The Hospitality Sector’s New Normal

The Hospitality Sector’s New Normal

We've cut the hospitality industry a lot of slack, but has it lost sight of its purpose?

Those of us who go to restaurants and travel have a special place in our hearts for the industries that make it possible. And when the pandemic emptied hotels and shuttered eateries over and over, we went out of our way to support them. We ate outdoors in the rain, left grandiose tips, paid resort rates when there were no resort services, etc. 

The hospitality industry has rebounded in many ways, though the financial scars of the last two years remain, and new ones, the result of rampant inflation and labor shortages, are forming. And though I feel for the industry, I question if many of the practices that became so ingrained during the emergency have a place in today’s new normal, other than to drive customers away. 

A few things stand out: 

  • The ubiquitous QR code. QR codes replaced printed menus because we initially thought Covid was passed on surfaces. That theory was negated in mid-2020 but the codes remain, and their use has expanded. How can I say this plainly: Even Gen Z can read a menu more readily on a sheet of paper. The QR exists now merely to inconvenience diners for the restaurant’s benefit. And what of the Twin Cities quick-serve establishments that require orders be placed via QR for dine-in? Need an extra serving of salsa? That’s another order and another tab. One industry veteran told me she paid five bills to complete a meal at a popular local taco shop that loves the QR more than its customers.
  • The service charge/tipping game. Our story on the expansion of tipping made this eminently clear: Too many businesses are asking customers to tip for little or no service, as a way of supplementing wages. Asking me to leave 22%–27% for a metal tray of barbecue handed to me from a window, outdoors, is to devalue the purpose of the tip entirely, when 20% for two hours of a restaurant server’s effort is commonplace.
    And what of those restaurants adding 10% or greater service charges to supplement wages, while still asking for tips? In an environment where they’ve raised menu prices 20 percent recently, it’s an expression of entitlement, hoping you don’t notice. 
  • Amateur hour. All this is happening in a context where service has declined markedly. It is now typical to receive a blank stare instead of a greeting at a restaurant or hotel. Smiles are out of the question. Knowledge of the menu? “Sorry, I don’t eat that.” And when did “thank you” become an expression due from the customer, after the awkward silence when restaurant or hotel staff fail to provide it as you pay. 

Said one local restaurateur I spoke to: “We are a hospitality business. We exist as a respite to people’s stress and the daily drudgery of life.” Which is why the increasing tendency of restaurants and hotels to be both inhospitable and emphasize policies that inconvenience customers at the expense of the business is so puzzling. 

For the last two years I was like many of you: I left large tips where they often weren’t warranted by service; I endured inconvenience without a word of complaint or suggestion. I looked at the hospitality industry as collateral damage in a war they didn’t start. 

But the situation is now more nuanced. 

How can I say this plainly: Even Gen Z can read a menu more readily on a sheet of paper. 

Many restaurants received enormous taxpayer aid in the pandemic, well in excess of lost profits. Their staff were eligible for indefinite and easily gamed unemployment compensation. They have cut operating days and hours, eliminated happy hours, printed menus, and most of the trappings of customer goodwill. Yet they continue to ask customers to pardon their dust, if you will. 

Read more from this issue

A lot of great people left the hospitality industry during pandemic closures. Many were seduced by the allure of work-from-home and decided not to return. Those newly arrived to the industry seem not only poorly trained, they lack the capacity to find satisfaction in others’ happiness, a core principle of hospitality work. 

The combination of rising prices and deteriorating service is generally not one that is good for an industry. Sure, we do business with a lot of entities we dislike, but rarely in as competitive an arena as food or travel. I’m rededicating my spending to the restaurants and hotels that are able to put customer needs on par with their own, while returning tipping to an expression of gratitude for effort, not a reward for showing up.

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