The three kinds of hospitality you’ll encounter on the road

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I’m writing this at the end of a long road trip through France, Germany and Italy, a journey on which I’ve encountered some of the best and worst service imaginable.

If you’ve ever been to Europe, you probably know exactly what I mean. The concept of hospitality varies by country and region. Some places welcome you with open arms; others make you wish you’d never crossed the border.

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No need to call out the worst offenders, but let’s just say my “must-visit” list is roughly the same length as my “avoid” list – and I have a long memory.

But the whole experience got me to thinking about hospitality. What is it and how do you get it? Is it something you’re ever entitled to?

There are actually three distinct kinds of hospitality I’ve identified:

Hospitality as a cultural norm. You know the term southern hospitality? If you live in North America, you probably have. It’s the idea that hospitality is part of a cultural identity. You expect the service at that bed and breakfast in Charleston, S.C., to be warm and attentive. It invariably is. But when that receptionist at your chain hotel in Savannah has a bad day at work and snarls at you when you check in, it’s a lot more jarring than, say, when a Parisian ignores you because your French is just comme si-comme ca. I won’t say that France is the anti-South when it comes to hospitality — I’ve had some amazing customer experiences in France — but it ain’t the South, either.

Hospitality against all odds. This is the kind of welcome you experience even when you shouldn’t, by any measure. I most closely associate this with post-deregulation legacy airlines. In recent years, management has cut benefits and pensions and imposed onerous policies on its staff, insisting that it was the only way their companies could survive. Then those same managers lavished big salaries and stock benefits on themselves. Employee morale should be rock-bottom, so when a flight attendant at American, Delta or United goes out of her way to make you feel welcome on board, that’s hospitality against all odds.

Hospitality as part of a company culture. Some companies imprint their employees with a sense of hospitality. Disney, Ritz-Carlton, Southwest and Hertz come to mind, although it’s not difficult to find exceptions. After all, employees are only human. But if you’re looking for a consistent experience, you know that these companies will provide it. At the same time, some companies generate a predictable stream of complaints (Spirit Airlines, anyone?) and at times even seem to enjoy being bottom-feeders (Ryanair, take a bow). It doesn’t take long to figure out the winners and sinners in each category. Read this site for awhile if you need more information.

By that measure, you’re likely to find the very best service at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta and the worst service flying Ryanair from Rome to London. But hospitality can be elusive. Don’t count “hospitality against all odds” out. You might be served by a fresh-faced, idealistic flight attendant who really believes he can make a difference. Your concierge at the Ritz might have been served with divorce papers on the day you checked in.

One thing I learned traveling through Europe is that when it comes to defining good service, we have a lot in common. True hospitality is delivered willingly and cheerfully, not with a forced smile and an eyeroll. It does not take your patronage for granted and when you hear a “Y’all come back now” or an “Auf Wiedersehen,” you know they really mean it.

True hospitality is too rare, and when you find it, it’s worth writing about.

What's your favorite kind of hospitality?

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