Stark lessons from ‘Hotel Hell’

Earlier this week, Fox debuted the reality series “Hotel Hell,” which follows celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay as he visits borderline-bankrupt properties in an attempt to use his wisdom to resuscitate revenue. The opener sees Ramsay visit the Juniper Hill Inn in bucolic Vermont — a historic, 20-something-room lodge that’s in the red by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although edited as a hyperbole of the problems at hand, the premiere nonetheless offers some shrewd insights for hoteliers. Watch and learn.

While many may disagree with Ramsay’s abrasiveness, he’s honest and forthright with his opinions, which makes for some highly entertaining conversations. And before you ask, “What could Gordon Ramsay possibly know about the inner workings of a hotel?” let’s review some of his biographical details.

First, he knows food. Before he became notorious for his foul-mouthed television persona, he was a multiple-Michelin-Star-ranked chef with several bustling restaurants in London. That’s something you earn only through years upon years of dedication to your craft. As “Hotel Hell” and many hoteliers (myself included) can reaffirm, F&B represents a colossal slice of the overall guest experience. Mastering this is crucial.

Next, he’s an entrepreneur. Not only is Ramsay the centerpiece of numerous reality cooking shows, he’s also the proprietor and menu-crafter for a series of high-end restaurants around the world. Gordon Ramsay is a brand, and that’s not something you build overnight. Somewhere in there are long hours, slaving away, placing orders, directing employees, balancing the books … No wonder he swears so much!

Third, and stemming from the second point, operating restaurants around the world means Ramsay has probably spent a fair amount of time living out of hotel rooms in various hotspots. And as his financial standing has grown over the decades, I’d wager that his accommodations have improved. Quantity, quality and a variety of experiences are the makings of a good barometer for success.

True, the property on display in “Hotel Hell” is not anywhere near exemplary of normal operations, in terms of size and profitability. But I stress that there’s always room to improve, and lessons can be found everywhere you look. That all said and without delving into too many spoilers, what can we learn from this episode?

1. The buck stops here. The premiere episode of Hotel Hell focused almost entirely on the utter ineffectiveness of the owner and operator. Ramsay labeled him a Muppet and rightfully lambasted him for attempting to lay the blame elsewhere. Leaders don’t blame or squabble; they accept responsibility and act accordingly. They lead by example, working hard and tirelessly from the ground up until the problems are solved.

2. Respect your staff. It’s all about reciprocation. If you want your employees to respect you, you have to return the favor. This helps to open the lines of communication so your employees feel comfortable approaching you with their dilemmas or specific suggestions. As an owner or senior manager, you are often focused on the broader issues, and maintaining good relationships with everyone down the line will help bring to light some of the more subtle problems with your operations.

3. First impressions are first assurances. Ramsay shows up in the middle of winter, and the front walkway isn’t cleared of snow or ice! That’s an instant red flag worthy of a whole demerit point — let alone any ensuing lawsuits that might arise if someone slips. Not only that, but the front entrance isn’t working, and there’s no signage to direct Ramsay accordingly. First impressions are your one and only chance to set the mood and establish a precedent for the rest of the experience. Assure people they are in for a treat by ensuring your first impressions are warm, welcoming and hazard-free.

4. Great F&B is critical. This is Ramsay’s wheelhouse — hence, he has a lot to say on the matter — and it’s all justified. Nestled in rural Vermont, there aren’t many eating options around the Juniper Hill Inn. The restaurant there is reservation only, doesn’t serve lunch and doesn’t list prices (for the overpriced fare) on the menu. None of that matters if the food and service are outstanding, but sadly they were not, at least not by Ramsay’s standards. The restaurant is a constant process of fine-tuning, both in terms of service levels and the menu choices, requiring input and encouragement for staff, guests and managers.

5. Grudges are hard to erase. Once you’ve lost a customer’s trust, it’s nearly impossible to gain it back. Throughout the hour-long presentation, Ramsay’s face was riddled with an “I’ll never come back here!” look. There’s actually a genetic bias for this: we’re coded to avoid previously bad experiences to increase our chances of survival. While it’s great to work on enhancements, it’s even more imperative to rectify your shortcomings. This is one instance where meticulously reading your online reviews can come in handy for findings those deal breakers. Strive for flawless before you strive for perfection.

There’s still a lot more I gleaned from this episode, but it’s so nitpicky and specific for this absurd case of mismanagement. I might add that the show ended on a cliffhanger, leaving Ramsay’s solutions for the follow-up. Despite my distaste for the reality television format, this is still a fun show and a weekly dose of cautionary tales for hoteliers.