Originally published Monday, October 17, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Hotels learn new techniques to keep guests happy

If it seems hotels have become better, they have. Maybe not the economy motels of the world, but from Holiday Inn on up, hotels seem to...

Chicago Tribune

Rooms with a difference

Five unique in-room hotel offerings

— Kimpton Hotels (not all, but many): a goldfish

— Affinia Hotels (New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.): guitars and golf putters

— Drake Hotel (Toronto): sex toys (charges apply)

— Captain Lord Mansion (Kennebunkport, Maine): Poo-pourri, which is toilet bowl spray with the motto "Before you go ... and no one else will know!"

— Ace Hotel (New York): turntable with vinyl records (not all rooms have this amenity)

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If it seems hotels have become better, they have. Maybe not the economy motels of the world, but from Holiday Inn on up, hotels seem to be performing better than five years ago.

Nowhere is the reason for the ascent clearer than in the efforts of Affinia, a boutique chain where rates often hover in the $300 range, with seven locations in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Over the summer, the family-owned chain had body-language expert Patti Wood train about 600 employees on how to better interact with customers.

For instance, the chain learned that women often respond better to face-to-face communication, said Chrissy Denihan, Affinia's "chief comfort officer." Men apparently prefer side-by-side communication, Denihan said.

When a male-female couple came to an Affinia front desk with a complaint recently, a manager walked around the counter, stood beside the man and faced the woman while talking through the matter.

"The issue went away," Denihan said.

The man even came back with a $5 tip, she added.

From front desk to housekeeping to maintenance, the Affinia staff has been trained to read eyes, lips and body language, among other clues. A suit, downturned lips and eyes glued to a BlackBerry, for instance, could indicate a harried business traveler or a long day traveling, thus requiring an expedited check-in.

The reservation team also went through the training, which led to an obvious question: How are such techniques used on the phone?

"Apparently the biggest mistake is to talk too calmly (when someone is upset) and be too soothing," Denihan said. "The person on the line doesn't hear a sense of urgency to help them."

Luxury and boutique hotels have long made exceptional customer service a touchstone, but Affinia's efforts are an innovative stab at differentiating, said Cathy Enz, a professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.

"What's neat is that they're trying to put a little more behavioral science behind what they do," Enz said.

Before long, it might not be uncommon for other hotel chains to enter the business of reading body language.

"Amenity creep in the hotel industry has always been easy to imitate," Enz said. "And hotels have always been better at it than a lot of service providers. I think of that every time I stand in a long line at a rental car company."

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