Dealing with Hospitality During a Pandemic

Professor Joe Goldblatt

As a small boy I remember my parents playing cards at our kitchen table. My head barely poked up beyond the edge of the well worn table. However, I could easily see the hands that my parents and their friends had been dealt. All the hands were, as life itself, unequal. It reminded me of the famous Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler” when he crooned in his lush baritone voice, “You’ve got to know when to holdem and know when to foldem.”

I assume many of my friends in the Scottish hospitality industry are having similar debates as the pandemic, day by day, reduces the chances of a rapid recovery for this important sector in our economy. Unlike other major business interuptions such as the global financial crisis of 2008 or the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, this challenge is indeed a different kettle of fish.

Last March, when we went into the first major lock down, I and many other Jewish persons in our country began to be concerned about having sufficient provisions to celebrate Passover which celebrates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Therefore, I picked up the telephone and asked for help from Scotland’s sole kosher delicatessan and grocery. They immediately told me they could not help me due to staff shortages. I then began calling London, where there is a much larger Jewish population, and every call resulted in the same response “Due to the virus we have staff shortages and cannot fulfil your order.”

After failing in both Scotland and England I decided to go global. My first Google search hit the jackpot. However, I had no idea how far my goods would need to travel to reach our Passover table. A polite young man agreed to help me and assured me that my order would arrive before Passover. I then asked “Where are you located?” He responded with typical Israeli confidence, “Tel Aviv!” When I began my quest for a few items that would easily be available in most major cities, I had no idea that I would have to return to the where the Jews landed after they had made their exodus from Egypt thousands of years ago in order to source the proper supplies for our family meal. And when I received the final bill, I realised that I was still somewhat enslaved and this time it was to the business disruption caused by the pandemic. A box of Matzo (the unleavened bread that Jews eat during passover) that would locally cost £2.00 was £9.00 due to shipping and handling costs.

The challenges we have experienced with the service economy during the pandemic are certainly to be expected as many workers are unable to report for work due to exposure to or infection from virus. However, I am also certain that many others like me are also beginning to ask, what will be the new normal in the Scottish hospitality and serrvice economy sector?

I was once told by a very successful hospitality business leader that in this sector you hire for attitude and train for aptitude. The man who told me this was the founder a world renowned hotel brand. The highly respected business leader and I once sat together on the front row of a conference in Toronto, Canada where he was to serve as the keynote speaker and I was his introducer. The room was filled with hundreds of hospitality professors. While waiting to be called to the stage, I cheekily whispered to him a question that I had been considering for some time. “Confidentially, do you believe in hospitality education?” He quickly shook his head and said that most hospitality training actually occurred on the job and as an example he told me that his company successfully trained housekeepers to inspect over 100 items in a typical guest room prior to welcoming the next guest so that they had a perfect experience.

Following his excellent speech to the professors of hospitality I asked him once again “So, if you do not believe in hospitality education, why are you attending a hospitality education conference?” He smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said “I thought I might just learn something?” Indeed he did and he used this learning to further grow his business.

So, what might the Scottish hospitality industry learn from the Covid – 19 pandemic of 2020? I believe that one of the most important lessons will be the ability to rapidly adapt business practices and also to focus upon the age old core values of hospitality. Many Scottish hospitality businesses, to their credit, have quickly adapted their service to include take away and click and collect. However, I wonder if simultaneously they have also reinforced and reminded staff of the core values of hosptiality itself?

I experienced these core values when I arrived in Atlantic City, New Jersey at 10am one morning to deliver a speech at 12 noon. I had travelled from Boston all night on a cold train whilst sitting upright in my seat. As I wearily crossed the large hotel foyer, I noticed that a woman with greying hair was standing behind the high desk. This was surprising to me because it had been my experience that most hotel reception staff were the newest and greenest members of the team. This women exuded maturity and experience and then she lifted her arm and waved at me. When she waved, I looked over my shoulder to see who she was greeting. I quickly learned from the wink in her eye, that I was her target.

When I reached the desk she smiled broadly and said “Good morning sir. What would you like to do first?” I was startled by her question because it had been my experience to usually be asked “How do you prefer to pay?”

I immediately wondered why she asked this question and then I glanced to my left to see a casino, to my right were retail shops and behind me a large cafe. I instantly realised that she was not offering me a room, she was inviting me to experience true hospitality.

When I explained my need for a shower before my speech she quickly opened my computer record and then looked up and smiled at me and said “Sir, I wonder if you would be my guest for breakfast in our cafe whilst we prepare a beautiful room for you?” Of course she was actually admitting that my room was not ready, nor would it be at that hour, however, she used the hospitality language of love to soothe my disappointment.

Today, with hope in my heart, I rang a kosher grocery store in London and asked for them to send me some passover supplies and once again I was disappointed when the so – called customer service worker abruptly said “I cannot promise anything.” I remembered last year’s journey that took me all the way to Israel and wondered if I was about to embark on a similar adventure.

Now is not the time to foldem or holdem. Rather, it is the time to restore the age old values of hospitality. The Ritz Carlton hotel brand is one of the top luxury hospitality organisations in the world. They have earned this respect by adhering to ttheir motto of “Ladies and gentlemen taking care of ladies and gentlemen.” This phrase is displayed above the door of every service entrance to remind the staff that when they step through that door they are also, similar to Walt Disney World cast members, stepping on stage.

It is my fervent hope, that when we emerge from this horrible business distruption that Scottish hospitality will be stronger, more focused and more successful than ever before because we will have learned that we must adapt and adhere to our core values to be prepared to triumph over future challenges. Then and only then, will we be consistently dealt a winning hand.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and is the author, co – author and editor of 39 books in the field of events and hospitality management.

3 thoughts on “Dealing with Hospitality During a Pandemic

  • February 25, 2021 at 7:36 pm

    Dear Prof. Goldblatt,

    Greetings from Dublin, Ireland.

    I enjoyed your article, as shared by our mutual contact Gerry Reynolds.

    In the same vein, as your hospitable hostess mentioned, might I invite you to read my abridged thesis..? 🙂

    I’m currently trying to get it published, however, it would truly be my honour to send it to you for your perusal?

    Many thanks and best wishes during these testing times!

    Katherine Thomas


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