Tuesday, September 21, 2010

With 5 Days Left...

When I want something, I go for it. This I’ve always known. So, when I decided I wanted to work downtown Vancouver, I knew I wanted it to be at a well known, well respected hotel such as the Pan Pacific. While I didn’t get the position I’d initially applied on (front desk), and I didn’t get the position they’d suggested (hotel club lounge), I did end up in exactly the position I was supposed to be in for my first job in the world of hotels.

Eager as I am to begin the process of obtaining my career in the hospitality industry, I tend to get a little…impatient. Trying to take it all on at once, to submerse myself up to my eyeballs in challenges and changes, anything to get a step closer to my dream job.

When I was first told of the greeter position with the bell services team I was apprehensive that it wasn’t going to be the right fit. The bell team consists of roughly twenty men and then, once a year during the summer, a female greeter to stand with them at the main entrance of the hotel fielding questions from every other person and their cat visiting Vancouver, whether it be for leisure or business. In addition, this group of people answer phones, park and retrieve valet vehicles AND shuttle luggage all over creation.

Despite my initial concerns, I participated in a phone interview with Phil Wonnacott, the bell captain, and after only a few minutes I felt a kinship with the man who was to be my supervisor for the summer months of my first ever coop experience. In conversations following the initial interview Phil said he knew immediately that I was going to be a great addition to their team as I had him grinning, ear to ear, throughout the entirety of our thirty minute phone call. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

To begin, and as a part of HMGT 101, I set my goals for the summer. The following is a list of my top three and how I feel I’ve handled the guidelines I set out for myself:

(1) To receive an exceptional review from my employer

From the start Phil recognized my goals as being good ones to help me learn the intricacies of the position. When we met with Carl mid-term I nearly had to deflate the air from my head to walk through the door. Phil had nothing but outstanding things to say about my work to date with the group. He has continually encouraged my questions, praised my work, and supported me in every way and situation. He has picked up on my promptness and mentioned as much in my reference letter. He thinks I fit in well and as a result of my time here has become interested in forming a strong, working relationship with Camosun College. In my end of term review he gave me multiple 5/5’s and 4/5‘s. He said he would have given me all 5/5’s as he feels I met and exceeded all requirements but that he still wants me to be open to learning and growing.
As a side note, Phil is, without a doubt, a blessing in disguise. Not in a million years could I have hoped for a better example of what it means to work in the service industry. He is unfailingly helpful when it comes to the guests. Goes out of his way to ensure their every happiness and request is being not only met but exceeded in the most humorous and efficient of ways. He genuinely cares about the work his team does, about supporting them and about leading by example. He works just as hard from one day to the next and keeps everything in perspective. My favourite Phil quote has come to be “we’re not saving lives here so let’s have some fun,” a saying we live by at the bell services desk.

In addition to Phil, there’s Randall Lister. My second in command supervisor and an equally competent and dedicated mentor. The “Father” of the group, Randall takes every new employee under his wing and provides strong moral leadership. He is a sounding board as much as he’s a story-teller. Another individual truly meant for the industry and an excellent example of what it means to go above and beyond.

To bring it back to the goal of receiving an exceptional review from my employer, I knew this job wasn’t going to be the most challenging position I’d taken on but it was an important step and I needed to think about this while creating my goals. I realized quickly that the real challenges for me would come from a personal standpoint rather than a technical one. I tried to get creative, looking at how I could do this job to the best of my ability so that I could leave a lasting impression. This was a great goal to have because it just meant that I would never get lazy with my work targets, that I would always try to impress those I was working with and that I could have a little fun in the process so that they could get to know the real me.
At the end of the day, I know I’m leaving a group of people I can call upon in the future and employers who will, and have, written me glowing letters of recommendation.

(2) To WOW the guests through outstanding customer service

In creating this goal I began by putting myself in the guests shoes and tried to think of the things that would surprise me from a customer service point of view. What would make the hotel and its staff stand out? How could the greeter exceed my expectations by anticipating my needs?

Here are the things I think I did well and the areas that could still use improvement.

The most challenging part of this goal was not being native to Vancouver. While I was encouraged to ask questions I didn’t want to ask so many that it didn’t seem the information was sticking or that I didn‘t know how to take initiative. I know this has been something I’ve struggled with in the past. Yet, not being from Vancouver made it incredibly difficult to give walking/driving directions to different parts of the mainland or to provide recommendations on where to dine. I lucked out by having the internet at my fingertips. I could easily Google the information I needed for those who were more than willing to wait the extra second. At the same time, I would encounter guests who needed the information quickly at which time I would have to defer to a co-worker for speedy replies. As the summer came to an end I found there were very few questions I couldn‘t answer. Most of the job, it seems, is repetition and when a guest asks a particularly difficult question I have to Google, they usually know the answer won’t be in the rolodex of my mind and are willing to wait. By dining out, reading reviews and walking/bussing multiple routes around the city I think I fulfilled my goal outstandingly. With a few more months I know I could’ve really mastered the answers to even the most obscure of questions regarding Vancouver and all it has to offer the every day tourist.

Another challenge was being able to provide the very best possible customer service via recommendations from personal experience. I dined out on many occasions but being a student, nay, being a starving student, made my vast knowledge of the best of the best nearly impossible. There were times a guest would be looking for my idea of the best Mexican restaurant in town, seafood, Italian, whatever and I would have to rely on others reviews and local recommendations. This is still helpful and I had a few fallbacks but it would have been nice to have better knowledge of such things. I was constantly reviewing menus online so I was familiar with what was being offered but I couldn’t say “ooh and you have to try the so and so at blah blah because it’s the best in a city.” Working at Joe Fortes Seafood & Chophouse gave me an advantage in a few instances because I was able to both recommend the location and as well make the reservation. My concierge like status in combination with my actually working there allowed me to get them special treats and it was often fun to see the guests in both locations in one day. On one occasion in particular I was able to plan the activities of two couples travelling together over three days based on my personal experiences. By the end of their trip they were coming in to my various jobs just to give me their rave reviews and to take pictures and give hugs!

