How to Make Memories


In my first job, I took a lot of training about hospitality. During one course, the instructor bluntly shared what a hotel actually is. It’s a used bed rental.  

No one likes used car salesmen. Now imagine renting used cars. And renting a used bed? Gross! Being a used bed rental agent isn’t a very attractive career.

I believe hospitality can be more.

If I can help people enjoy their stay, I will rise above the used bed salesman and become a harbinger of happiness. And if I can help them remember their experience, then I’m giving them memories to look back on and leaving a legacy. 

The problem is, there isn’t an obvious formula for what we remember.

From my own life, I have a strange assortment of memories. I remember specific questions from trivia competitions, but never full tournaments or even full quizzes. I remember getting a horrible brain freeze at a pizza place, but not what kind of pizza I had. I remember chatting with the agent at Budget rentals in Utah (rental cars, not beds...) about travel, but don’t even know what airline I flew with. 

As someone who competed at the highest level of trivia competitions, I know I have an excellent memory. Yet, I can only remember a small portion of my life. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Your life probably blurs together into a mass of blended experiences with only a few definable moments. At times, it seems that our lives are either extremely short or really boring if we can only recall a handful of experiences.

There isn’t an obvious pattern to memory, but there is a pattern. We remember the unique. It’s like a circus of memories. You might not remember all the acts, but you’ll remember the elephants and the trapeze.

For me, I remember select questions because they were great triumphs. They were the winning questions. They were times I amazed myself by guessing the right verse to quote from a single word that could have appeared in any number of verses. They were moments of great pride, joy and elation.

I remember the brain freeze because of the extreme physical sensations. The experience was burned, or more accurately, ‘frozen’ into my mind. Physical sensations help bring our body into the experience instead of just being a vehicle for our mind to travel in. 

At the rental shop in Utah, the agent took the time to chat and helped me with directions and I enjoyed the conversation. I remember chatting with the rental guy because that was a moment I felt valued by a stranger. The most memorable experiences are filled with positive emotions, physical sensations and deep personal pride or insight.

Positive Emotions

No one remembers the mundane. It’s only the extraordinary that gets captured by our brains. On the never-ending plain of life, it’s only the high mountains and the low valleys that pop out of the landscape that gives us something to latch on to. 

One of the memories I still have from my childhood is going around to vending machines looking for change. I’d look in the little door for any laying around, then I’d push the change button to see if anyone had forgotten and look again. I only found change a few times, but it always kept me looking for more. We remember positive experiences, like finding spare change, because it’s out of the ordinary. 

When grocery shopping, people compare the price per pound. This compares evenly and allows us to find deals. But with travel and hospitality, this isn’t as easy. When airlines sell tickets they know that if the ticket is even $10 cheaper, it will outsell competitors. Never mind that it has three layovers and no food. So the guest ends up spending extra time travelling, more stress in airports and likely more money buying those $14 airport sandwiches. All to save $10!

In hotels, the cheap rooms sell first. They are cheap for a reason, they are not as nice. They may be old, have a poor view or have heating issues. Often a hotel isn’t full, so simply allowing a guest to stay in a nicer room doesn’t cost much. But it makes a huge impact. The guests are in a nicer room and will have a better experience. And everyone loves free stuff. It’s a positive experience. 

I know all too well that a hotel can provide hundreds of great stays, yet no one will leave a review. But as soon as something goes wrong, a guest will leave a review. To get a positive review, the experience has to stand out as remarkable. 

I want every guests’ experience to be filled with amazing experiences so that they leave positive reviews. It’s fun to read good reviews, and it’s great for marketing. I also know that if I have impacted guests so deeply that they are motivated to leave a review, then they were likely impacted enough to remember their stay. 

Culmination of Emotions

I want to ensure all aspects of the experience are positive. Even the little things; especially the little things! Everything contributes to how guests feel.

Ever since I stayed in my first hotel, I’ve disliked the stay-over cleaning. Generally, the attendant will knock lightly on the door and squeak out “housekeeping”. If I’m in the room, packing for a hike, I’m left wondering if I actually heard something, if there’s a mouse in the room or just if someone was chatting in the hall. It makes me self conscious if I’m taking a nap in the middle of the day or in the middle of something.

When I was involved with the housekeeping operations, I asked my team to knock firmly (you’re knocking anyway, might as well be confident) and greet the guests. Sticking a few meaningless words before your message is a psychological trick I use that helps get people's attention. Instead of just saying a single word (which is easily missed), the staff announced “Good morning! Housekeeping.”. It’s a small change, but easier to hear and just a little friendlier. I had a guest comment once, that it was the friendliest greeting she had ever heard. If a slight change can turn delivering towels into a positive experience for the guests, do it! 

Positive emotions can come from happiness from upgrades or avoiding negative emotions like awkwardness or uncertainty. But can also come from joy, delight or surprise. Growing up on our goat dairy, we each had lots of chores to do. Helping in the garden, evening milkings, cleaning the house and making meals were all part of the daily routine. I naturally started to build my day around these immovable blocks. But if for some reason, we didn’t have dishes to do, that opened up a whole bunch of time. It was like going to the vending machine and finding free change, except I was being given free time. 

