Creating a Culture of Hospitality: How a Listserv Question Led to an Idea Exchange

Members | October 07, 2019 | by Geralyn Magan

An April exchange on the LeadingAge Marketing-PR listserv prompted 50 LeadingAge members to talk offline about how to create a culture of hospitality in life plan communities.

“I have been asked to assist in developing a process of enforcing staff dress codes and personal appearances. AND training customer service. Does anyone have a program in place that might address these areas?”

This April 18 posting on the LeadingAge Marketing-PR listserv ended with a plea: “HELP… I would appreciate any ideas please!”

Within minutes after the post appeared, a response came from Ann Lovell, corporate director of communications at LifeSpire of Virginia, an organization of 4 life plan communities based in Glen Allen, VA. Lovell shared the news that LifeSpire had developed its own hospitality program, and asked if anyone wanted to connect offline to learn more.

A resounding “yes” came from dozens of listserv members—so many members, in fact, that Lovell and Peter Robinson, LifeSpire’s vice president for marketing and public relations, hosted 2 conference calls, on April 26 and May 30. About 50 listserv members participated.

The listserv exchange illustrates the important role that LeadingAge online communities can play in providing a forum for members to share ideas and best practices in a variety of areas.

The offline conference calls also underscored for Robinson how important hospitality has become for LeadingAge members.

“The response to the listserv question confirmed in my mind that we hit on something that many members are experiencing,” says Robinson.

Designing Its Own Program

What members are experiencing, says Robinson, is how difficult it is to find hospitality training programs designed specifically for life plan communities. That difficulty led LifeSpire to hire Sally San Soucie as its full-time Hospitality Ambassador in late 2016.

San Soucie’s charge was simple, but challenging: spend 2 years creating and implementing a hospitality program just for LifeSpire that would focus on the organization’s concierge, facilities, dining, and health care services.

San Soucie spent her first year studying best practices in the hospitality-training field, meeting with every department head in LifeSpire’s 4 communities to learn more about their hospitality-related challenges and opportunities, and then developing training materials.

During her second year on the job, San Soucie trained every one of LifeSpire 800 team members. She also instituted a “train the trainer” program to ensure that LifeSpire would have team members available to train new employees and conduct annual hospitality refreshers for existing employees.

Illustrating Specific Examples Of Hospitality

The 4-hour Leaving Them Smiling training features a collection of video modules illustrating hospitality best practices that LifeSpire team members now carry out during their workdays. For example:

  • Maintenance personnel cover their shoes before going into a resident’s apartment, and put a towel down before placing tools on a granite kitchen counter.
  • The concierge staff avoids “blind transfers” of incoming calls. Instead, team members check first to see if the person a caller is trying to reach is available. If not, the concierge asks the caller if he or she wants to speak with someone else or leave a voice mail.
  • Dining staff apply basic table-waiting best practices during meals—serving from the left, clearing from the right, for example—to ensure that the dining room’s service compares favorably with restaurant service.
  • Health service team members routinely ask residents whether they would prefer a bath or shower, when they would prefer to bathe, and what time they would like to eat breakfast.

Own The Problem

The Leave Them Smiling training also emphasizes several over-arching principles, including one urging team members to “own the problem.”

“Part of owning the problem is following up,” says Robinson. “So, for example, if the housekeeper is cleaning a resident’s apartment and the resident complains about a leaky faucet, we expect the housekeeper to report the problem, and also to follow up with the resident to make sure the problem was addressed.”

By the same token, if a resident returns from a hospital stay after the dining room has closed for the evening, the concierge is expected to address the issue, even if it means ordering takeout food at the community’s expense.

“We empower employees to make decisions,” says Robinson. “We want them to make wonderful impressions with small, meaningful touches.”

Ongoing Reminders

In addition to initial and refresher training sessions, Leave Them Smiling also features several initiatives designed to keep the culture of hospitality alive.

For example, weekly standup meetings are held to review hospitality successes. Employee town halls honor team members who have been nominated by colleagues, residents, or family members for doing what Robinson describes as “demonstrating outstanding hospitality.”

Finally, posters displayed in employee breakrooms and wallet cards distributed to every team member feature:

A 12-ingredient Hospitality Recipe: The recipe reminds team members to “smile,” and “take every opportunity to make someone feel special and appreciated,” among other things.

A 9-item Leadership Pledge: The pledge, designed for supervisors and managers, includes statements like, “I will start each shift with a smile and greet team members individually,” and “I will l be honest and fair, treat each team member with respect.”

A Big Investment

LifeSpire adopted its hospitality initiative knowing that such a broad-based culture change initiative would entail a significant investment.

“You can change your culture a little bit at a time, you don’t have to go for a wholesale transformational approach like we did,” says Robinson. “But we felt that we needed to hurry a little bit because the leading edge of the baby boomers is starting to move into our communities. The expectation of the baby boomer is different than what we’ve experienced in the past and we felt like we had to change to be ready for it.”

Learn More About Creating A Culture Of Hospitality

Interested in hospitality? Don’t miss “The Art of Creating a Culture of Hospitality,” a session that will be presented on Tuesday, Oct. 28 during the 2019 LeadingAge Annual Meeting & EXPO in San Diego.