer our guests. As a result, on any given day you might be dealing with many requests from securing a table in a very popular restaurant when it is fully booked, to organising unforgettable birthday parties for our younger guests.

Orlewicz:A challenge to me is making sure that all our guests leave the hotel with great memories. The key to making this happen is constant servicing and maintenance of your positive side, which in my case is not something new.

But to be more direct, challenges are plenty! It could be anything really: too cold, too warm, too much sun, too much rain, too long a wait, to short a stay, access here and access there, bed too soft, bed too hard, what shall I eat and why was the soup too salty?

El Haddad:When I first started the challenge was how to deal with so many guests and staff from different nationalities, which is not a problem any more for me now.

The main challenge for me now - after I got the promotion to guest relations manager - is how to manage my team effectively in very busy operation.

What is the most unusual guest request you've had?

Boots:I actually never receive unusual requests. An unusual request is a request that you have never heard of before; I'm trying to be as prepared as possible, then an unusual request might just be a funny one.

Ortega:The traffic congestions that guests experience in Dubai has really become a tremendous challenge and a big complaint these past few years, so many guests are asking to have a boat taxi to Dubai from our beach or helicopter taxis!

Van Der Veen:Well, as a true hotelier you don't disclose your guests' unusual requests, however there was a time when a guest wanted the suite to be decorated completely in red as this was his partner's favourite colour. Orlewicz:There are quite a few strange ones on the list but there is one that stands out quite a bit.

Let me start by saying that concierge knowledge is absolutely essential to succeed in guest relations. This brings me to a guest who requested that I help him find someone who is willing to export a large number of swans to the UK Since this guest was a very regular customer of ours, I couldn't say no.

I had to pull quite a few strings at the time to get to the source but I succeeded at the end. I can now say that there are Polish Swans in the UK and I was the one who helped them get there.

The diversity of both guests and colleagues is a truly unique experience in Dubai.

El Haddad:I can't forget a guest calling me requesting somebody from our staff to help him with his back while showering.

What are the most common requests you receive?

Boots:Tour inquiries and information about shopping.

It is very important for me to know where to buy what. Dubai is spread out over a large area, it is important that our guests are not wasting time by searching for certain products.

Ortega:Shopping. Snow skiing indoors. Restaurants. Some things never change!

Van Der Veen:The most common requests are definitely for complimentary upgrades for special occasions. Guests want to pamper themselves during these special moments, especially when it's an anniversary or honeymoon.

Orlewicz:I think here in the UAE the requests are different from those in Europe and might come as a bit of a surprise to my new colleagues in the field. A request for a room upgrade is the most common here.

As much as I would love to give the best room to all of our guests who ask for one, this is not always possible. This is where diplomacy begins.

El Haddad:Changing rooms, flight confirmations, late check-out are the most common requests in our work.

What makes your job easier?

Boots:There is a fantastic collaboration between all departments and the guest relations. Poor teamwork would make my life quite complicated. I am very fortunate that at the Courtyard by Marriott our collaboration is exceptional. I cannot deliver impeccable service on my own; impeccable service is a result of great team work.

Ortega:Our management at the Radisson SAS Resort Sharjah makes our job so much easier by having the confidence in us to allow us to solve problems and tend to guests' requests on the spot.

By believing in us, we can do our job so much efficiently.

We, of course, turn to our management when needed, but it is a positive feeling to know that we are trusted to do what is best at all times.

Van Der Veen:At Jumeirah we have more than 11,500 colleagues of 100 different nationalities working together and I have to say that this great diverse and dynamic team of colleagues makes my job easier. Jumeirah's hallmarks (that I will always smile and greet our guests before they greet me; my first response to a guest will never be no; and I will treat colleagues with respect and integrity) unite us all, we all live and breathe them.

I manage a team of 22 colleagues, and we represent 14 different nationalities and languages. This is really unique and can't be found anywhere else in the world. We know how to work together and how to compliment other departments such as the lounges, front desk and concierge, as well as the teams in our other Jumeirah hotels and resorts.

Orlewicz:All the other associates that I work with at JW Marriott, of course! Without them I would not be successful. Additionally any support received from my seniors and an occasional pat on the back always boosts my morale and I'm constantly motivated.

Dan:I am very lucky to have high performing team members that keep track of everything in the hotel as well as the preferences of our guests. When something has to be done, I know I don't have to worry.

El Haddad:It's the team work ; each individual contribution from our team is calculated from making the reservation till the check-out.

How do you usually handle any guest complaints you may receive?

Boots:I had a lot of training in solving guest complaints, but I've learned from my own experience that the most important factor is to listen.

