Hotelier notes from season two of ‘Fawlty Towers’

When I first starting researching — and by researching I mean watching — the 1970s British TV series “Fawlty Towers” for a “lessons learned”-style post, I wasn’t too optimistic. After all, we’re talking about extrapolating the screwball sitcom antics of a small English countryside inn into something meaningful for hoteliers who are undoubtedly the complete opposite of what the hilariously spiteful innkeeper, Basil Fawlty (played by John Cleese), embodies.

However, the quantity and quality of my observations was astounding. “Fawlty Towers” proved to be such a treasure trove of useful morsels of guest service wisdom that I had to divide them into two posts, one for both of the show’s six-episode seasons. (You can read my thoughts on the first season here.) 

When the creatives convened to start outlining ideas for the latter six episodes of the series, they knew that, even though it was a sitcom, they couldn’t rely on the kookiness of the main four characters for all the gags. Sure, nine out of 10 laughs are still the result of abject miscommunication, clumsiness, sarcasm and neglect amongst the staffers, but a few more are coming from the zany antics of supporting characters and one-off guests, thus giving us some keen insights about how to deal with unruly guests.

With that, we dive headfirst into the second season of “Fawlty Towers.” And let me remind you that even though the characters on this show are, for the most part, totally incompetent and disgraceful hoteliers, by their very nature they have a lot to teach us about how to get things right.

1. Stand behind your product.

In the first new episode, Basil and his team encounter a rather miserly old lady who demands a discount for supposed errors on the hotel’s part. Now, obviously there are definite occurrences where a price reduction might greatly help ameliorate an aggrieved visitor. But, in cases where you and the hotel are clearly not at fault, you have to first hold tight and discuss the issues calmly. Only then can you discover the true nature of the problem while also satisfying the distressed party.

2. Guest prioritization will always be complex and confusing.

At the front desk, if all goes as planned, it’s typically first come first serve. But then a stressed-to-the-max guest rushes the desk, interrupting, demanding, commanding, pointing and shouting. Do you drop everything to quell this concern? Will the person you were previously helping understand your need to shift gears? Now apply similar instances of urgency to the restaurant, rooms and any other frequented locale. My advice: set boundaries for your team, but also train them on how to adapt to individual cases that may require special attention. For the abovementioned front desk example, ask the previously-being-helped guest if it’s okay to attend to the tense arrival. Only once you have approval do you switch over.

3. Never complain to your guests.

Basil has a knack for bestowing his gripes onto his guests in casual conversation. Don’t whine about your personal problems to your guests; that’s their job, so don’t steal their thunder!

4. Never interrupt a guest.

Just like the fine art of complaining, interrupting is also a clear and obvious faux pas. Even if you have something of extreme importance to convey and something that may completely alter the course of the present conversation as you know it, just let the guest finish the train of thought before you commence. British sensibility applies in full here: stay calm, carry on …
5. No one likes a brusque waiter.

Haute cuisine is a delicate matter, and the more your menu is a wonder to behold, the longer it will take your patrons to decide. Double this allotted time for couples on romantic dates or large parties where there’s a lot to discuss. It’s a matter of how your waiters frame their approach. Instead of saying, “Ready to order?” start with, “Can I help you with anything on the menu?” The former is curt; the latter is helpful and attentive. The same applies for opening beverages or aperitifs. Ask, “Can I help you decide on a drink to start with, perhaps?” rather than, “Get you anything to drink?” It’s a subtle but significant difference.

6. Accrue regulars.

The main inspiration for this point is The Major, a veteran from World War II who always seems to be poking his head around Fawlty Towers and occasionally partaking in one of Basil’s many snafus.

This principle can apply to the restaurant, bar, spa, gym or, ultimately, your rooms. Hosting regulars elevates everyone’s spirits while subliminally demonstrating to other newcomers that your abode merits return visits.

7. Is your kitchen open late?

In “Fawlty Towers,” this scenario presented itself as a late-arriving couple who missed their late meal and was rather grumpy because of it. All they wanted was some warm food straight before bed. Lo and behold, in their frazzled state, the fact that they missed last call in the kitchen shocked them — it was the hotel’s fault, not theirs!

So, if your restaurant stays open late as a contingency to accommodate special requests then your costs will start to climb, but if you close early, you run the risk of ticking off patrons. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t! One simple solution is to be sympathetic towards these cases and keep a handful of late-night delivery services on file.

8. Surprise parties require extra attention.

In and around a person’s day of significance, he or she can be both highly perceptive and very suspicious. Therefore, when organizing such a clandestine affair, take precautions against some of the more common risk factors and do your best to plan around unforeseen events that might spoil the surprise.

9. When will we be seeing you again?

Much like how you can elicit a better response by posing a slightly tweaked set of questions in a restaurant, the same applies for checkout. This particular query is great for jumping into a rapport-building dialogue and cuing a departing guest to consider you for next time. Plus, you never know, if there was something displeasing about someone’s stay then this question may prompt a guest to flesh out his or her silent disdain into something far more constructive.

10. Don’t let staff conflicts boil over to affect service quality.

In a perfect world, everyone would get along with everyone else fine and dandy. But, that isn’t the case, so we have to make the best of what we have. If a conflict arises between two or more staff members, it’s your job to intervene, lend a friendly voice to the discussion and then resolve the issues behind the scenes as soon as possible.

11. Booting an unruly visitor is always a final resort.

A problem I see nowadays is that even if a guest is the bona fide culprit for certain transgressions on property, banishing him or her does more harm than good. The reason: online review sites. Any past guest can write a semi-anonymous narrative of events and make the hotel out to the maligned party. This puts managers on the defensive, as it forces them to provide evidence of their blamelessness, nonetheless leaving it open for interpretation by future readers. Best to suppress the issue before it migrates online and convince a guest of your point of view then find a common resolution.

12. Smile when you joke.

Basil’s “sledgehammer wit” comes off exactly as his snarky smile portrays it: rude, impatient and crass. However, all would be well and good if he simply adjusted his tone and delivered his sarcastic banter with a big, genuine smile — one that originates from within and is not a mere façade. By approaching your own unique brand of humor with a deep-rooted love for your guests, they’ll return in kind.

BONUS: Above all, don’t forget your spouse’s anniversary!

Don’t do as Basil did by turning this day into a nefarious game of cat-and-mouse. Make it known that you remember the moment you wake up.
As a concluding remark, one of the episodes of this second season dealt with a particularly dark and touchy subject matter for you to consider — someone dying while staying at your hotel. Obviously, on the show this was approached very lightheartedly. But in reality, it is a direly serious scenario that you must ensure is accurately covered in your crisis communications binder and training protocols.

Apart from that, I hope you have enjoyed my thoughts on what this classic BBC series teaches us about service. And the next time you find yourself in Torquay or anywhere else in the English Riviera, be sure to stop by Fawlty Towers, which may or may not have reopened after a clever rat made his home in the hotel’s kitchen.