I attended a panel of local restaurateurs and hoteliers this week to hear how some of the most notable hospitality veterans in Boston create exceptional restaurant guest experiences. The event, called “Design in Boston: Creating Memorable Hospitality Experiences,” was hosted by General Assembly and turned out to be jam-packed hour of advice and notable takeaways from some of Boston’s best.
As a Boston resident for eight years, I was in awe at the local star power on this panel, which was moderated by Boston foodservice veteran Greta Thomas. The panelists included: Garrett Harker, owner of such Boston staples as Eastern Standard, The Hawthorne, and Island Creek Oyster Bar and former GM at No. 9 Park; Alyssa DiPasquale, Director of Communications at Cushman Concepts and former manager at award-winning restaurant O Ya; Lauren Recchia, Marketing Director at The Verb, a funky, rock and roll hotel two blocks from Toast HQ; and Allison Finney, Operations Manager at music hotspot The Sinclair.
Here are a few key takeaways from their discussions on restaurant guest experience:
Treat Everyone Like a Regular
The panel discussion started off with the concept of “being a regular” and immediately inspired me to start going to the panelists’ restaurants more frequently. They understood very well that warm, fuzzy feeling of being at home in a restaurant, whether it’s a dark dive bar or a fine dining establishment.
“Our mission is to surprise and delight. If we can add one detail to your experience that makes it a little more memorable, we do it. We treat you the same whether you have your initials engraved on the bar or you’re coming in for the first time. That’s the key to building and keeping a foundation of regulars.” -Alyssa DiPasquale @alyssamikiko - www.o-ya.restaurant
Allison, whose ‘customers’ are up-and-coming local bands, said that the Golden Rule of treating others like you want to be treated extends to vendors as well. “I’ll treat you the same whether you're a band that sells 10 tickets or 200,” she said. “We want them to remember that experience and to see it as a sign that we believe in their talent."
Collect Customer Feedback
With such an emphasis on doing whatever possible to delight guests, the topic of customer feedback inevitably came up. It’s really the only tangible measure of an intangible guest experience.
“There’s Yelp! and TripAdvisor and blah, blah, blah,” said Alyssa (I chuckled), “But I think an anonymous, private communication between a guest and a restaurant is the most important part of measuring feedback.” She talked about the personal thank-you notes that she’s received from customers.
Everyone in the room agreed that customer feedback was important, but there wasn’t a clear consensus as to how to collect this feedback in a scalable way that wasn't public on the Web. It was suggested that there could be an entire panel dedicated to how to collect customer feedback. I would argue that integrated technology has something to do with it. Who wants to join me?
Respond to Negative Experiences
Customer feedback is great to have, but it’s easy to get discouraged by the trolling that happens on the Internet. No matter how focused you are on creating an exemplary experience, there are always mistakes and factors outside of your control.
“Sometimes we’re going to fall short, but whenever we underperform or miss an opportunity, we’re never going to give up. Some of our best regulars are people we’ve done terrible, terrible things to,” Garrett said with a laugh.
Garrett told the story of a busser who dropped butter on a guest’s shoes soon after the restaurant opened. After offering to pay for any damage done, the guest told him that the shoes were actually a gift from Pope Jean Paul II and likely irreplacable. Despite the almost unbelievable shoe situation, that overall experience was so enchanting that the guest became a beloved regular at the restaurant for years.
Each panelist echoed a similar sentiment - you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, but you should always address it.
Online review sites like Yelp! and TripAdvisor have really changed the customer feedback landscape. Studies show that guests are as much as 50% more likely to write a negative review than a positive one. You’ll likely hear more about the horrible experiences than the fantastic ones.
“Even if it’s a crazy, unintelligible rant online, our GM responds to it. You have to suck up your pride, take the feedback, be sincere, and give them something in return. When you respond publicly, it shows how much you care about a good experience.” - Lauren Recchia
One of my favorite takeaways from the night was about communicating the restaurant’s values to the staff so that they feel a sense of responsibility for the guests' happiness. An exceptional customer experience end-to-end means giving your staff the tools they need to execute on those values.
“From a management perspective, you have to empower your staff to know how to turn a bad experience into an opportunity,” said Alyssa. “We have to get away from the ‘We didn’t do anything wrong’ mentality and start being grateful that the customer came to you and is giving you an opportunity to do something about it.”
If staff is worried about management’s reaction to a disgruntled guest, they’re less likely to tell someone about it. If you don’t know about it, there’s nothing you can do to remedy the situation.
“Make sure your staff knows how to handle an upset person. Encourage them to communicate all the way up the management chain. Create open communication from staff so that no bad experience goes unnoticed.” -Allison Finney LinkedIn - www.sinclaircambridge.com
“I’d like to say that good hospitality starts at the top, but it really doesn’t,” said Garrett, who seems to have had an influence on at least half of Boston’s restaurant workers. “We hire people that are innately passionate about caring for other people. We grab the best people through education programs - our restaurants are known for that. All employees walk away with product knowledge, technical expertise, and a solid foundation.”
Garrett also recommended sharing staff between restaurant locations to develop a consistent and deep-seeded value for hospitality at every venue.
After what might have been the fastest hour of my life (there’s still so much to cover!), the panel wrapped with a few final thoughts from the experts:
Alyssa: Write someone a thank you note and treat everyone like family.
Lauren: Everything you do has to be legit. It has to come from your heart. The hospitality industry was created because it was someone’s dream and it came from their heart.
Allison: Treat everyone like you want to be treated. And support local music!
“The most common thing to say about this industry is, ‘Oh, it’s brutal. What a grind, such long hours.’ We should stop saying that. Yes, it requires stamina. It’s not effortless. But when you find what you love, it doesn’t feel like work. When it doesn’t eat you up, there’s a reason we love it. ” - Garrett Harker www.easternstandardboston.com
I left the panel feeling inspired and appreciative of the fantastic experiences I’ve had at local restaurants and the people who put their blood, sweat and tears into making sure I have a great night. With a hyper-focus on customer experience, there's a lot to be learned from these leaders Boston hospitality.
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