Customer Friendly or Innkeeper Friendly?

I apologize for the blury photo. The lighting in “Juanita Greenberg’s” in Charleston, South Carolina, wasn’t conducive for taking photos with my BlackBerry. Nevertheless, I wanted to capture this image.

The bottom of the menu says, “No separate checks for parties of 6 or more.” What struck me as unfortunate about that policy is that the time when separate checks are needed MOST is when there is a large group of people. Because it’s challenging for most wait staff to divide a check among several different parties, especially when no one raises their hand to offer to pay for the common appetizers, a no-separate-checks policy prevents the hassle. It’s a policy that is not customer friendly, but rather waiter-friendly. That’s backwards, in my opinion.

The policy should say, “For parties of 6 or more, please let your waiter know in advance if you want separate checks at the table.” Even if the patrons don’t let the waiter know about their wish for separate checks, the waiter should do it anyway. Most people have more plastic than cash in their wallets. It’s not as hard as it used to be to divide a bill among many parties.

And how does this relate to innkeeping? One thing I have certainly learned about innkeeping is how hard it is. Because it can be so hard – mostly due to have a small or no staff and attempting to be everything to the guests – innkeepers often set ground rules. These ground rules are usually stated on the policies page of your web site and/or in the confirmation email sent to guests. And these ground rules often keep you from losing your sanity.

Nevertheless, I encourage innkeepers to take a fresh look at your policies, rules, procedures, etc. and determine which are more innkeeper-friendly than guest-friendly. I know that you don’t want to be a doormat to your guests, but take a look at things from the guest perspective and see if there’s any room for change. No changes might be necessary, but you could do your customers a favor by thinking critically about them from time to time. Ask a friend who is NOT an innkeeper to take a look and offer feedback. Gaining a fresh perspective can help your business stay fresh and appealing.

**Due to the transfer of the blog, in order to preserve the comments from the old site they have been copied here…

Blogger Monica said…
Jay- From your perspective, where do YOU think innkeepers could ‘loosen up’?

You’ve read the forums, you know what we complain about…guests who arrive at noon no matter how many times you repeat that check-in is at 3 or 4PM, guests who state they have no food issues and then say they ‘can’t eat that’ as you place it in front of them, a million different cuts that end up bleeding an innkeeper dry during the course of a day.

If YOU could design the perfect set of policies, what would they say?

April 11, 2009 7:45 PM

Blogger Innkeeper @ The Claiborne House B&B said…
I would also like to hear the answer to what policies we could lighten up on, and are unnecessary? I am not being negative, I would like to be enlightened.

Someone on our forum mentioned as a guest at check in time getting the list of rules and policies from an innkeeper. That is totally out of line (we all know we post the rules and policies in the in-room books!) ha ha

Feedback would be great on this article. THANKS! Shellie

April 14, 2009 11:04 AM

Anonymous Judy Hotchkiss said…
How do you do it without posting signs? You work it into the welcome tour and initial conversation. Most people just want to know “how things work at an inn.” THEN they feel comfortable when they have that info. Set everything up for success, not failure Our breakfast meat is on the side-no more closet vegetarians causing trouble. It can be removed at the last minute. If they show up too early, well, be gracious but not much you can do with a body still in the bed! Whip out a map for a great lunch spot! ID troublemakers in advance and try to help. IF they are really so far out you cannot help, cut them loose with a suggestion of which property might better suit their needs. You don’t need perfect policies; you need perfect communication. PS we are almost always right at hand and available for questions. That helps a lot!

