The Psychology Behind Hospitality

The more I work in hospitality roles, the more I realize guest service is like marketing. Marketers are always working to increase their connection with customers and enhance the feeling or perceptions of the product. The best marketing is always the stuff no one realizes is marketing.

I have learned that small changes can have a huge impact. I was a parking attendant on a property that saw thousands of guests every day. If a car pulled into one of the hotel spots, I’d have to jog over and inquire if they were with the hotel. If they weren’t, I needed to convince them to repark elsewhere. 

These conversations always seemed to begin with the guest defensive and often aggressive. I wondered why guests were so defensive when I hadn’t even met them. I realized that it must be a little intimidating for the guest to have a person of authority (marked by my high-vis vest) quickly coming towards them. Even though I just wanted to chat with them to see how I could help them to a better spot, they assumed I was there to lecture them. So, I made a little change.

As I approached, I gave the guests a quick wave. There was a whole science to the gesture. It had to be long enough to get their attention, yet short enough to be casual and friendly instead of aggressive. My fingers had to be slightly curled to look relaxed, yet spread to catch attention. Now when I jogged over, they saw an energetic person, eager to help, instead of an angry parking attendant racing over to chew them out.  With that little wave, I was advertising that I was here to help and most guests allowed me to start a conversation with them. Traditional action-based training would have created a strict script to handle defensive guests instead of using psychology to understand and prevent defensive guests. From my experience serving guests, I have learned a lot about the mind, how little changes can make a huge impact and how to bring this knowledge into life.

The Hierarchy of Needs

Skilled marketers know that the best ads will die if no one pays attention to them. Marketers spend millions trying to find a time and place to communicate with the customer when they will have the customer's full attention. I also found that I needed to work to ensure guests weren’t distracted during their experience. 

Distraction, by definition, means to not be paying attention to what we should be at that time. Due to the variety of things we need to look after in life, we can often be “distracted” from the situation at hand. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs uses a pyramid structure to explain individual needs. On the bottom are our survival needs: food, shelter and water. Above survival are safety needs: we need to feel secure and know our long-term wellbeing is assured. The next tier is belonging; you can think of this as social wellbeing. The final tiers are esteem and self-actualization; this is where most emotions reside and creativity is born. If there are gaps in the lower tiers, we won’t be able to engage with the upper tiers and live healthy well-rounded lives. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs doesn’t just apply to the full span of an individual’s life though, it also applies to specific experiences in life. I was a little nervous this summer about caving and being underground for four hours, climbing, navigating and... possibly getting stuck. Our guide put me at ease. I could also tell right away that he had a lot of experience. Verbally, he shared that he had been caving for a decade, but I also paid attention to what he was doing and could tell from his practiced movements that he was comfortable and skilled. I felt safe. Now I was free to enjoy the experience. 

Safety isn’t just about life and death or risky situations such as caving. As a valet, I needed to inspire trust in the guests also. Just like when I was caving, if I had been worried about looking after myself, I would have missed some of the really neat experiences. If hotel guests are concerned about the safety of their possessions, it creates a draw on their mental energy and lessens their enjoyment of the experience.

I learned that merely telling a guest, “I will park your car safely,” didn’t inspire trust. It had just the opposite effect. Guests seemed to wonder, “Why does he feel the need to tell me this? Has he had an accident before?” I found it was more effective to demonstrate my ability. Just like my caving guide’s practiced actions showed he had experience caving, I always did my best to ensure my valet process was fluid to demonstrate my competence. If I dropped the keys or stepped off the curb wrong, I could feel the guest’s trust diminishing. Those actions had nothing to do with my driving ability but were perceived as either excessive nerves or lack of practice.  

I always drove carefully and took special care to get really close to the curb. This approach made it easier for the guests to enter the car (subtly showing I cared about their comfort) and showed I had the skills needed to park cars. If I couldn’t get the car first shot, I would pull around and do it again. It was embarrassing! But it showed guests that I always went the extra mile to get things right. I knew that even if the owner of that car wasn’t around yet, other guests would still see me. If guests saw me doing this for another guest’s car, they could be sure that I would do it for theirs also.

We often don’t realize how a gap in the lower tiers will affect our engagement with the upper tiers. Figuring out how to communicate and demonstrate that a guest’s basic needs are met can be tricky. 

Navigate Experience

When guests are unfamiliar with a specific property or process, it can be overwhelming. Their social fears creep in and they get scared they will do something wrong, which limits their feelings of belonging. 

I learned that a surprising number of situations required smooth handling to continue to reassure guests of their belonging. It’s not that I worked with a ton of insecure people. Even approaching guests in their car could make them think they had broken some unwritten rule and would make them defensive. Over time, I’ve learned to navigate these experiences to prevent any negative emotions.  