Unexpected Situations

When guests get what they feel they paid for or deserve, it makes no impact, no matter how nice. If the steak is tender at the 3 star Michelin restaurant, it’s not really noteworthy; that’s what you pay for. But if the steak is tender at the roadside diner, that’s something extra. You might just leave a review about it! When something is unexpected, it feels a little bit like a gift.

I worked for a while leading guests on tours of a glacier. (Yes, it was just as cool as it sounds.) Every day, I brought a thermos of hot chocolate with me. But I played a little experiment in how I presented the drinks. Our company advertised hot chocolate on the tours, so sometimes I just said: “here is your hot chocolate”. Many times, people just expected it and would get a little impatient waiting in line while I poured drinks for everyone.

Eventually, I started changing my presentation. I started saying how I had “sweet-talked the kitchen into making us some hot chocolate”. It was on these days that inevitably guests would come up after and comment how good the hot chocolate was and it was the perfect touch. We started getting reviews mentioning the hot chocolate and gushing about its flavour!

I made the same mix every day (the part about the kitchen was a fib), but for some reason, it tasted better on the days when it was a “special treat”. You need to present things as bonuses or positives. This takes a bit of showmanship; which I love! It’s marketing. Think about the greatest shows on earth; circuses. In normal society, a bearded lady would just be someone who doesn’t have a hygiene routine. But in the circus, she is a rare and special person! In hospitality, it’s important to make guests feel like that special person, getting extra special service. 

Calculating the Emotional Impact

As much as I try to enhance the positive, either through the process, subtle unexpected gestures or presentation, I also try to limit the negative. Our memories have a cumulative effect, so any negative experiences weigh down the nice things we have worked to include.

If a room is clean and ready for guests, and they arrive early, I like to check them in early. It’s an act of service and makes it more convenient for them. However, if they have to walk past trash bags in the hall and a bunch of clutter from cleaning rooms, their first impression is tainted. That first impression of a dirty hall would carry over to the rest of their experience and counteract the positive of getting in the room early.

An experience is only remembered if it is above or below what is expected. So, if handled well, having a guest wait until the expected check-in time is not an issue as that really doesn’t fall below the guest’s expectations. 

In their book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath talk about how memories are made. Our mental calculation of an event is not fair. We unknowingly give higher importance to specific items. They call this the “peak-end rule” because we remember the peak (or low) and the ending. Perhaps it’s just me, but I have found it hard to change a guest’s impression once they have made it. There are definitely strategic times that are weighted more strongly in a guest’s mind, but all the moments work together to form a cohesive whole.

Engaging the Senses

Last year, I travelled to Utah and loved it. But today, like with most things, I can only remember a few specifics from the trip. One of them is eating a lavender London fog doughnut at a bakery. I think it might have been the tastiest thing I have ever eaten. It was so soft, with just a subtle hint of lavender. In hundreds of memories from the trip, I remember that one. 

Just like periods of emotional elation are memorable, periods of physical pleasure are also memory triggers.

I’ve shared before how I like to surprise guests if they are celebrating something during their stay. At one hotel, we got quite a few guests who “casually” (wink, wink) told us about their celebration. People seem to think they are entitled to something - whether it’s a free cupcake, a bottle of wine or chocolate-covered strawberries - if they are celebrating. Ironically, I found it fun and annoying at the same time. Why should we buy you stuff just because you’re having a birthday?

The company wasn’t willing to buy a bottle of wine when we were getting two or three requests a day. But I really did want to go the extra mile for guests and found an inexpensive way to surpass expectations. I would elegantly arrange rose petals on the bed and handwrite a card to put in the room. It made an impression every time.

Bringing pleasure into an experience can take many forms. Anything pleasurable that interacts with our senses and goes beyond our expectations will help the experience stand out.

Create an Immersive Atmosphere

The pleasure I get from eating a good piece of dark chocolate can motivate me in ways nothing else can. I want guests to experience pleasure, but I can’t just give guests chocolate! 

No, I want to dunk them in chocolate and make them roll around in it. I want to pump them so full of dopamine, they explode, spraying tiny bits of chocolate-covered flesh on the walls. Then I know it’s memorable.

The difference between a service and an experience is how memorable it is. Higher-end hotels offer what is called “turn down service”. Basically, it’s a housekeeper that goes around in the evening and tidies your room and pulls the covers down for you.

What a weird service. I can get in bed myself, thank you very much! 

Instead of an odd, slightly outdated, and awkward service, one hotel made it an experience. During check-in, the guests could pick an essential oil they enjoyed. While guests were out for dinner, staff would enter the room and diffuse the guests’ favourite oil. We folded down the covers on the bed and placed two chocolates on the pillow. We quickly picked up trash, replaced dishes and restocked the coffee and teas. To further create a relaxing atmosphere, we began to pull the curtains to darken the room and turned off all the lights so only the diffuser softly glowed. Now, the room was clean, scented and ready for bed.

