‘Hotel Hell’ lessons learned, part two

Fox recently debuted a new reality television series called “Hotel Hell” following Gordon Ramsay as he investigates mismanaged properties and offers his advice. I blogged about the pilot episode to help clue hoteliers into this new show.

After watching the second episode, I now have a chance to see the host’s solution engine in action and pass judgment on its true efficacy. In spite of all the criticism surrounding Ramsay’s character and celebrity, he does indeed offer a legitimate opinion on hotel operations. To lay any doubts to rest, Ramsay even called in a qualified hotel inspector of “diamond-rated” properties to back up his views.

TV pilots are generally premise-heavy; consequently, subsequent episodes are where a show finds its groove. The question, then, is what groove does “Hotel Hell” attain? Does it reach its goals both for entertainment and potential educational value?

To me, “Hotel Hell” gets a passing grade, but I can’t help but scoff at the aggrandized performances and editing, while many of the finer details (the details that are genuinely important as hotelier learning tools) are brushed over. I mainly chalk that up to the hackneyed reality television format. Plus, I’m likely approaching this from an expert point of view and have to be conscious of the everyman — those not breathing the hospitality world every day of their lives.

That said, the show is certainly entertaining, and two episodes into it, I’m fairly confident of some instructive themes that each week’s horror hour will touch upon:

1. Awful owners. Ramsay is not likely to be visiting any major brand-name hotels for this series. The Mom-and-Pop inns he traverses are laden with inexperienced operators and managers with no mentors in sight. Obstinacy, denial and myopia — the show hyperbolizes these traits early on, to bring about a third-act owner transformation. Good drama needs a villain, after all. Expect to see this sort of caricature each week as a means to fundamentally demonstrate that a happy (and profitable) hotel starts at the top.

2. F&B is an experience. Falling smack-dab into Ramsay’s bread and butter, good food and beverage options are critical for a hotel, not only to keep guests enthralled during their stays, but also to attract the local crowd. However, it’s not just about whether the lamb is improperly cooked or that dessert wasn’t prepared in-house. It’s about delivering an enjoyable adventure involving cuisine. The décor, the menu, the prices, seating arrangements, the chairs themselves — all have to be pleasurable on top of fabulous food. Remember, it’s called culinary art for a reason — never forget the art!

3. Always satisfy basic expectations. These monsters can rear their ugly heads anywhere and everywhere you operate. Think dirty bed sheets, lack of towels in the washrooms, unsafe entranceways or security issues. This is the stuff that people rant about on TripAdvisor, probably because it’s so easy to notice and oftentimes equally as easy to fix. These are all qualities that one implicitly expects when paying for accommodations, and not satisfying them leaves guests feeling cheated. Correct these mistakes first, and then worry about the big-picture issues.

With these three overarching principles in mind, there were a few more significant lessons that were apparent from Ramsay’s time at the Cambridge Hotel:

Staff pride. Whether their performances are elaborated for television or not, throughout the episode there was a recurring image of a team that cares. It’s key to build a team that operates with this conviction in place. I wholeheartedly believe that pride in one’s work is the pinnacle of traits to look for in hiring new staff members or managers. Everything else you can teach, but if the passion and internal motivation aren’t already there, then you’ll never get 100% from your team.

Décor determines quality. Ramsay’s guestroom for this episode was furnished in vertiginous floor-to-ceiling floral patterns — outdated and not very inviting. No matter the quality of the furniture, upholstery or bathrooms, the rooms didn’t “look” the part. This can be very subjective, but there are telltale signs that you’re due for a remodeling. Of course, any interior designer will recommend a makeover — it’s their job! Rely more on feedback from guests to know when you’re overdue.

Support your signature dish. The Cambridge Hotel is the birthplace of Pie à la Mode — apple pie with a scoop of ice cream — and yet none of it was made in-house, and none of it tasted special before Ramsay swooped in. A signature dish is a rallying point on two fronts. It gives your staff something to boast about with confidence, and, more importantly, it’s a marketing tool. Throughout the segment involving the Pie à la Mode, I was continually reminded of Scaramouche, an outstanding restaurant here in Toronto located on a quiet residential street that’s packed every night. This is a serious, quality restaurant that has stood for 25-plus years. Their signature dish: coconut cream pie. Many will come and have a full meal with drinks just for a chance to chomp down this buttery treat. Whenever someone visits Toronto and inquires about a swanky dinner spot, Scaramouche is at the top of people’s memories, solidified by the mention of their signature dessert. Ask yourself: What dish do you offer that’s this memorable?

The bottom line is that Ramsay deals with properties already on life support. Personally, I’d like to see a follow-up season where Ramsay revisits the same properties one year after his initial stay to see whether they have truly turned things around or not. Although they may be outliers on the spectrum of functional hotels, there are still plenty of insightful nuggets for operators worldwide.