The guest is not always "right" but they are always the customer and it is alright for the customer to be wrong. Sometimes complaints are solved immediately by listening to the guest. It's very important to place yourself in the guest's situation to understand why they are actually taking time to complain. Amenities like fruits are always much appreciated.

Usually the guests always appreciate a gesture; for them it's the confirmation that the guest relations manager understood the situation they were in and really want to make sure that they will enjoy their stay.

Ortega:The Rezidor Group has given us the tools in training on how to handle guest complaints and requests. ‘Yes I Can!' has proven time and again to be of great value in order that each of us makes a valuable contribution to the overall satisfaction of each guest.

Van Der Veen:Every complaint needs to be handled as an individual case.

Sometimes the guest simply wants to express their concern and just want to be heard, so it is important to give the guest this time and listen to them. 

This is actually the best tool to handle a complaint - to really listen to your guest.

Orlewicz:It is very important to use the LEARN method - Listen, Empathise, Apologise, React and Notify.

Being able to modify your approach with each individual, cater to their specific needs and show your guests that you genuinely care is the key factor. It is always important to remember that your guests are the sole reason for your role in the hotel.

El Haddad:Simple steps: one, listen; two, apologise; three, sort out the problem; four, make sure afterwards the guest is satisfied with the action we took towards his or her complaint.

From my experience in this industry I have realised that when the guest is complaining they are looking for somebody to listen to them and the more you let them speak the more they feel comfortable.

Have you ever received any unusual complaints?

Boots:Every hotel has got unusual complaints. Good preparation and common sense will avoid "usual" complaints, but certainly also the "unusual" ones.

Van Der Veen:The more unusual complaints are usually those that are out of my hands, such as weather conditions. Sometimes the guests think that I can solve it for them, but I can only wish.

Orlewicz:One of the funniest has to be that of a man who in fact was not staying at our hotel but was just having lunch at one of the restaurants.

He thought another customer across the restaurant was acting strange and nervous, fidgeting in his seat and looking over his shoulder. The man was having his lunch in the company of a young boy which added to the disturbing thoughts rushing through our visitor's head. Alarmed at the fact that the boy's eyes were screaming out for help he alerted the management and insisted we call the police immediately.

I went to the restaurant and located the man. It turned out that that he was one of our most regular customers, very well known to all and very much liked. I approached him to say hello at which time I discovered that the young boy with him was his grandson. I also discovered that the reason for the desperation in his eyes was the fact that granddad was feeding him spinach!

El Haddad:Indeed yes, once we had a guest complaining that his room has one bathroom only - and he was requesting to be moved to another room with two. However we did explain that all our rooms have one bathroom. Then he suggested doing such a room in the future.

What are the key qualities needed to be successful in guest relations?

Boots:The key quality is attitude. Candidates should be passionate about going the extra mile. Going the extra mile shouldn't be a hassle; they should smile while they are running this extra mile.

Ortega:Quick thinking; in-depth knowledge of the hotel, its operations, policies and possibilities; resourcefulness, logic and of course, an empathy with the guest.

Van Der Veen:To be successful in guest relations you need to be a diplomat as most of the time you are the front face and ambassador of the hotel. You definitely need to understand the different cultural expectations of international guests, be that an old couple from Germany, Japanese honeymooners or UK families which are returning to the hotel for the 15th stay.Working within guest relations, you also need to create the magic, exceed guest expectations at all times and make them feel like they are the only special guest in the entire hotel - even though you are dealing with approximately 2000 guests.

You also need to be aware of what's happening in your city, from sports venues and touring artists, to the most desirable gifts and best café lattes in town, and to be resourceful with your contacts.

Orlewicz:Patience and a lot of understanding. The ability to laugh at yourself and with yourself and of course to be able to detach from your daily tasks once the day is done.

El Haddad:Truly great guest relations are a key to success in any hotel business.

The main key is to have the passion about the job itself and to be a good listener and to approach guests to talk to them. Then they will open up and tell you the positive and negative points. Secondly all the staff members need to focus on the day to day tasks. Is it difficult to recruit good guest relations staff?

Boots:Recruiting the right staff is not extremely difficult. The most important aspect is attitude.

Guest relations agents should have a passion for pleasing guests and changing a negative aspect into something positive. Everything can be taught as long as the candidate has the right attitude.

Ortega:Location, location, location! I do believe that some areas are more difficult than others to find dedicated, loyal staff who have a true calling to serve others.

But it is by no means impossible. However, I probably have set my standards a little high over the years and always hope to see others come in who share the same sense of duty that I hope I portray.

Van Der Veen:It is definitely hard to recruit good guest relations colleagues. A pretty smile will no longer get you the job. When recruiting for guest relations it is important for the candidate to be multi-lingual, ideally with a hotel degree and preferably some hotel experience.