As a bellman, I waited for guests in the parking lot and loaded their luggage while I worked to build rapport. Then I would show them (and their luggage) to the hotel lobby. However, on the main floor of the hotel, there was a busy tourist center. Children would come in and ask, “Is this an airport?”.

Guests were often a little shocked at the contrast between the leisure outside and the chaos inside. Often guests assumed that my role was just to help them to the building, and would get worried about navigating their way through the crowds to the hotel. To prevent this worry, before we got inside, I would purposely mention that I would show them to the elevators and then help them check in at the front desk. This showed them that I had everything under control. One small phrase upon entering the building helped alleviate guests’ stress and enabled them to enjoy the experience more. Guests didn’t even realize how I had navigated this situation.

Often, I needed to help them navigate more than just physical spaces. Even though the front desk was only a few steps from where we exited the elevator, and an agent was smiling at the desk, guests never took the initiative to begin checking in. I found this odd. 

I began to realize that because I had built rapport with the guest prior, they were just following what they knew. If I wanted them to do anything, I would have to show them. I would introduce them to the front desk agent and explain that the agent would help them check-in while I took their bags to their room for them. These instructions, disguised as an introduction, helped them know what was expected. Inevitably, if I ever forgot the introduction and left with their bags, they would either hesitate and get worried about their bags or just follow me to the room. Guests never were told what to do, yet we managed to still communicate how to navigate the situation with them so they never felt like they may do something wrong. 

Many people naturally help others navigate experiences in life. When you have house guests, you probably explain where the bathroom is, how the shower works and where the towels are. That is navigating the physical space. But you may also mention a few other things; what time you generally get up and go to bed (this helps guests know what behaviours are appropriate) and you may point out where the fridge is (which permits them to help themselves). In new situations, people are always trying to figure out what behaviours are expected and acceptable; if we can help people navigate that unfamiliar territory, they can focus more on their upper needs of enjoyment.

Manipulating the Parking Meter

Have you ever walked into a restaurant where the servers are all running around and no one greets you? Waiting three minutes might feel like ten! 

Studies have shown that everyone has a mental “parking meter”. It measures how long we are waiting. The problem is, the meters don’t keep accurate time. Negative emotions make time slow. So three minutes waiting without any sign anyone cares will feel much longer. Consciously we know that people may be busy, but subconsciously we wonder how hard it would be to say “hi” to us. These feelings affect our self esteem and feelings of self worth. 

But the parking meters are easily tampered with. If a staff member greets them, or even acknowledges them with eye contact, it slows the parking meter down. Instead of feeling ignored, they feel valued

Another hack I found interesting is that each time a staff interacts with guests it resets the parking meter. Apple uses this strategy to increase customer satisfaction. It’s not uncommon for a staff member to be with one customer when another customer interrupts for help. It would be rude to ignore the second customer, so they apologize and excuse themselves from the first conversation. The apology and graceful exit are essential for leaving the first guest happy.

Apple trains staff to listen to the second customer and quickly help them find what they need. Maybe they are looking for iPads, so they are shown a few sample models. But within a few minutes, the staff member excuses themselves, promising to return, and returns to the first guest. They then continue helping the first customer. While that customer is looking at sample models or exploring features, the staff member will excuse themselves and check in with the second customer. In this way, they can balance multiple customers, without trying to do everything at once. Their attention is focused on a single customer at a time, but they break up the time between them so the wait seems shorter. 

I love using my knowledge of the parking meter to balance guests. One evening after running a tour, I learned that the kitchen was severely understaffed and having troubles serving all the tour guests I had just been shown to the restaurant. While the guests were waiting for appetizers, I began making rounds just chatting with each guest. I only chatted with each table for a few minutes, but I smiled to myself knowing when I spoke with a guest, I was resetting their mental meter.

Our value is strongly linked, not to what others think of us, but to what we think others think of us. Our perceptions are based on their actions, which could be widely off the mark. By paying attention to how a guest may perceive or experience a situation will help staff demonstrate they care about guests. 

Increasing Interaction

Whenever I go to a hotel, I rarely get even a “Hi”.  Instead, I’m just asked, “What name is on your booking?” or even worse, “What’s your reservation number?” If the staff are impersonal and all business, I don’t feel very welcomed or respected.  

I want guests to enjoy their stay, but if they feel like they are just a number, they won’t have positive responses or emotions. I have trained my team to welcome the guests first and try to develop rapport. Right now while I ask our guests COVID screening questions, I’ll slip a fun question such as “ Do you like pineapple on pizza?” or “How many legs does a flamingo have?” into the required questions. It’s fun for me and lets them know I’m willing to engage with them on a personal level. 