April 14, 2009 5:34 PM

Blogger Marsh Hen said…
We have set our check in time at “3P to 6P and please call ahead if you plan to arrive outside of these times.” Here at the Blue Heron, nap time or down time for the innkeepers is somewhere between 1P and 3P. I used to get so unnerved at folks showing up before 3P without so much as a call. Bill started telling folks (who mentioned arriving early) it was fine to arrive between 12P and 1P as long as the room was ready. I seriously thought about doing him bodily harm. Then I realized how much easier it was. When they arrive early we simply tell them the innkeepers will be available after 4:30 pm for wine and cheese hour. We get our nap or personal time out….and enjoy getting to know our guests later in the afternoon. I know…it sounds like we are being door mats…but what is really important to us is a couple hours break. This way we get our break and the guests are happy to bootr

April 14, 2009 8:25 PM

Blogger info said…
This is what have found to work for both us and our guests for check. When they make a reservation, we send a e-mail confirmation that includes a flexible check in time (anytime after 1pm). We state we would love to greet them personaly, but in the event we are doing errands or enjoying our great outdoors, to the right hand side of our front door is a metal mailbox wit a envelope with their name on it. Inside the envelope will be a welcome letter with the basic check in information, and keys to the front door and their room. The guests love it because it gives them the freedom to make a relaxing journey to us, and it also give us the freedom to do afternoon/evening activities. It has been such a release of frustration as you waited for guest to arrive hours late.

April 16, 2009 10:57 AM

Blogger Monica said…
I guess I’m still confused at how any innkeeper can have rooms ready for guests at noon. We are sometimes just finishing cleaning the kitchen from breakfast!

For Marsh Hen: How do you let guests in at 1 PM but still get your downtime? If you have to greet the guests, you aren’t getting your downtime. At 1 PM I look like the dog’s dinner! I’ve, maybe, just finished cleaning 7 guest rooms. More than likely, I still have 2 left to go at that point. Every time I answer the door it’s an extra 20-30 minutes tacked onto the cleaning.

For info: Do you put the envelopes out at 1 PM and then go about your day? How do you know guests don’t need assistance? Many of our guests are elderly and want someone to take their bags from the car to the room.

I struggle with this daily in season. I NEED to sit down and collect my thoughts but that just doesn’t happen. Pretty much 4 months of the year, I’m a robot.

I HAVE to answer the door. A large percentage of my business is walk-ins. I can’t let the doorbell go unanswered.

However, all of that wasn’t the original question asked of Jay. I’d like to know what policies he thinks B&B’s need to change.

April 17, 2009 7:45 PM

Blogger info said…

We only put the letter out if we are going to leave the house. You certainly could put it out when you wanted to have down time, and then you don’t have to get intrupted. We put our phone number in the letter so if they have questions they can call. It rings onto our cell phone so they can catch us almost anywhere. We do not have many guests that need assistance with luggage, so we have not had a problem with that.

April 23, 2009 4:07 PM

Blogger Jay Karen said…
Sorry for the delay, folks.

When I made the post, I had no specific innkeeping policy or procedure in mind that I feel unjustifiably weighs more on the innkeeper-friendly side than the guest-friendly side, like the “No separate bills for parties of 6 or more” policy I encountered. Seeing that statement on the menu simply made me think – what policies MIGHT innkeepers have that are designed more to make their lives easier than the guests’, but that on the surface might seem unreasonable to the guest? It seemed unreasonable to me that a restaurant would not allow separate checks for large groups, when in fact large groups are the ones who probably would need separate checks more than small groups.

But since you’re challenging me to think critically about what might seem to the guest to be unreasonable and that appears to be designed to make the innkeepers’ lives easier, here are a few that come to mind. BUT…I want everyone to know that I’m not siding with the guest perspective on this. I realize what it takes to run an inn, and you HAVE to have some policies that are designed to allow you to keep your sanity and bank account in order, even though they might not seem like “guest friendly” policies on the surface to some. I also recognize that some polices might not SEEM guest friendly, but they’re ultimately designed to make sure the guest experience is what you’re hoping to deliver.

