By Daniel Edward Craig, Reknown.
Because hotels run on the promise of comfort and rest, an onsite construction project can be particularly challenging to manage. Rather than risk sending guests fleeing to competitors, hotels often choose to keep silent about construction activity, hoping guests won’t notice the jack-hammering in the lobby. If a guest complains, management feigns shock and dismay, as though a crew marched in uninvited and began tearing down walls. Complaints are handled in the only way hotels know how: by buying the guest’s silence. If the guest is mildly irritated, he might get a brusque apology and a free local call. Pissed off? A whopping 15% off last night’s room charge, perhaps with continental breakfast thrown in—accompanied by the roar of bulldozers. Apoplectic? An escort off property by security.
Having suffered both sides—as a hotel manager, a massive construction project next door and, as a hotel guest, drilling as excruciating as a root canal—I’ve learned that hotels will better protect long- and short-term interests not by treating construction like an unspeakable secret but by being open and communicative with guests. It’s a frightening proposition, but it works.
I’ll never forget that day in 2005 when a group of super-friendly people came to Opus Hotel to tell me about plans to build an underground rapid transit station in our neighbourhood, a three-year project that would create an excavation the size of a football field directly outside our door. At the time, Opus was thriving, having been named one of the World’s Best 100 Hotels by readers of Cond é Nast Traveler magazine and ranking among the highest occupancy rates and TripAdvisor ratings in the city. As the hotel’s general manager I did what any great leader would do: I locked myself in my office and had a good cry. Then I went online to look for a new job.
No one was hiring. So, in the following months, my colleagues and I tried to figure out how to maintain our high occupancy and guest satisfaction ratings while under siege. An employee suggested a radical approach: we tell guests the truth. The idea was immediately dismissed as preposterous, a break from the hotel industry’s illustrious tradition of deceit and blame-deflection when it comes to construction. Yet the idea fit in with our organizational values of integrity and respect, and no one came up with a better solution, so we decided to give it a whirl. From that point forward, we were completely transparent about construction, warning guests in advance and keeping them informed while on property.
It was a nail-biting risk. We were giving prospective guests a reason to stay elsewhere and providing our competitors a weapon to use against us. Many of our rooms didn’t face the construction site, and activity was sporadic—why alarm all guests when only a few would be disturbed? Transparency threatened only to exacerbate the problem.
Yet to avoid the issue can be far more damaging. While a guest of a hotel in Atlanta, I endured drilling next door for three days before I called to complain. I was transferred to the duty manager’s line, and I left a message, but I didn’t hear back. The next day a gift basket was delivered to my room. There was no note or card, so I had no idea who it came from, but it did come with a jar of tasty Georgian peach salsa. Meanwhile, the drilling turned to jack-hammering. I left another message for the manager, this time requesting to change rooms. Again, no call back. That night, another gift arrived, a slab of chocolate that vaguely resembled the hotel’s logo. It had melted—much like my resolve. I checked out the next day and, as much as I enjoyed the peach salsa, I won’t be staying there again.
In my experience, hotel guests are more understanding—and surprisingly accepting—when communication is proactive and sincere. To avoid unpleasant surprises, hotels should communicate construction activity at the time of reservation and place a notice on the website, in confirmation letters, and in group, corporate and event contracts. Most travelers are up and out early and won’t be daunted. Rooms closest to construction should be placed out of order or sold at a discount; many travelers will be willing to risk a disturbance if it means getting a great deal. Keep guests informed by placing a letter in guestrooms from the general manager explaining the nature of the work, the benefits, and the duration, and inviting guests to contact the front desk if they have concerns. Equipping rooms with earplugs and white noise machines will show that you’re trying, but will do little to drown out construction noise.
Being transparent doesn’t mean being alarmist. Sales and reservations staff should avoid comments like, “OMG it’s like a total mess here!” A simple, positive statement will do, such as, “Just so you’re aware, we’re currently upgrading our banquet facilities and you may encounter construction activity.” Do everything possible to address concerns—including, if necessary, letting the business walk. In the long run, your hotel will be better off. Hell hath no fury like a meeting planner not forewarned, and a scathing review on TripAdvisor will scare travelers off long after construction is finished. With larger construction projects you won’t be able to please everyone, so reserve the quietest rooms for your most desirable clientele. Be creative about how you respond to complaints; not everyone is looking for a freebie. Offer sincere apologies, ask how you can make it up to the guest, and respond accordingly.
Resist the temptation to be cute, like posting signs with cartoon characters in hardhats. If a guest is awoken by a dump truck unloading gravel outside her window, she won’t be amused. Years ago, when I worked at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto, management decided to make light of lobby renovations by dressing up two front desk employees per shift as construction workers. Upon reporting for duty one day I was handed a hardhat and an orange vest. “I don’t think so,” I said, handing them back—the hotel’s polyester uniform was humiliating enough. I was overruled. To my surprise, I found myself enjoying the construction worker role-play thing—until I had to deal with an irate guest. Partway through his rant, he stopped, blinked, and said, “What the hell are you wearing?” The hats and vests were discontinued shortly thereafter.
Our strategy at Opus wasn’t perfect. We lost our share of business and a number of guests fell through the cracks. Yet by being transparent we built a relationship of trust with our clientele and, throughout the three-year construction period, we maintained one of the highest occupancy rates in the city and top rankings on TripAdvisor.
All hotels experience construction at some point—it’s a necessity of keeping fresh and up-to-date—and many fall victim to offsite construction from which they reap no benefits. If your hotel provides an otherwise exceptional and unrivaled experience, your guests will be far more loyal and forgiving than you might expect.
These days, while many hotels are sitting half-empty, the time is ripe for capital upgrades and renovations. Unfortunately for most hotels, upgrades will have to wait until business is stronger—which means undergoing construction while occupancy is high. All the more reason to have a solid guest communication plan in place.
A modified version of this post appeared in The Vancouver Sun.