I call these emotional connections “touchpoints” and try to build as many as possible. Most of our positive emotions reside in the upper tiers of life. These connections promote the upper tier. If I want guests to experience joy, pleasure and happiness, I need to craft those experiences. 

Apple has also learned to craft experiences of connection. They famously put a handle on one of their first Macs because it made it look more friendly. No one used the handle to carry the Mac (it was a large computer), but it sent the message that it was acceptable to touch the computer. This is an amazing example of a structural design to promote a psychological benefit. 


Disney World is renowned for its skills in creating experiences for families. A high level of thought goes into the things that most people probably don’t even notice. For example, at the entrance, there are carts making popcorn. Most people may assume this is a cash grab. The popcorn carts are actually placed there because the smell of fresh popcorn produces a sense of anticipation and excitement. 

Anticipation can make the emotions guests experience even stronger or more memorable. A little flair or presentation can turn something routine into a fun experience. There are countless videos on YouTube of vendors playing with their wares: Turkish men playfully serving ice cream, Italians throwing pizza dough and Japanese making noodles. Sitting at home not being able to smell or taste the food, I still get a sense of enjoyment because of the drama. 

I can’t throw a pizza crust but I still like to bring a little drama into work. It’s more fun for me, guests enjoy it and it shows that I’m enjoying my job. It adds character to an experience, which helps make it unique and memorable. In a crowded marketplace, being memorable is vital. 

You can use presentation to make ordinary things special. It’s decorating cupcakes and hanging art. It’s the ambiance of a fireplace and scented candles. It’s a genuine smile and crafted speech. 

Presentation forces you to consider how things appear to guests and can change how you approach problems. As a parking attendant, I needed to know if the guests were staying in the hotel, so the logical question was to ask exactly that. “Are you staying in the hotel?”. But then if they weren’t, they would have to move and they would be disappointed and indignantly ask “so if I was staying in the hotel, I could park here?”. It was never a good conversation. So I changed my approach. I asked if they were here for the tours and would show excitement if they were and mentioned that we had special parking for them elsewhere. They were still moving, but by flipping the perception, I was able to reduce the friction. Changing the format of my questions also wasn’t hard, but it helped prevent difficult conversations. And the guest had no clue how I had steered the conversation.

I always tell my team, “do nice things for guests, but make sure they know it”.Once, while walking the halls after delivering luggage, I found an ID card. Most people would have just put it in lost and found. But instead, I used the card to look up our in-house guests, found out what room the guest was in and delivered the card to the room. When I knocked, no one answered. I used my master key, let myself in and put the ID card on the table near the entry. I knew if I left it there, the guest would just think he had left it on the table by mistake. He wouldn’t even know he had lost it. I wrote a little note explaining how I found it, that I wanted him to get it back as quickly as possible and wished him a great stay. I thought nothing more of it. 

Later that evening, the guest came to our team and tipped me very generously. The effort he put into thanking me was impressive and a sign of how much he appreciated my service. He would not have even known anyone had done anything nice for him unless I had written that note. So it might seem shallow to draw attention to upgrades, or special services, but without them, guests have no way of knowing how much you really value their stay. 

The presentation can be many things. It can be artfully arranged food, a strategic approach to a conversation or even taking extra steps to let guests know how you have served them. Each one sends the message that you value them. 

Continual Marketing

In a way, I view guest service as marketing. I am continually marketing my services and business. Marketing is about creating a feel and attachment to a brand. It’s important to be distinct and create emotional connections with the guest. 

A large part of this is just putting myself in the shoes of the guest. If I saw a guy in a high vis vest coming toward me, I might assume he was there to get me to move also. I might not have parked incorrectly on purpose, but I still feel bad. So I would be defensive. As a parking attendant, I needed to dig into what’s happening with the guest to find out how to make these transactions easier.

When I’m working as a bellman, I need to ensure that guests are reassured about their safety. But it’s also important to make the experience enjoyable, so I work to make it seem effortless and fun for the guests. I navigate the physical and mental terrain so that they have more mental capacity available to enjoy the experience. 

Once a guest’s basic needs are met, we can begin working to ensure the experience is remembered favourably. We can use knowledge of the perception of time to push us to provide the most engaging service possible so guests feel valued and respected. We can work to involve the senses and make the experience immersive for the guest in a variety of ways. A well-crafted experience will ensure that guests feel safe, welcomed, respected and valued, which will create a positive impact. And all without them evening realizing how you did it.  


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