Not allowing someone to book the entire inn…
I know many innkeepers don’t allow a single party to take over the entire house…and I know why. They can be a nightmare to deal with, and many times they act like the house is their own, i.e. wandering into the kitchen, being more disrespectful of the property, etc. Still, to the potential guest it doesn’t make much sense, because the potential guest will assume THEIR party will not be a hassle, and why wouldn’t a business owner be willing to sell-out the entire house? When I worked in the golf industry, it was not uncommon for a corporate event to take over a golf course for the entire day. I never heard of a course owner turning down that opportunity, even if it meant their regular, public customer had to be turned away for the day. So, on the surface, it does seem like an innkeeper-friendly, guest-unfriendly policy to not allow a group to take over all rooms for a weekend. It would probably be a good idea to have ready an explanation for inquiring guests that would make them respond with, “Oh…ok. I get it.”

Cancellation penalties…
Simply having cancellation fees will seem to many guests as an unfriendly policy, because I would imagine some guests place B&Bs in the same context as restaurants, hotels, etc. If you cancel at a restaurant or most hotels, you don’t pay a fee (although some high-end hotels are starting to be more aggressive about cancellation fees). Most golf courses don’t have tee time cancellation fees – even for no-shows! Guests might not care what kind of burden a cancellation places on the innkeeper and won’t necessarily take the time to think about matters from the innkeeper perspective. I generally think that innkeepers have fair cancellation policies, especially when you’re able to rebook a room. Most of you will not penalize the cancelling party beyond a small fee if you can rebook a room. I think the key here, like with most policies that guests might not “get,” is to be a good communicator. The personal nature of B&Bs lends itself well to explaining why certain policies are in place. In a 4-room inn, if someone cancels their room for the weekend, that’s 25% of the entire inventory going out the door, especially if there’s no time to rebook it. If a hotel sold 25% of their rooms to a corporate event, that corporation would have to sign a contract for those rooms. If they cancelled, they would still have to pay for the rooms under the contract. This is no different. Have some good, understandable explanations in your pocket for when guests want to argue or discuss cancellation matters. Explaining that it’s a pain in the butt to rebook a room and that is why I have to charge you is probably not the right way to go

No early check-ins…
Again, I complete get it. There’s barely enough time to turn the rooms around, let alone accommodate those who want their room at 11 am, rather than 4 pm. If a guest has the ability to drop off their luggage before check-in hours, they would probably be happy about things. It’s when they can’t drop off their belongings before stated hours that might make guests think this is an unfriendly procedure designed only to make things more convenient for the innkeeper. Guests – especially first-time inngoers – probably don’t understand that YOU alone might be serving breakfast, running check-outs, cleaning rooms, etc. Most innkeepers say they take these early check-in requests on a case-by-case basis, which is probably the best thing to do. Again, it comes down to communication. Do you state in your confirmation emails that you might not be able to accommodate early check-ins, because you might be too busy serving breakfast, administering check-outs and cleaning rooms? Or, do you just say that you can’t accommodate early check-ins and leave it up to the guests to figure out why? A little knowledge can go a long way to producing understanding. Even such, you know you’ll still have guests asking for it.

These are just a few examples. Some innkeepers say their policies regarding children and pets fall into this category. Same for policies about using candles. I would imagine others might be inflexible breakfast hours. Please remember – I get it. I understand why a lot of these policies and procedures exist. Your guests and potential guests might not. How can you effectively communicate the WHY behind these policies and rules?

In a recent survey (results soon to be released) conducted with the help of TripAdvisor, approximately 1 in 5 people who have never stayed at a B&B cited “too many rules and policies to deal with” as a reason they haven’t stayed at a B&B. I’m not saying innkeepers need to drive themselves crazy by changing policies with the hope of getting the 20% who think there are too many rules. I’m just giving you something to think about, although you probably already think about it all the time.

If there was a little explanation as to WHY the restaurant doesn’t allow separate checks for parties of 6 or more, I might not think it’s such an unfriendly policy. But without that understanding or knowledge, it doesn’t make sense and makes me think unfavorably about the management.

April 27, 2009 1:19 PM

Author: Jay Karen

Jay is the President & CEO of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International.

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