One area I failed to really improve in was an intimate knowledge of the hotel meeting rooms and their locations. There were a shwack of them I never could recall without referring to the hotels daily event board. It was easily accessible but I would have liked to provide directions without thinking twice. No matter what tricks I tried the information didn’t seem to stick. Thankfully, this wasn’t a drawback from my work in any way that was noticeable to others it was just something that frustrated me.

Finally, I was the lucky recipient of a Tourism Vancouver Award this summer. A guest wrote in to the hotel nominating me for the work I’d done with them and just a short time later my supervisor, peers and hotel general manager were presenting me with an award for “Exhibiting Customer Excellence.” If feeling sufficiently satisfied with my performance wasn’t enough proof that I was fulfilling my goal, this certainly was!

Working with the bell team reinforced my belief that going above and beyond is almost always a possibility even if it’s in a very small way. Answering the phone, responding in a helpful and friendly way to the guests request and then going that extra step by asking if there is anything else that can be done to make the guest happy is an example of how you can take service to the next level. Reading the guest can sometimes be a bit more difficult – as in knowing when they require a brief answer versus those who appreciate the humour of a good story or personal recommendation. In this sense, this goal was both realistic and easy to achieve. Always wanting to go the extra mile for a guest who is less than polite, snappy, rude, agitated…this is where the challenge lies. Not taking it personally is even harder for me as I tend to internalize every bit of negativity being directed in my direction. It was satisfying working on this over the summer. I lucked out in not having many situations where this was the case but being able to hang up the phone after a particularly grumpy encounter having handled it the best I could and then being able to bounce it off my easy-going coworkers was incredibly helpful. It kept things in perspective whereas I might have left work that day feeling put-off in the past.

(3) Take initiative and impress the Pan Pacific team

For about 98% of the bellmen I do believe I achieved this goal with distinction! At one point, during the time Phil was collecting information for my review from the rest of the team, he said he had one of the guys refer to me as a breath of fresh air. I did my best to learn about each team member, to know a bit about their family, to know what stressed them out, what helped with their jobs, what made their lives easier. Heck, every once in a while I’d even keep them company at the bar across the street for a little post-work comradery and a beer…anything for the team right?!

For the most part, this was the best goal to work on. Being part of a team isn’t always easy and, almost more so, being the only female in a group of long-term, well-established bellmen made it even more challenging at times. I had five months with very few conflicts so I consider this goal to be a success. At times I needed to learn how to be less sensitive, how to take the ribbing “like a champ.” And, during my more sensitive of days, I needed to be able to convey to them what I needed to make my job easier. They respected my requests and I theirs. It was truly a harmonious balance. I have never had so much fun in a job. I’ve never laughed so much nor have I felt as much a part of a family so quickly. On day one I was told this was a boys club and that I was allowed to be a part of it. Everyone should be so lucky as to work with a group such as the one I have.

The only real conflict I ran in to with this position was a financial one. Upon receiving my first gratuity this summer I immediately asked my supervisors what the protocol was on my keeping it. The explanation I got was that if I’d done the work, stored a bag, provided directions then returned the guest luggage that it was mine to keep. If, though, I just completed the process, such as returning bags to a guest who had dealt with another bellmen previously, I was to give the money to a bellman. This all made perfect sense to me. For the most part I walked with nothing at the end of a day (sometimes as much as $20) and that was just fine with me as I had not come to expect gratuities as a part of my job description. However, at one point there were two people in particular who must have been under the impression that I was not following these guidelines and it got to a point where the issue needed to be addressed. I was pretty concerned, even a little hurt that it was even a concern. I explained that I am an extremely honest and conscientious person when it comes to such matters. I worried that it was going to reflect poorly on my work and integrity. But, after only one day, my mind was put to ease and it was explained to me that this had been an on-going concern for which there was seemingly no solution. You can’t please everyone all the time, or so I keep being told.

Upon reflection of my summer with the Pan Pacific Vancouver Hotel I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing I would have done differently. It was a steep learning curve in terms of my city knowledge, or lack there of, but aside from that aspect it was just a matter of being myself and working hard.

My knack for reading people and previous customer service skills were my biggest assets in learning how to best assist the guests and my team mates. I was on fantastic terms with various staff members throughout the hotel and was able to multi-task professionally and efficiently during those more chaotic days. Days when every other guest required assistance with luggage during check out, the bellmen were rushing to bring up cars, meetings were being held in every which room of the convention centres and all the while hundreds of people were boarding the cruise ships which depart a mere floor beneath where I worked.

I literally wipe a tear away thinking about my work term coming to an end. That I have to leave this wonderful group of people is beyond my comprehension during my final stages with the hotel. I can’t reiterate enough how much fun I had during this first coop. I learned how to be myself, completely, in a new situation. I was able to handle myself in a way that was professional and still playful. I was able to strike that balance that can be so hard to achieve all the while having confidence and forming relationships with the hotel guests.

Now, my winter coop is my driving factor. From my supervisor thinking of ways to help me, to contacting a past employee who currently happens to work as a recruiter for Intrawest Whistler, to the distribution of my resume to my desired properties, an interview with Patrick Chen, another fantastic interview and the obtainment of the next step in my hospitality industry career. I get to look forward to working the front desk at the Westin Whistler Resort for a man who shares similar qualities with my current supervisor and who believes whole-heartedly in the recruitment and training of driven individuals. Ah, the world of networking and another step in the right direction.

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