By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/15/2010 9:36:30 AM ET 2010-09-15T13:36:30

What do you look for when you’re searching for a hotel? A good rate? A comfortable bed? Free Wi-Fi and a complimentary breakfast? How about a relationship?

OK, so that last one might be a stretch, at least consciously, but rest assured, any hotel worth its rack rate wants very much to have a relationship with you.

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“It goes beyond loyalty programs and frequent-quest programs,” said Daniel Mount, an associate professor at the School of Hotel Management at Penn State. “The customer who raves about his experience and is likely to return is the one who feels he has a relationship with the hotel.”

These days, with hotel occupancies and revenues just starting to climb back from historic lows, fostering such relationships may be more important than ever. Little wonder, then, that savvy hotel companies are laying the groundwork before employees and guests even meet.

The art and science of customer service
Recently, I had the chance to experience those efforts firsthand at a new Hyatt Place in Seattle. Over the course of two mornings, I participated in the company’s customer-service program for new employees and worked a shift behind the front desk. The company’s goal was to showcase its First Place Training program; mine was simply to avoid ruining anyone’s stay.

To facilitate that, I joined Tim Shaffer, Hyatt’s director of learning and development, and Austin, Cristina and Vincent, three recently hired employees who were also going through training. In company parlance, I would be a Gallery Host, a term that conjoins the chain’s open-layout lobby design (the Gallery) and its philosophy that employees are not just front desk clerks or housekeepers or shuttle-van drivers, but rather, well, hosts.

“When people travel, they’re disconnected from their normal lives,” said Shaffer. “Our job is to fill that gap.” To accomplish that, he introduced Purposeful Service, a three-point program built around a welcome (smiling, maintaining eye contact, using guests’ names, etc.), an offer (for example, luggage assistance or local directions, as appropriate) and the idea of “sharing a moment.”

Obvious, right? Not necessarily, said Mount, himself a former hotel general manager for 12 years: “Part of [customer service] is art, but part of it is science. There are people who are naturals in service interaction — they just get it — but the science is that there’s training that can help people develop those skills.”

Which, in our case, included that dreaded bane of almost every training session and skill development program: role playing. Pairing off, we took turns as guests and employ ... um, hosts, and tried to make 60 seconds of conversation while checking each other in or resolving a service problem. It was, like most such situations, awkward and uncomfortable — especially when trying to resolve a room complaint or billing error — but even that passed with a little practice.

In fact, it was, as Shaffer put it, like learning a new language: “You can use books or CDs as resources, but it will still sound funny coming out of your mouth. Practice it, though, and it’ll start to sound natural.”

On the front lines
The next morning, I joined Austin and Dana, another gallery host, behind the front desk. Truth be told, I spent most of my time refilling the gallery coffee pots and relaying questions I couldn’t answer to my co-workers, but it was clear that they were indeed building relationships by sharing moments.

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There was the offer to warm up a cookie for the woman who’d ordered one from the front-desk display case. The willingness to do a web search for a store where a family could find a pair of binoculars. Giving directions, taking in clothes for dry-cleaning and resolving a handful of billing questions and other issues. “Little things,” as Austin put it, “but people appreciate it. Sometimes, they leave happier than they came in.”

According to Nick Morgan, a public-speaking consultant and author of “Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma,” the key was that we were actively listening and responding to guests’ specific needs rather than parroting back the pat phrases and scripted lines that define service interaction at many hotels, airports and other travel-focused businesses.

“It’s like the restaurant where the waiter asks, ‘Have you dined with us before?’ ” said Morgan. “If you’re unfortunate enough to say no, they’ll launch into this pre-programmed explanation. You can see the wheels turning.”

Training, on the other hand, he noted, “is all about making it real.” And while “authenticity” is still quite possibly the most overworked buzzword in the history of the hospitality business, it’s also true that you can’t have a real relationship without a genuine connection.

“People are very quick to pick up on the disconnect when someone pretends to listen but really isn’t,” said Morgan. “We may never know why we feel a lack of connection, but we do.”

And that’s no way to build a relationship.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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