Confidence, conversational skills and presentation are all key elements for a successful guest relations colleague. People are the foundation of Jumeirah's success and growth; the strong culture within Jumeirah, our operating philosophy and value proposition is built on our people.

Jumeirah aspires to be an employer of choice for talent seeking a career within the exciting and fast-growing luxury hospitality industry and we pride ourselves on the proactive initiatives we have taken and continue to take to attract and retain great people.

Orlewicz:Yes. I find that there are very few people out there that have the knowledge, willingness, experience,and ability to entertain guests at a five-star hotel while working under constant pressure.

El Haddad:It is very difficult to recruit good guest relations staff, mainly because they need to be friendly and always in guest contact. Also to find qualified staff with experience is quite a challenge.

Are there any current trends in the guest relations area?

Boots:The standards in a hotel are going higher every day. What was a wow-factor today is an expectation tomorrow. Hence, it is extremely important to continuously be innovative and creative.

Innovative ideas and coming up with creative wow-factors lead to a more personal service.

Some years ago guest relations offered only fruit platters and complimentary bottles of wine to guests. Nowadays customised service is much more important in guest relations because different people have different needs.

Ortega: Since the market has opened in Dubai for foreign investment and home ownership, it seems that we are continually met with questions regarding hunting for opportunities to do business or to buy property in the area.

Van Der Veen:Guests are becoming savvier as they explore the world and experience new destinations, experiences and hotel brands.

The hospitality scene is booming and brands are reaching out around the globe. Here at Jumeirah we have ambitious expansion plans to have 60 luxury hotels and resorts open or under development by 2012.

Guest requests are also becoming more complex and tailored, from personal preferences to wanting to know that the hotel is recycling and using eco-friendly suppliers. Frequent flyer and hotel loyalty schemes are also becoming increasingly popular as everyone wants to be recognised and rewarded for their support and loyalty.

Orlewicz:I think one definitely worth mentioning is butler service. With such big competition in the market and so many great hotels guests can choose from, the way to set yourself apart from them is to continue providing the highest levels of personalised service.

To do that we are trying to create a system in which each of our guests will have one point of contact at the hotel that can assist with anything and everything. In-room technology and business savvy gadgets remain high up on the agenda.

El Haddad:To perform personalised in-room check-in for VIP and escorting each individual guest and explain the hotel facilities as well.

Is the guest relations area changing?

Boots:Guest relations is becoming more and more personal. Here at Courtyard by Marriott we don't have a concierge desk. However, having no concierge desk doesn't mean that these services are not offered by our hotel. These services are partly carried out by the guest relations, which makes it more personal.

Ortega:Guests are much more educated and well travelled than in the past. We have to be on our toes more than ever. In the past we may have been asked for best spots to dine, but today's guest has many more varied requests from technology to party planning to tourist requests.

Van Der Veen:The guest relations department is always evolving and this is something that makes the job so appealing. We often become support roles for sales, concierge and reception, so we need to also be multi-skilled and flexible to fulfil all the requests.

Orlewicz:Of course like everything around us guest relations is changing, shifting and reaching new levels of hospitality.

This is what it's all about really isn't it? Showing the busiest of travellers that they are still the most important to us and that we can care for them as though they where at home.

To do that we require greater manpower and therefore are always on the lookout for new people to join our team.

El Haddad:Doing reception, lobby hostess, club Rotana reception, keeping eye on the lobby and  reception. Basically the guest relations officers need to know about all the front office sections in order to assist whenever needed and also to give the correct information to the guests.

Are there any unique aspects to the guest relations role in the region?Boots:Working in the Middle East is quite different from working in Europe or anywhere else. At Courtyard by Marriott we highly respect the religion and customs. For example we ask the guests prior upon check-in if they would like to have an empty mini-bar.

Ortega:One deals in so many different cultures and traditions from the local residents to the global guests here. It is a continual challenge to be sensitive to each and every nationality in how we approach handling their requests and concerns and to avoid a possible false step in doing so.

I sometimes think our titles should be changed to ‘Intercultural Relations Officers'!

Van Der Veen:The diversity of both guests and colleagues is a truly unique experience to Dubai. Coming from Australia, I am used to working in multicultural environments, but Dubai is definitely something unique and this diversity can't be found anywhere else.

We also have some of the most iconic buildings in the world here and it is a pleasure to be a part of this expanding and exciting city.

Orlewicz:Yes, I think that Dubai provides the greatest amount of exposure to different cultures both with guests and fellow associates.

This gives the opportunity to discover and learn more then we would do in other parts of the globe. When I think of Dubai I think of it as a learning ground. A great start for anyone considering a career in hotel management.

El Haddad:In the Middle East you have many different cultures and different guest nationalities which makes is so different from the majority of places.

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