‘Hotel Impossible’ review and a rulebook for your own hotel reality show

Writing about Gordon Ramsay’s new Fox series, “Hotel Hell,” drew a slew of comments from eager hoteliers (read part one, part two and part three of my assessment), but most remarkable were the near-constant recommendations for the Travel Channel’s “Hotel Impossible.” It was all too hard to ignore, so I found the time to watch much of this 13-episode opening season. Hosted by renowned hotel fixer Anthony Melchiorri, “Hotel Impossible” is a good counterpoint to “Hotel Hell.” Comparisons are inevitable, but first, let’s review the basics.

The show follows Melchiorri as he traverses the United States visiting inns and lodges on the verge of bankruptcy. The host finds himself dealing with a variety of problems ranging from training insufficiencies and owner obstinacy to cleanliness issues and outdated décor. He also utilizes a hidden camera to punch up some sequences. Each episode is dovetailed by an uplifting postscript detailing each property’s successes in the months after Melchiorri’s resuscitation.

Even with blunt sound effects, glossy establishing shots and hard-cut editing, “Hotel Impossible” still has room for a few consistently astute pointers for hoteliers worldwide. These include:

First impressions are first assurances. A substantial chunk of time was devoted to the entrance and appearance of each property as Melchiorri arrived. In particular, I loved when he pointed to a cracked potted plant in the pilot, saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “If they don’t care about their flower pots, why are they going to care about me?” Give me safety, give me warmth and, most of all, give me happy memories. You won’t do that with burnt-out bulbs, rusty signs, unmanned security booths, unfriendly bellmen or heinous paint jobs. Set the mood and establish a solid rapport right from the start.

Lobbies are a social experience. Outdated décor, cluttered furniture and a lack of good F&B offerings will drive people away from the lobby and ultimately from returning to a hotel. The lobby should be an extension of a pleasing first impression, and it also has to be inviting for a host of other activities. The first step always centers on your front desk and its clerks. This is the nexus of operations. People shouldn’t be discouraged from hanging around or approaching a staff member. Also, consider, does your lobby lead directly into a social dining area? It should. If that’s not feasible, clear signage will do. Does your lobby make use of modern devices, like Internet-ready computers and tablets? I can guarantee your guests will want to access the web at some point during their stay — make this part easy for them.

Staff members are ambassadors. They represent your hotel on a guest-by-guest basis, and this task should never be taken lightly. Frame their responsibilities as that of an ambassador to bestow a touch more significance. Train and retrain your team so they know the fundamentals of effective communication. Make them accountable for their actions. Moreover, make sure your front-end staff members are, in fact, “people persons” — their enthusiasm will reverberate through a guest’s experience. This is especially important for valets, bellmen and front-desk clerks.

There’s no excuse for not listening to online reviews. Note the word “listening” — not “reading.” There’s a big difference. With typos, missed punctuation and run-on sentences galore, sometimes it’s hard to process what it is your past guests are saying. If this is an area where you need to improve, try this: print off each review onto a separate page (Sorry, trees!) and take notes in the margins. From there, transcribe the key points into a spreadsheet, then look for overlap. Keep in mind that when a guest takes the time to write a review, they will most likely be describing their “sticking points” — the things that stuck out and lingered in their minds, for better or for worse. Pay attention to the “worse” pile, as these are items you’d better fix if you want guests to consider returning.

Cleanliness is godliness. Want to immediately repulse a guest? Don’t clean the room properly. One little miss may be enough to ruin a guest’s stay. As Melchiorri emphasizes, the two most critical areas for this are the bed and the bathroom. Those two have to be spotless, with impeccably clean, crisp sheets, no rust or mold in any tiled crevice and no stains whatsoever. Keep a regular schedule of inspections and retrain your housekeeping staff as needed.

Play to your strengths. Melchiorri often found himself dealing with some rather counterintuitive hospitality scenarios. The properties would have a killer locale, yet still struggle for bucks. The host’s automatic prescription would then involve a quick fixer-upper and verbal assault on the seemingly incompetent owners along with a reemphasis on the hotel’s key features. If the property was on the beach, then that’s where he’d allocate most of his resources — highlighting this centerpiece and making it as accessible as possible for guests. Ditto for wine country or a major urban center. Your key location feature should extend to the theme of your hotel and the services you offer — very straightforward stuff, really.

All in all, “Hotel Impossible” makes for a fun hour that’s a tad more veracious and incisive than its Gordon Ramsay equivalent. There are definitely some more worthwhile pointers for hoteliers in this rendition, and Melchiorri’s vivacious demeanor keeps the show away from tedium. But let’s not do a stock comparison of the two, because that is decidedly boring. Instead, let’s consider both shows as a template for how you could start your own hotel-oriented reality TV series. Here’s what you need:

Energetic host. Melchiorri and Ramsay have a lot in common. They’re showy, curt and, at times, highly abrasive, but above all, they have charisma. Whether it’s off the cuff or through the miracle of sharp editing, your host has to carry the drama. And what better way to create the drama than through an in-your-face attitude? You need someone who’ll bring the noise and create the conflict while still adopting the “good guy” persona.

Family owners. Not to say that this is necessarily bad, but both shows have definitely fast tracked the mom-and-pop joints into the realm of deplorable stereotype. So why stray from a good thing? When you research prospective hotels for each episode, be on the lookout for those with no formal hospitality education, those who are quick to place the blame elsewhere and those who are particularly resistant to change. Careful though, as the owners or general managers can’t be too crabby. This is television, after all, and audiences will flee if the operators act like Igor or Freddie Kruger.

Light at the end of the tunnel. When you assess a property, one obvious question to ask is, “Can it actually be fixed?” Sadly, not every place can, at least not within the confines of 45 minutes plus commercials. Maybe these could be your “To Be Continued” episodes. You need to find properties that can be wholly transformed with a regimented makeover that involves a stern heart-to-heart with the obstinate owners; a full audit of the F&B, housekeeping and lobby services; and a sprucing up of the hotel’s locale-driven theme.

Find your niche. Melchiorri was a heavy proponent of flawless first impressions and thoroughly analyzing the cleanliness of the rooms. Ramsay’s focal point was the food, sometimes devoting almost half the episode to this subject. What’s your niche? Is your host a top dog at parlaying with and comforting disgruntled frontline staff? Is he or she a tech guru? A marketing wizard? An environmental consultant? This is your unique angle to help differentiate your reality TV series while still adhering to the aforementioned commonalities.