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The importance of etiquette in hospitality

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Click. speaks with Philip Sykes, who trains hospitality staff at The British School of Etiquette, to discuss the importance of first impressions, language and going the extra mile

Philip Sykes teaches hospitality service staff from housekeepers to head concierges at The British School of Etiquette. He explains the key principles of good manners, and outlines some classic blunders and cultural differences to look out for.

Click.: Do you preach a golden rule of etiquette?

Philip Sykes
Philip Sykes, The British School of Etiquette

Sykes: Always aim to under-promise and over-deliver. Have that attitude, and you’ll leave a positive, lasting impression. Because etiquette is about equipping oneself with tools that aren’t difficult to employ, yet can make a fundamental difference.

Click.: How important is body language to etiquette?

Sykes: We humans judge each other inside six seconds, and 75-80% of our communication is non-verbal – so first impressions are vital.

Staff should stand correctly and walk tall, rather than with hunched shoulders. Pace is important, too: you don’t want to shuffle along, but nor to run or look under pressure. Good body language can positively impact on the experience of a guest.

Click.: Should managers be strict on grooming?

Sykes: Definitely. Managers must always gently confront staff about issues like body odour or bad breath. It can get very personal, but necessary, because every detail – tidiness, perfume, socks, having a polished name badge, tattoos, the tidiness of beards – may affect guests.

That said, grooming guidelines do depend on the establishment. Some funkier or more informal hotels have funkier or more informal-looking service staff, as that mimics their style; others are far more refined.

Click.: What about tone of voice?

Sykes: My courses always focus on the usage of correct language. For instance, “can I get you gin-and-tonic?” and “may I offer you a gin-and-tonic?” might sound similar, but they’re actually very distinct questions. The latter is softer and more professional.

Click.: How much damage can poor etiquette do?

Sykes: It can really break you. Hoteliers might try to think about their clientele as being like insects with incredibly perceptive antennae. Take the hotel restaurant: it’s very rare that a guest will compliment how beautifully a table is set – but, if they see one fleck of lipstick on a glass, it can mar the whole evening.

The subconscious is a thousand times more powerful, and often a small error is what guests remember.

Give your team member the licence to come up with some wows, and they’ll usually deliver.

Click.: Are they any classic etiquette blunders?

Sykes: In many hotels, I see staff walking around without panning the room to see if anyone needs service. And being more attentive can really lift an establishment.

Other classic gaffes include not knowing your product – for example waiters, when quizzed about a dish, only saying that they’ve never tried it – or getting just a little too personal, such as asking “Oh sir, is that an XYZ watch you’re wearing?”

Click.: Should hotel-managers champion consistency, or encourage personalities to shine through?

Sykes: As etiquette is about rules, there must be a standard that everyone follows. That said, I truly believe that while staff need to uphold this consistency, they shouldn't be discouraged from actually going above that standard and really wowing a customer in a way that stays with them.

Click.: What do you mean by ‘wowing’?

Sykes: I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine was formerly head butler at The Ritz in London, and was looking after a VIP guest. After this gentleman had departed for St Pancras station, the butler noticed that the guest had forgotten his credit card. Without even hesitating, he grabbed the card plus a silver salver [tray], and demanded another chauffeur take him to St Pancras the quickest way possible. The butler got there first and was at the Eurostar turnstiles when his guest arrived. He simply held up the salver and said “Sir, your credit card”. That to me is a ‘wow’.

Give your team member the licence to come up with some wows, and they’ll usually deliver.

Click.: Finally, are there any key cultural differences to beware?

Sykes: It’s worth staff knowing at least half a dozen cultural no-nos, especially those relevant to their typical guest profile. For example, showing the soles of one’s shoes is very disrespectful to someone in the Arab community.

Classic hand gestures (such as the thumbs up) have different meanings in different places, and risk your inadvertently causing offence. It’s safest simply not to use one.


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Hero image: credit to Louis Hansel, Unsplash
  • Always aim to under-promise and over-deliver. Have that attitude, and you’ll leave a positive, lasting impression
  • With 75-80% of our communication being non-verbal, body language – along with grooming – can hugely impact on a guest’s experience
  • Etiquette blunders – which also include being over-personal – can be the key detail a guest remembers afterwards
  • While maintaining a consistent standard is imperative, staff delivering ‘wows’ by going the extra mile also have the potential to leave a permanent, positive impression
  • Staff should swot up on key cultural differences and avoid classic hand gestures