Above and beyond: wowing guests

You could say that Sarah Bradford (owner of Winter Park Lodging Company and Steamboat Lodging Company) and her team are industry experts in providing exemplary customer service for her guests. They provide a “wow factor” that extends far beyond just traveler check-in and check-out. During a long-distance interview, she agreed to provide some of her team’s experiences that make vacations memorable for everyone.

Starting with company culture, Sarah conducts a company offsite to brainstorm for ways to wow. The goal, Sarah says, is to make these repeatable and create that company wow culture.

Everyone embraces the wow

 Apparel is an easy way to get guest engagement. Make it destination based, not necessarily your company name. Ski Winter Park is more appealing than Winter Park Lodging Company, Sarah says.

Apparel is an easy way to get guest engagement. Make it destination based, not necessarily your company name. Ski Winter Park is more appealing than Winter Park Lodging Company, Sarah says.

First, I think it’s important to discuss why even “wow” in the first place with your team.  Whether we want to admit it or not, the actual properties are a bit of a commodity these days. The neighbor’s big house with similar décor and finishes can be on a competing website for the same price. And everyone should be delivering “good customer service” or they will go out of business fast. That’s expected. What’s not expected is truly listening to your guests, and doing something about it when you hear of an opportunity to make their stay different from that house next door. That’s what makes a guest book with you next year and tell 10 friends. They remember your company and brand, not necessarily that the house had nice grizzly bear prints on the walls.”

“So, our staff-- all the way down to a part-time inspector or new maintenance tech-- are challenged to think of ways to repeatedly wow guests for free or almost free. The staff loves this activity because it’s outside of their day-to-day tasks. A few ideas we came up with in December were:

  • Choose one family each week and call them the first evening they arrive to get their custom Starbucks order to deliver to them the next morning. Total cost for average of 4 adults who order coffee: $20 max.
  • Send photos to owners of their property when we spot wildlife in their yard (this is common). We like to wow all of our customers and that includes our owners who are trusting us with their property! Cost? Free.
  • Text all in-house guests that we will be taking photos at a scenic location in the area and we will photograph their family for free and send them photos. Cost? 3 hours of staff time: approx. $50.”

Wow can be found everywhere

Sarah goes on to explain how wow can easily be woven into many areas of the business.

  • Memorable moments: The wow needs to be impactful, something you would remember to tell at your next dinner party or be inclined to post on social media. If the guest remembers it by next year, guess who they are going to call directly to book their vacation? You guessed it, us.
  • They can be free/almost free – this is key. You can’t wow every guest with a $100 bottle of wine unless you have added that into your rates somehow. But you can wow by remembering their name when you change their light bulb or placing a greeting card “Welcome Duperier Family!” on the counter upon arrival. That is free and it is unique to them.
  • Personalized: One of her mentors, John DiJulius (dijuliusgroup.com), likes to say, “What is the sweetest name in the English language? Answer:  your name.”  Use guests’ names every chance you get. It works.
  • Unexpected: If you know Starbucks is going to hand you your non-fat latte, you’re not that impressed when you get it. But if they hand you a little Valentine’s chocolate with it and tell you the guy behind you got your coffee, you remember. It’s unexpected.

Her staff listens for opportunities during every call. Four areas that they try to identify are:
1. Family: Listen to who is coming with the guest and what is important to them. If they mention this is a one in a lifetime trip with their grandkids, take note! Do something special to make those kiddos feel special when they arrive and the grandparents will take note.

2. Occupation: Ask and listen to what the guest does in their regular life. Make a note. Remembering what someone does for work in the next conversation goes a long way in feeling special.

3. Recreation: What do they like to do for fun? In her world, Sarah’s staff used to assume everyone is coming to downhill ski. Not so! You might find out that they are coming for a wedding, or a memorial, or to eat bison. Who knows. Find out and help them have a trip customized for their “recreation.”

4. Dreams: This one is tough when you only get to talk to a guest once or twice. It’s something you should know about all of your employees (have you ever asked?) which deepens your relationship and understanding of them. Sometimes dreams of your guests or owners will come out as you get to know them. When they do, be sure to note it and try to work it into a wow.

Moments of wow can happen during the reservation call, at check in, during the stay and at check out. Rather than being an order taker, Sarah’s staff gets to know the guest first. Let’s look at where her staff operationalizes this before, during and after a guest’s stay.

Before the stay

We speak to every guest when they book (even if they booked online) as well as conduct a 3-day call before the vacation. This is where they get to know the guest and if this is their first visit, who they are visiting with, what they want to do while they are here, etc. 

Fake parking pass that Winter Park Lodging Company employee created for a guest.

For example: Recently one sweet guest from Texas said her husband told her she needed a mountain driving pass to be allowed to drive in our area. Our team member overheard her husband in the background laugh and say, “Honey, I was kidding you!” and the guest giggled and said she was so embarrassed. Our team member created a comfortable rapport with her and upon arrival had this fake parking pass waiting for her on the kitchen counter. She called us howling with laughter – she loved it!  Advice: Get a bit daring, be fun. These people are on vacation, not going to the dentist! They are usually in a playful mood.”

During the stay

“There’s always the chance to surprise & delight during the stay as in this engagement basket in a cowboy hat that we left after the evening we knew the groom to be was proposing.

But let’s face it. Every stay isn’t perfect. If you know of a mess up while they are still in town, try to do something to impress before they leave.” 

Post stay

“And after the stay we have a rigorous Lost-and-Found system. If we find something upon departure, we contact the guest with a photo and confirm it is theirs. We then use Chargerback.com to send back to them which is inexpensive and charges their card. Guests love the quick returns.”

“Then there’s the not-so-good reviews. If we get one of those (eek! Yes, we still get them even though we try to listen, love and know our guests), we immediately call – not email – the guest.  If appropriate, send something to them – even a handwritten apology note. Last month,  a guest had a less than stellar stay and we had a staff member who was from their area in Texas. She knew of the hot new pizza joint near him so she arranged for a $25 gift certificate to be sent to him.“

In short, it can be pretty simple:

  • Use the traveler’s name on every interaction
  • Recognize if they are a returning guest
  • Know where they traveled from
  • Offer early/late check in for free (when possible)
  • Delivery of guest shipments (like skis) to their property

Whether it’s a rigorous lost-and-found system, a personal note or a “bow wow” for the family pet, opportunities are endless, yet necessary, for winning guest loyalty and return guests. Small and simple ways are enough to help you rise above the everyday with a wow!

Sarah Bradford is owner of Winter Park Lodging Company (and just-launched Steamboat Lodging Company) and leads her team in managing over 150 luxury vacation rentals in both ski resort markets. She has made “wowing her guests” part of a delightful traveler experience. Delighting guests goes farther than simply providing exemplary service, “wowing” is a part of her company’s culture which is embraced by each and every employee.

 Sarah shared her company’s (winterparklodgingcompany.com) unique ways of wow at the national VRMA (Vacation Rental Managers Association) 2016 conference in Arizona.

Let us know what you think of this article. Leave us feedback.