Mr. Bicycle and Other Challenges.
By Steven Ferry
Saturday, 8th March 2014
'What do you suggest?' asked the GM of a luxury resort over lunch, recently; 

'A guest is insisting we track down the guest who 'stole' his bicycle and have him apologize in person', the resort gives bicycles without charge to all guests and one had perhaps inadvertently, in the dark, taken the wrong one back to their villa.

The butler had found the bicycle almost immediately and returned it to the indignant guest while the GM arranged for a visiting friend to impersonate the "thieving" guest and offer an apology. Unfortunately, the irate guest's bicycle went missing again soon thereafter, and the guest went ballistic, this time insisting the police be called.

In the end, several comps later (but not the anticipated comp for the whole stay), the guest left, the situation finessed by a GM who was no stranger to handling the occasional "guest from hell"—for it was not entirely clear that the guest had not himself simply re-routed the bicycle.

Thereafter, during the training of the butlers, "Mr. Bicycle" was held up as an example of an irate guest and the subject of role-playing on how to handle them through communication alone, without comping.

After a decade crisscrossing the globe in luxury resorts and hotels, plenty of perplexed and even frustrated GMs, DORs, FOMs and butlers have shared such examples.

As reportedly 5-7% of hospitality profits (2006 figures) disappear down the black hole of comping, instead of being used for the benefit of operations, owners, and shareholders, a solution would be a welcome idea, perhaps. Not that all comping is inappropriate, as sometimes the hospitality provider is at fault and needs to make restitution; but the majority of comping, by anecdotal accounts, seems to be for opportunistic and even criminally inclined guests in a world beset by declining moral standards.

It helps to define a problem accurately if a workable solution is sought, and in this case, there appear to be two issues, not one:

The first and easiest to resolve is the propensity to comp at the first sign of trouble in order to avoid further public displays. For instance, the Front Desk Clerk at one hotel in Manhattan offered to reduce a guest's bill from $1,500 to $1,200 the instant he quietly answered her question about the suite (to protect the next guest, not to obtain a discount) including a faulty light that had come on at three in the morning.

When he retorted that any deduction was really not necessary, she replied, "Well, how about $900?" The guest quit while he was still ahead, in case any further discussion of the subject might result in further reductions. Even if the guest were angry, and even if the hotel were at fault, this lady could have handled the situation without comping, because there is nothing easier than handling an angry guest, unless it is handling one, with communication skills alone, who is not angry.

However, when a guest is a professional "comp scavenger," their hidden agenda makes it hard to handle with communication alone.

Take the example of the hotel opening in Georgia a few years back. Everyone from the owner's family and even the outside trainers had been up all night before the opening to prepare. The high hopes and morale took a beating when the guest who booked the presidential suite and two adjoining ones, created a scene on checkout and was comp'd the entire weekend. They had set up the hotel to fail, taking meticulous notes of problems, more imagined and in some cases orchestrated by him than real. A cross check afterwards found he had been blacklisted by at least two other chains.

A False Start

Incensed, the author wrote an article in 2007 (on what he termed the guest from hell) that was widely published in the industry and received so much feedback (such as "Thank you for telling the truth—such a rare thing now—and addressing a topic near and dear to many service people's heart") that two more equally well-received articles followed in relatively quick succession ("Your articles have given us strength to carry on"). The gist of this trio was the need for an industry wide database of such guests, so they could not wreak havoc in one chain before being found out and blacklisted, and then simply hopping over to another chain, like a flea in pursuit of fresh blood.

Fortunately, the editor of the (initially publishing) magazine agreed and assigned one of his managers to establish such an organization. After providing much legal, ethical, and marketing input pro bono, the author was non-pulsed to receive a rather vicious letter threatening overwhelming legal action if he entertained any notion of moving forward with the project, as he obviously had nothing to do with it, according to the project manager's overly assertive and twisted logical threads.

Oh dear, the editor responded to the author's perplexed email with the news that the erstwhile manager had left the magazine's employ contentiously and was running with the guest-from-hell database idea as his very own business opportunity—the organization that was designed to neutralize guests from hell was itself in the grip of the corporate equivalent…and predictably would create chaos before imploding.

One of the reasons trouble was in the offing was this individual had expanded the definition of guests from hell from those who are criminally inclined—trying to obtain something for nothing (one particularly useful definition of criminality, whether bopping one on the head and running off with one's wallet; "making" vast fortunes through manipulations of virtual money at the expense of the actual, physical economy; or hopping from one hotel to another without exchanging the valuables required to pay the wages and bills)—to include those who merely misbehaved. In so doing, he was perhaps following the lead of the NSA, turning the vast majority of well-behaved and considerate, law-abiding guests into valid targets for police state/thought police surveillance and control.

So when the story of Mr. Bicycle came up, offering the GM the above, caveat included, raised his hopes and piqued the author's interest about the current state of affairs, over six years on. The database organization had something like 14,000 hotels signing up on launch, but the author had neither heard of (nor checked into) it since.

Internet research found no evidence of the original company beyond 2008, it now being defunct. There is one in the UK for small hotels and B&Bs, etc. Unfortunately, they have gone down the same road of policing and reporting misbehaving guests, as well as destructive or criminal ones, and so, while filling a demand, are also running afoul of such as the human rights watchdog, Privacy International.

