Stark Lessons from “Hotel Hell”

Last night, FOX NETWORK debuted their new reality series ‘Hotel Hell’ following celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay as he visits borderline-bankrupt properties in an attempt to use his wisdom to resuscitate revenue. The opener sees Ramsay visit the Juniper Hill Inn in bucolic Vermont – a historic, 20-something room lodge that’s in the red by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although edited as a hyperbole of the problems at hand, the premiere nonetheless offers some shrewd insights for hoteliers. Watch and learn.

While many may disagree with Ramsay’s abrasiveness, he’s honest and forthright with his opinions, which makes for some highly entertaining conversations. And before you ask, “What could Gordon Ramsay possibly know about the inner workings of a hotel?” let’s brush over some of his biographical details.
First, he knows food. Before he became notorious for his foul-mouthed television persona, he was a multiple Michelin Star-ranked chef with several bustling restaurants in London. That’s something you earn only through years upon years of dedication to your craft. As Hotel Hell and many hoteliers (myself included) can reaffirm, F&B represents a colossal slice of the overall guest experience. Mastering this is crucial.
Next, he’s an entrepreneur. Not only is Ramsay the centerpiece of numerous reality cooking show, but he’s also the proprietor and menu-crafter for a series of high-end restaurants around the world. Gordon Ramsay is a brand, and that’s not something you build overnight. Somewhere in there are long hours, slaving away, placing orders, directing employees, balancing the books – no wonder he swears so much!
Third, and stemming from the second point, operating restaurants around the world means that he has probably spent a fair amount of time living out of hotel rooms in various hotspots. And as his financial standing has grown over the decades, I’d wager that his accommodations have improved likewise. Quantity, quality and a variety of experiences are the makings of a good barometer for success.
True, the property on display in Hotel Hell is not anywhere near exemplary of normal operations, both in size and profitability. But I stress that there’s always room to improve and that lessons can be found everywhere you look. That all said and without delving into too many spoilers, what can we learn from this episode?
1. The buck stops here. The premiere episode of Hotel Hell focused almost entirely on the utter ineffectiveness of the owner and operator. Ramsay labeled him a ‘Muppet’ and rightfully lambasted him for attempting to lay the blame elsewhere. Leaders don’t blame or squabble; they accept responsibility then act accordingly. They lead by example, working hard and tirelessly from the ground up until the problems are solved.
2. Respect your staff. It’s all about reciprocation. If you want your employees to respect you, you have to return the favor. This helps to open the lines of communication so your staff feel comfortable approaching you with their dilemmas or specific suggestions. As an owner or senior manager, you are often focused on the broader issues, and maintaining good relationships with everyone down the line will help bring to light some of the more subtle problems with your operations.
3. First impressions are first assurances. Ramsay shows up in the middle of winter and the front walkway isn’t cleared of snow or ice! Instant red flag worthy of a whole demerit point – let alone any ensuing lawsuits that might arise if someone slips. Not only that, but the front entrance isn’t working and there’s no prior signage to direct Ramsay accordingly. First impressions are your one and only chance to set the mood and establish a precedent for the rest of the experience. Assure people that they are in for a treat by ensuring that your first impressions are warm, welcoming and hazard free.
4. Great F&B is critical. This is Ramsay’s wheelhouse, and hence, he has a lot to say on the matter – and it’s all justified. Nestled in rural Vermont, there aren’t many eating options around the Juniper Hill Inn, especially with driving. They’re reservation only, they don’t serve lunch and they don’t list prices (for their overpriced fare) on the menu. None of that matters if the food and service are outstanding, but sadly they were not, at least not by Ramsay’s standards. The restaurant is a constant process of fine-tuning, both in terms of service levels and the menu choices, requiring input and encouragement for staff, guests and managers.
5. Grudges are hard to erase. Once you’ve lost a customer’s trust, it’s near impossible to gain it back. Throughout the hour-long presentation, Ramsay’s face was riddled with an ‘I’ll never come back here!’ look. There’s actually a genetic bias for this: we’re coded to avoid previously bad experiences to increase our chances of survival. While it’s great to work on enhancements, it’s even more imperative to rectify your shortcomings. This is one instance where meticulously reading your online reviews can come in handy for findings those deal breakers. Strive for flawless before you strive for perfection.
There’s still a lot more I gleaned from this episode, but it’s so nitpicky and specific for this absurd case of mismanagement. I might add that the show ended on a cliffhanger, leaving Ramsay’s solutions for the follow-up. Despite my chagrin for the reality television format, this is still a fun show and a weekly dose of cautionary tales for hoteliers.
(Article published in HOTELSMag on August 15, 2012)

Larry MogelonskyStark Lessons from “Hotel Hell”