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"Let The Good Times Roll"
By Thomas J. Haas

The Financial Times just reported that according to the Conference Board data, consumer confidence in the economy has never been higher. An economist illustrated that spending would continue despite price increases in the travel sector (i.e. hotels, car rentals, etc.).

It wasn't long ago when the hotel industry suffered greatly from the over-expansion of the early eighties, the S&L debacle and the changes in the tax laws, which almost devastated the industry. Today, you have to beg for a room and practically do a soft shoe to get the proper attention. Someone mentioned that it has been years since he actually had a desk clerk look up from his or her computer screen and discover the customer in the flesh. So many hotels posture themselves as the perfect customer-sensitive industry, while many customers seem to be disturbed by the return of the striped pants and starched underwear of the hotel industry.

Recently, I witnessed a check-in at a hotel that was part of an international chain. The front desk was surrounded by international clocks providing the time in major cities like Tokyo, Madrid and Paris, much like displaying Italian plum tomatoes and olive oil tins to shout to the world that this is an Italian restaurant. Attempting to check in were at least 60 travelers from France. As the clock for Paris ticked away, the manager, who had not yet received his international check-in training, yelled in a very Southern drawl, "what is your full name, and what credit card do you plan to use?" - without the slightest merci beaucoup or sil vous plait.

Not long ago, I was in a hotel in California when at 4:30 a.m., the fire alarm went off. I crawled to the phone, not realizing that my approach was somewhat drastic, as the phone was right by the bed. I asked the operator to explain the problem. Her response, "I'm not sure, but the staff is checking it out." I waited until 6 a.m. for the "all clear" which never sounded. I had to ask the same operator what had happened. Instead of apologizing, she claimed that she told me it was a false alarm.

Just sit in a lobby bar and order vintage Burning Bush Chardonnay for $9 or $10 per glass. When you question the price, watch the personnel give you that startled look and proclaim, "after all, the wine is aged in oak-perfumed jugs and is definitely worth the experience."

The final coup was during the National Restaurant Association Show, I checked in at my usual downtown Chicago hotel, arriving after my daughter's college graduation, at 6 p.m. The lines at the front desk snaked around the lobby area and the prospective guests were not happy. "Sold out," "Over sold." "Dear sir, please be assured there is no problem." In hotel code, that is the time to worry. My room had been given away, and needless to say, I slept on a cot with one eye open as my roommate, while a close friend, had on apple green bikinis, which worried me.

What a difference between 1990 to 1998 and 1999. When the good times roll is the time to strategically plan to maintain, not destroy, a good thing. No matter what end of foodservice, hospitality or retailing, the customer is always king, and must be treated accordingly. When an industry takes good times for granted, it's usually the time to prepare for the downside of the bell curve.

While restaurateurs start to see the light at the end of a most difficult period, they should not make the same mistakes as the hoteliers. Put your arms around that customer and always remember, they are the ones who pay the rent!


Thomas J. Haas is President of Thomas J. Haas & Associates, Inc. Mr. Haas is a food service industry consultant specializing in strategic marketing, and is a leading analyst in the industry. Mr. Haas can be contacted regarding consulting and public speaking engagements by e-mail at haaspitality@aol.com.




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