April 21, 2009

Cleese Uses His Extensive Travel to Advise Hotelies

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Since his appointment as the A.D. White Professor-at-large ten years ago, famed British actor, comedian and screenwriter John Cleese has regularly visited Cornell’s campus to share his thoughts on a wide range of topics, including writing, theatre, film, psychology and religion.
And now for something completely different.
Stepping out of the shoes of Basil Fawlty, a gloriously rude hotel manager in the ‘70s television series Fawlty Towers, Cleese spoke yesterday to 130 Hotel Administration students as a well-traveled customer who has stayed in many hotels around the world.
Before Cleese showed up at the Beck Center in Statler, students watched an episode called Waldorf’s Salad from the show. As the credits rolled and the actor stepped into the applause-filled room, the Monty Python star looked pleasantly surprised when five Hotel School students eagerly offered him a bottle of red wine, flowers and a small teddy bear in a Cornell t-shirt.
Having stuffed the teddy in his chest pocket, the Provost Visiting Professor began to produce a laundry list of problems he had encountered in many prominent hotels, such as the Ritz Carlton, the Four Seasons and the W Hotels.
“They all make the same mistake. They fail to put themselves in the shoes of their customers,” Cleese said.
Throughout the lecture, Cleese repeatedly emphasized the importance of seemingly minute details and his annoyance at some hotels’ failure to think from the guest’s perspective.
“Do you know what I want more than anything else when I walk into a hotel room but I never find?” Cleese asked the hotel students. “I want a map! … It’s the most basic thing when you come to a new town. It’s so obvious to me that what [a customer] wants is a map.”
He also spoke in great lengths about his frustration on careless housekeeping, such as lingering telephone messages for the previous hotel guests, television controllers with expired batteries and the lack of such controllers in the hotel gyms.
“Please, please, please, please, please be proactive,” Cleese urged.
Cleese also divulged how some hotels — especially the W — focused too much on avant-garde design and neglect the functional aspects of design. Cleese explained that as most visitors only spend a few days at a hotel, they would not want to go through the trouble of fetching the manual and finding out how some new technologies work. While he believes that “form follows function … with hotel form follows anything but function. There’s a good reason why [something] isn’t used before.”
“It’s all about the glorification of the designer,” he continued, “[who] want to impress other designers.”
In one of the many examples he listed, Cleese commented that the water coolers at the hotels’ gyms often offered “cheap little cylinders [where] there’s not enough in there to choke a black bird.”
In another example, Cleese vented his dissatisfaction with toilet paper that is meticulously folded into triangles: “Are they trying to show that the housemaid has mastered the art? Is it some sort of secret message?” Cleese asked ironically. “ … everybody does it because everybody does it!”
Cleese also shared many anecdotes in which he had to put up with servers without basic knowledge of their work. He recalled once when, after telling a waiter that he was allergic to cow’s milk, he was offered coffee with cream.
Cleese said that the character of Basil, an irate hotel manager, had made him “more intolerant” to bad service, “but more appreciative” of good service. He remembered being impressed by a “lovely Danish man” who was retiring after working many years in a hotel in Copenhagen. The man, who said he was bored by his work, revealed to Cleese that his only challenge was when he served very rude guests. The Danish said he could feel the greatest sense of achievement when his unfaltering politeness eventually turned them into good guests. “That is real professionalism,” Cleese remarked.
Although Cleese repeatedly stressed the importance of putting oneself in the customer’s shoes, he also said that this is “really, really difficult” and “almost takes an active imagination.”
Cleese continued to offer some advice to students who want to develop the ability to think out of the box. Creative people, he said, often possess “this child-like ability to play.” They are also, “surprisingly,” good at deferring decisions. Although the society demands individuals to make decisions in a flash, one can obtain new information and develop new ideas with more time.
He pointed out that it is impossible to play “in real life,” and that it is necessary to give oneself some physical space and time to meditate and allow the mind to breathe.
The hour-long lecture concluded with an enthusiastic round of applause and Cleese giving the red wine a try. (“Not bad,” said a frowning Cleese.)
Although one may typically expect Cleese to interact with students from the English or theatre departments, the actor chose to speak in a class in the service industry, according to Prof. Rob Kwortnik, hotel administration, who helped to organize the event for his course in marketing management for services.
“I think one of the things he really wants to do is to teach,” Kwortnik said. “[including] to teach his view on what makes good service.”
Kwortnik also appreciated how Cleese brought in an alternative perspective and challenged students to think.
“Students get a view from the faculty that is almost an analytical approach to the job. Then you get his perspective, which is through a very different lens,” Kwortnik said. “I think he pushes students to think about what they do differently … That’s what I like. He takes these things that we teach, looks at the details and challenges them.”
Erica Waichman ’09, who also works for the W Hotels, did not fully agree with some of Cleese’s comments and explained that some customers find new trends in hospitality very exciting. Nonetheless, she appreciated Cleese’s perspective as an experienced traveler.
“It’s always interesting to see from a guest’s perspective, especially someone who has traveled a lot,” she said.