Maybe the focus on clamping down on misbehaving is simply a reflection of the laws appearing on the books in the UK of late that are designed to monitor and criminalize misbehavior—a sad trend no doubt in misguided response to hooliganism: suppressing the symptom rather than eradicating the cause(s) and so inevitably generating further problems. But it is interesting that both initiatives widened the scope from fighting back against fraud (a valid target) to monitoring guest behavior, which focus conflicts with the ethos embodied in being a host and hospitality.

Turning Challenge to Opportunity

So as it stands, there is still no resource or association offering an industry wide database for luxury hotels and resorts and other higher-end service providers, in which those "guests" who engage in fraudulent and destructive actions (as opposed to unacceptable behavior) are listed. The idea being not to prevent such guests from coming to a hotel again, thereby potentially laying the hotel open to a charge of discriminating against them, but to refuse any attempts at engineering free service/products after they arrive, and also to have information on hand in the case of any subsequent attempt at Black PR on the Internet (by those who might have attempted to be comped and been rebuffed) after they have left.

How would it work? When a comp-merchant displayed his/her true colors, the database would be accessed to see if this were a pattern, and if so, the guest quietly confronted with the pattern and any notes made by employees during the current stay, and encouraged to pay unless they wanted to escalate the matter with the authorities. In this way, one also avoids inspection before the fact: assuming all are potential violators and so creating a climate of suspicion that tends to provoke what it purports to prevent, instead of simply dealing with those who need to be dealt with by their clearly demonstrated actions.

The above would be the administrative set-up and easy to institute, given software programs, Internet, and PayPal.

 As one reader offered by way of possible organizations to spearhead such a database and its management: "Hospitality and sensibility only go so far when someone has ransacked the relationship. Typically, the guests from hell you are referencing receive free meals, rooms, cocktails, etc, and sometimes they even bring suit—all a nuisance and expense. Perhaps [we should] consider working with and being sponsored by insurance companies that cover hotels for such suits (presented on the expense side, it would fall under their umbrella, and insurance companies probably already have this info somewhere, as all businesses are subject to ruse), as well as the larger hotel chains and hotel associations. Good lord, credit card companies have protection built in, too, for any charge, which may be the seamless protector needed and offered as a service or specialty to their market."

 Whatever form it takes, in the end, well-earned profits and service given in good faith would be protected and reinforced, rather than being degraded by the few guests who act in bad faith. Such is a worthy goal, and hopefully some other enterprising individual or organization will pick up the gauntlet on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of earnest individuals who are working hard to create the wonderful experience that is luxury service.

Putting the Employee in the Driver's Seat

It is only when one cannot fight back against something evil that morale and motivation suffer. The inescapable truth is that such guests are completely incapable of telling the truth. The angry, noisy type will at best twist the truth to make their point more egregious, or at worst, blatantly lie in a manner that is most destructive to the target of their ire.

Those guests who feel the same way but are too timid to be angry, sometimes known as "passive aggressive" or "covertly hostile," will be most ingenious in their complete perversions of the truth, covering their tracks with great finesse. Both types put hospitality professionals at a disadvantage.

 Who hasn't had a run-in with a guest from hell and, following the dictum, "The Guest is Always Right (even when they are acting criminally)," have taken it on the chin, turned the other cheek, and dare I say it, bent over—and in so doing, also exposed their sense of what is right and just to a good drubbing.

After which, invariably, there is the giving away of the farm to appease the guest; angst about possible repercussions from head office, the media, and whatever other sources of retribution the guest promised to inform of one's misguided efforts at service; and a lessening of one's liking for the job, eventually and potentially to the point of quitting the profession. It is essential that the hospitality industry preserve the "hospitality" in its approach to guests; guests from hell undermine the openness and good humor upon which such hospitality depends.

Dynamic Knowledge is Power

Part of the solution, therefore, has to be educating employees on this kind of personality and then letting them have fun spotting them and predicting what they will do or say next. By empowering employees, one dis-empowers the criminally inclined guests, for the only power these actually have is that generated by the employee in responding to the unjust and unkind remarks or actions.

An individual in a lunatic asylum thinking he is god has no followers outside the asylum. He has no power. But if people outside the asylum give weight to his words and form a cult, then he would have power. It's the same with the guest from hell: Recognize his or her ravings as those of a lunatic who has yet to be labeled as one (and may never be, because in real life such people can sound very convincing and may even have numerous letters after their name, titles in front of it, and great wealth), and he will have no power. React or give credence to his claims, and one empowers him.

Empowered employees will no longer think "mea culpa" and "mea lose my job" when assailed by such guests. A short, illustrated book has been published to help understand such troubling and troubled guests; the link provides more information. If interested, you can email this author for a complimentary electronic copy—there are no strings attached to this offer and email addresses will neither be harvested nor shared.

The author is also willing to pass on more suggestions on how to set up such an industry wide directory to anyone considering doing so.

Professor Steven Ferry trains butlers and other employees in hotels, luxury resorts, private villas and estates, and other luxury service venues. He is Chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers (www.modernbutlers.com) and author of the best-selling industry text, Hotel Butlers, The Great Service Differentiators. (stevenferry@modernbutlers.com)

First published by Luxury Hoteliers and used with permission of the author.
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