Hotelier Notes from Season One of Fawlty Towers

Sometimes in order to understand what sets the bar for good service in the hotel industry, you have to gaze upon the dark underbelly of what is truly and horrifically bad. It’s all about contrast; the yin and the yang. To know what would qualify your establishment as a lemon, you need only taking one passing look at Fawlty Towers, the 1970s 12-episode British sitcom starring the magnetic John Cheese as the titular rural English B&B owner and operator, Basil Fawlty.

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The show is a riot, brimming with bashful comedy and ludicrously over-the-top coincidences; all in good fun though. It’s as if the writers said, “What makes for a great hotel experience? Good, now let’s do the opposite of that.” And this is why Fawlty Towers deserves our attention, even some three decades after the second season wrapped.

There are so many deliciously poignant nuggets of information for hoteliers in this series that I’ve decided to split this into two articles, one for each season of six episodes. Keep in mind that given the calamitous nature of the show, many of these are “Do Not’s” rather than “Do’s”, which isn’t ideal for a positive learning experience, but should still give you a patchwork of lessons to ruminate over in the coming weeks.

1. A badly run hotel starts at the top and trickles down. No matter the circumstance, the kookiness of the guests or the state of disrepair of the property, none of this would spiral completely out of control as it always does if not for the asinine leadership of Basil Fawlty. True, Basil’s wife, Sybil, is quite self-absorbed and rather lazy in her duties. And despite whatever language barrier may exist between English and Spanish, Manuel is still an incompetent klutz. It is Basil’s responsibility to keep a level head and provide a moral beacon for his team to admire.

2. Never get impatient. Part of keeping a level head means staying as cool as a cucumber, even in the face of unruly guests or harried employees. Nothing can be solved in heated emotional arguments, even if the emerging logical answer is correct. Instead, take a few deep breaths and become that calming reflection for which people aspire to emulate. Talk in a slow, articulate manner and be attentive. Give people the respect they crave and they will return in kind.

3. If a guest insults you, don’t stoop to their level. Leveling insults on another person often says more about you than the person you intend to sway or hurt. Furthermore, in different circumstances or when one’s mood is brighter, such vitriol might never occur. Stay calm, carry on. Basil Fawlty doesn’t seem to know this principle. When a guest raises his or her voice to plead that the inn correct its own incompetence, Basil fires right back and the conversation descends into a hateful, irreprehensible argument – comedy to all except the affronted guest. It’s mutually assured destruction, and could easily be prevented had Basil kept his cool.

4. Never make uninformed assumptions about your guests. Just because a fellow strolls toward the front desk in track pants and not a bespoke suit does not mean that such a person is undeserving of your full attention. Treat everyone with the utmost of respect and they will all in turn find a place in their hearts for your hotel. Oh, if only Basil knew this. Like a swift kick of poetic justice, whenever Basil assumes something about one guest or another, it comes back to bite him in the pantaloons, and rightfully so.

5. Don’t panic! Just as Douglas Adams would advise you when traversing the universe, so too must you abide by this simple principle when marching through your own abode. Any curtness or fright you display can be transferred to passing guests, startling them and filling them with uneasy sentiments. Instead, aim to be the air of grace, perpetually comfortable in your house, even in the face of disconcerting or pressing issues.

6. Get to know your guests by their names. A simple ‘Hello’ is still much appreciated, but a personalized greeting goes a lot further and may even spark a conversation that leads to a loftier perception of your property as well as one or two things that need fixing. The name game works especially well when a guest approaches you in need of assistance – some might be temporarily stunned by the fact that you remembered who they are! This is a matter of respect and tried-and-true formality, so knowing a guest’s last name is far more appropriate than one’s given name.

7. Always greet guests. Building on the last point of the power of the name-dropping, this is an old-fashioned principle of hoteling that should remain firm. When someone is currently staying at your hotel enters the lobby, make them feel at home. Such a renewed welcome will instantly elevate the mood and put one’s mind at ease.

8. Socialize with guests. Outside of a polite greeting, one or two questions go miles towards building the kind of familial and sociable atmosphere that all hospitality settings strive to attain. In the restaurant, ask how the meal was or offer suggestions if the menus are still in hand. Introduce guests to other regular guests as well as other managers. Remember that part of the phrase ‘Make Yourself at Home’ that is frequently told to guests also implies the fact that one should know everyone is in their own house!

9. When guests are in a hurry, drop everything to help. First and foremost to guest service is just that – servicing our clientele. When guests are rushed, your assistance will be greatly appreciated, probably more so than on other more lackadaisical occasions. On the flip side, if you are unresponsive or sluggish towards a hurried guest’s needs, one might just make yourself a new enemy.

10. Avoid shuffling guests. Whether it’s from room to room or from table to table at the restaurant, switching guests around is tremendously annoying. Although not a death knell, all that movement can precipitate into far more unsettling dispositions. Yes, mistakes are made and there are instances where this is inescapable. But if you find that this is happening with any sort of palpable or near-negligible frequency, then measures must be taken to reduce your error rate.

11. “He’s new” is passable once or twice. Yes, visitors are people too and everyone has had to receive on-the-job training at some point or another in their careers. Just don’t make it a theme of someone’s stay with you. If you notice that a rookie employee has made one or two minor blunders while dealing with guests, rotate them elsewhere for the time being so that you minimize the risk of further irritating these people.

12. Never reprimand staff in front of guests. Oh, Manuel! If only you’d learn. Basil’s hapless servant never really understands what his boss needs of him, but Basil is equally at fault for his impatience and by improperly disciplining such a team member. When someone is scolded in public, they can become embarrassed and demoralized, two emotions which might get the way of the message being fully absorbed. Take the time to escort such a staff member to private quarters and then discuss the problem in full and with a genial tone.

13. Never do repairs during peak hours. This one may seem fairly self-explanatory but you’d be surprised how many personal experiences I’ve had where maintenance has obstructed my enjoyment of one facet of a hotel or another. I understand that this is oftentimes unavoidable and that managers must abide by shift schedules, contractor hours and union rules, but if you can find some wiggle room then wiggle as much as is humanly possible.

14. Fire drills are important but highly disruptive. Visitors will respect that you are performing the fire drill for their own safety, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is annoying. The biting shrill will claw at their ears and whether conscious or subconscious, guests’ perceptions of your hotel will fall. My advice is to work with your safety supervisors to comply with fire codes but to make drills as unobtrusive as possible.

15. Fresh flowers are great. And to end on a positive note, the aromas that permeate a hotel are very important and very subliminal. In Fawlty Towers, Sybil isn’t known to be the shining star of the property, but one thing she does right is place fresh flowers in the lobby, coming straight from the garden. True, there are allergy concerns, but overall, flowers bring color and smiles. Isn’t that what it’s all about – bringing a smile to your guests’ faces?

BONUS: Whatever you do, don’t mention the war. (For those of you who know the show, you know what episode I am referring to!)

Fawlty Towers is a must-see for every hotelier. For those who have not seen it, thankfully BBC offers a DVD set. Go buy it and enjoy the show. You won’t be disappointed.

(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky in eHotelier on April 2, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyHotelier Notes from Season One of Fawlty Towers