Guests were blown away when they re-entered after dinner and found the room transformed for bed. There were times though, that guests didn’t want us entering the room. Sometimes, the staff would then just give the guests two chocolates for their turn down. In their mind, ‘turn down’ was about giving guests chocolate. In mine, turn down was a chance to create an atmosphere and experience. It was a chance to bring pleasure to the guests, impress them and create memories. Just giving them a few chocolates at check-in didn’t make any memories.

Include the Body

One of the reasons to include as many senses as possible is because the more senses are involved, the more memorable the experience is. 

You probably remember the visualization of chocolate-covered bits of flesh on the walls. While not particularly pleasant, it is unique, extremely visual and therefore memorable. It just shows how things that are unique can stand out. 

One thing I always notice about the Fairmont properties is how they smell. Everywhere, it smells like vanilla and fresh baking! Scent can be a powerful branding tool because it is closely linked to memory. That is another reason we incorporated scents into the turndown service, to make it memorable and part of our hotel’s signature.

If you want an experience to be memorable, give guests physical delight in sights, sounds, taste, touch and smell. Don’t settle for boring office music; make your soundtrack high quality, enjoyable and on-brand. Don’t let practicality overpower whimsy; put that chandelier in. Give guests chocolate, but make it an experience, not just a piece of chocolate. When the experience appeals to the senses, it will be remembered. 

Mental Effects

It takes effort to make a memory. At a super fancy hotel, every morning we had to deliver newspapers to all the suites. Most staff would just walk by the rooms and drop the papers in front of the door. It always bothered me to see the newspapers laying a little off-kilter, often face down or backwards. It looked careless and messy.

When I delivered the papers, I made sure the front page was up, the type could be read from the guests’ side and that the papers were straight, lined up with the door. It showed that I cared as I placed these for the guest so they could catch the headline even before they picked the paper up. By putting a bit of extra effort in, I not only made the hallways look tidier (psychological benefit) but I also demonstrated that I valued the guests enough to go the extra mile, even in little things.  

When little extra things are done it makes an impact. I’ve rarely had people thank me for issues, but once I did. Our team had forgotten to put towels in a room. The guests were really nice and just mentioned it as they left for the evening. So I put new towels in their room, but also wrote a little card thanking them for their stay and put a few chocolates with it. That evening, they came back to thank me for the effort. The extra effort turned what could have been a small valley in the experience into a noteworthy peak.

Caring Staff

When staff go beyond what is expected, it shows they care. At one hotel, our bell team often had guests ask if we could call a cab for them. We’d always say that we would be happy to call a cab and asked where the guest was headed. They’d head off to wait and we’d dive into action. We’d pull a clean hotel shuttle car right to the front while another staff member went to the guest to offer them a ride. I could always tell the guests were so happy not to need to wait for a cab to arrive and to avoid crawling into the back of some cab.

And we were happy to drive the guests. In fact, we all liked it (well except me. I have trouble with directions) we called it “A+ing” the guests. The format positioned it as something we did because we cared, not because it was required. This meant if we ever were too busy to drive, that was alright, we weren’t disappointing the guests. We always made every effort to, even if the rest of us had to pull double duty to cover while a team member was off driving. We made the extra effort because we cared about the experience and the service. 

Achieving the Ultimate Goal

When staff do little extra things for the guests’ stay to make it better, it shows they care and guests feel valued. Guests may never consciously realize that I carefully placed the newspapers with them in mind. But I think that subconsciously, they would realize the neatness and realize that someone cared. When you go out of your way to drive them wherever they need to go guests will realize you want them to enjoy their stay and you value their comfort.

Guests like to feel special. Everyone does! Have you ever gotten a bag of chips and found a really big chip? Doesn’t it feel so nice to eat that one? It feels kind of like a bonus. I got this giant chip when everyone else got small ones. Yet, when you think about it, you bought the bag of chips by weight. You got the same amount of chips.

But you still feel unique if you get that big chip.

In hospitality, everyone buys a big bag of chips. The staff can’t really control what is inside that bag. But they can point out the big ones and draw attention to the flavour. Even if you do the same thing for every guest, you can make them feel special. 

Molehills to Mountains

Our lives are measured, not by time, but by memories. We can manufacture memories for ourselves, our family, friends and even strangers by making experiences that stand out from the ordinary.

Memories are made when situations are abnormal. Things need to be noteworthy, either good or bad, for us to take notice. There’s a cumulative effect, but more attention goes into the first moments and our final impressions.

The more fully one can engage the more they will remember. Create experiences so filled with pleasure that guests explode… from joy. 

Creating memories and pleasure takes intention and effort though. But effort shows care. And it’s that care that really makes guests feel valued and makes an impact.

When only the newspapers are sitting just so, it doesn’t matter. But when the newspapers are sitting just so, the housekeeping cheerily greets you “good morning”, the room smells nice, and your tour guide went out of his way to bring hot chocolate for you onto the frigid glacier tour, then you’ve got a memorable experience.



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