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

  1. I couldn’t vote. I like hospitality and I don’t particularly care where it comes from.

  2. I actually think hospitality is over rated. I spend a lot of time in japan and I get really tired of the over use of arrigato and bowing that means nothing. I really just don’t want to take the gamble of a personal experience being bad. Good service and hospitality doesn’t get passed my observation filter, it’s something I expect and when i receive it, it doesn’t register. Bad experience I take note of, and then it ruins some portion of my day. As a result I generally partake of experiences that are “self service”.

    1. May mean nothing to you, PsyGuy, but it means a lot to the Japanese. And you’re on their soil. It’s called “respect” for another culture.

      1. No it doesn’t mean anything to them, the bow from the conbini girl or fast food restaurant is a ‘canned’ bow.

    2. I grew up in Southern California and everybody’s summer dream job was working at Disney. The one thing Disney explained before you even got hired is this: Disneyland is about the guests’ experience. Disney doesn’t care if you’re having a bad day, if your dog died or you just got evicted. The minute you step through the gates of Disneyland, you are ‘on stage’ and you get into your happy mode. It’s not about you; it’s about the guest and if you don’t believe that, then Disney isn’t the place for you.

    3. Great avatar! I was trying to upload that pic in the unicorns, rainbows and sunshine reference yesterday!

    4. I also find “rote friendliness” annoying. If you can’t make an effort at real hospitality, just be polite, that’s enough.

  3. I chose the “cultural” kind because it’s more likely you’ll have a pleasant experience pretty much wherever you go in the region…. I’m like you, I have a long memory when I receive good and bad service. I return where I felt welcome and avoid where I didn’t. We almost always have a choice where to spend our dollars, why not go/return where they’re welcome?

  4. Having lived in the South for the last 25 years, I can say that “Southern Hospitality” is greatly overrated.

    1. To me southern hospitality is really more small town hospitality. And that still exists across this country.

  5. I take notice of the unexpected kind. I don’t like forced service, like what Safeway stores require (or be fired) of their employees.

    1. Wow, at the Safeway store by my house every single employee acts like their dog died that morning every single time I go in. It’s downright depressing. I’d rather have forced service than every single employee acting like they don’t want to be there.

      1. Maybe that’s why Safeway got bought by Albertson’s – customer service issues. Not that Albertson’s is all that much better in my area.

        I see the same kinda employee attitude at the Safeway store near me. They all have their canned greetings and platitudes, but a tape recording loop would be more sincere. I like the store itself. It was recently remodeled and the layout is much more logical and things are easier to find. They always have everything that is in the ad available. And it is easy to get in and out of. But there are rarely more than 3 or 4 customers in the store and even fewer employees outside the pharmacy and bakery.

        1. The Safeway near me was remodeled as well and is a nice store, and always empty. Although about half of the pharmacists are very nice, the others seem to be reading a script, yet hate their jobs.

      2. In our area, that would be Lucky’s Supermarket. NOBODY likes their job at that store and it shows! It keeps me from shopping there.

  6. I like hospitality. Especially when it is genuine. This is why I love visiting Hawaii…The people living in this paradise know it and are generous in presenting their love of their island and lifestyle to off-islanders. In instances where I was sure we were going to get mugged or robbed if we were in other states, in Hawaii, we were greeted with open arms and given a little history of the “off the beaten path” we happened to have wandered on. Yeah sure…sometimes it isn’t genuine, but honestly? That works too!

    1. Being robbed or mugged is a pretty common occurrence in Hawaii. We arrived on a separate flight to HNL than my in-laws and my wife wanted to wait for them inside the gate area. I wanted to go get our luggage. When I mentioned this to security, it was strongly suggested that I go to get my luggage immediately, as they had an unrestricted area for baggage claim and that they had a lot of luggage theft.

      I’ve also read about rental cars being targeted for break-ins at certain places.

      In addition to that, some locals can’t stand tourists and will openly use derogatory terms like “haole”.

      1. Turon is used a lot. Locals, not ones who moved there from the mainland, can be extremely friendly and giving, especially of food, it they like you. During the last turn down in tourism, many realized that their economy depends on visitors and I have seen an up turn in attitudes.

      2. I have stayed in Hawaii many times over the last 20 years and almost never in the touristy areas. No one has ever bothered me except to greet me. I don’t look Hawaiian, don’t speak Hawaiian, but am not the typical demanding tourist either. The worst I ran into was accidentally walking through what appeared to be a low income area where I had to wade through the many pit bulls that every Hawaiian seems to have these days that came out to check me out.

    2. Spent a couple of weeks on Maui over Christmas … the Hawaiians we met were amazingly hospitable. Unlike the grocery store examples, Hawaiians seem to be happy to be wherever they are doing whatever they’re doing.

  7. To me the hospitality that is a company culture is the best because it is not expected. If it truly is a culture thing then it is not forced or faked by employees. However many companies say they have a culture of hospitality, but they only pay lip service to it.

  8. I think, after nearly 2,000 hotel nights since 2001, the coolest bit of hospitality was just before Christmas when I had driven to the far end of my territory wanting to get home. Checking into the LQ in Spokane Valley, the first thing that hit me as I walked in the door was the AROMA of CHRISTMAS. Kinda’ there, but not overpowering or obnoxious.

    It didn’t seem to be in the rooms, but it was in the lobby and halls quite distinctly. It wasn’t just one smell, in some places, it was pine, others wood smoke, still others sugar and spice. It was subtle, yet pervasive and I want to go back there for Christmas just for that.

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