Is your hotel addictive?

To give you a new perspective on your guest-service operations, let’s reframe a person’s hotel experience in terms of chemicals — specifically, how a brain responds to micro- and macro-interactions by releasing certain neurotransmitters. For those of us lacking a medical degree, neurotransmitters are the molecules your nervous system releases to dictate further bodily actions and emotional states of mind.

Although there are dozens of these brain chemicals that have been identified, we’re going to focus on five widespread and powerful neurotransmitters as they relate to guest-staff relations — four good and one bad. On the positive end of the spectrum, I remember them by asking the simple, relevant and acronym-tinged question: how DOES a hotel elicit positive emotions from its guests? In this case, “DOES” stands for dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin. On the opposite end is cortisol, which, although technically a hormone, is a must to avoid.

We hoteliers should know a thing or two about neurotransmitters because they are instrumental in reward-seeking and affection-seeking behavior. Dopamine is most directly associated with adventurous or reward-motivated behavior; when we find something we like, dopamine is released. Oxytocin is the “bonding hormone,” released after we encounter any displays of kindness, warmth or empathy. Endorphins are a series of naturally occurring opiates that inhibit pain and induce feelings of euphoria. Serotonin is the “feel good” chemical, contributing to feelings of happiness, belonging, self-assurance, satiety and many others. Lastly, cortisol is the stress hormone and counteracts the release of several “positive” neurotransmitters on top of its own metabolic and emotional effects.

Here’s a simple example: you are offered a free cookie by a friend (oxytocin); the cookie tastes good (dopamine and serotonin); your brain records that the cookie tastes good and remembers this encounter for future reference. In this instance, the cookie is provoking a positive feedback loop to reinforce the behavior of eating more cookies.

Now consider one involving a front-desk clerk handling the check-in process with a male guest. It starts with the guest arriving, and the clerk smiles in return with a warm greeting (oxytocin). After a speedy check-in where the employee continues to talk and ask questions in a soothing yet confident tone (oxytocin and serotonin), the clerk gives the guest a complimentary spa treatment because he has attained a certain milestone within the hotel company’s loyalty program (dopamine and serotonin).

Upon redeeming his reward — an invigorating back massage — said guest feels a strong sense of relaxation and bliss (endorphins). Unfortunately, there was a minor spill in the spa entrance area and the guest nearly slipped while leaving (cortisol). He calmed down after the receptionist rushed to assist him and apologized profusely (oxytocin).

In essence, when asking how addictive a hotel is, we are actually pondering what we can do to increase the release of the DOES neurotransmitters in our guests’ brains. The above example is rather uncomplicated, but it nonetheless demonstrates the all-encompassing role these hormones and neurotransmitters have as we go about our days. The case goes to show that are there many straightforward ways to increase a hotel’s perception. It also illustrates how micro-interactions can act in succession to generate a far stronger and longer-lasting sentiment towards a person, place or object.

How does your hotel excite the senses? What physical objects can you place in the lobby, restaurants, bars or guestroom corridors to provide your guests with a palpable distinctive space? What features or amenities do you offer that would be considered exceptionally rare amongst your average guests? More to the point, what do you offer in terms of exciting and novel experiences? Responding to these questions and adjusting your operations accordingly will have powerful subconscious effects with your clientele.

Before I sign off, a word on cortisol is required. This hormone is the antithesis of what you want. Along with adrenaline, it helps put you in “fight-or-flight” mode as a result of stress or some other external hazard by arresting restive bodily functions. As part of our evolutionary development, we are built to vividly remember dangerous encounters so that we can do our best to avoid them in the future. In this sense, we often recall incidents of pain or suffering with far greater detail than those with the opposite circumstances.

Cortisol is partly responsible for our visceral reaction to seemingly unsafe or unhygienic conditions — what our primitive brains interpret as a precursor to danger. It is a powerful hormone and one you must do your best to avoid because one cortisol-inducing event may be enough to counteract a dozen others that promote serotonin or dopamine. As such, if you are hoping to deliver an “addictive” experience, start by eliminating any perceived negatives, and then (and only then) build in your positive.