Will Guidara is an American restaurateur and founder of Thank You, a hospitality company that develops world-class destinations and helps leaders across industries transform their approach to customer service. He is also cofounder of the Welcome Conference, an annual hospitality symposium.
Below, Will shares 5 key insights from his new book, Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect. Listen to the audio version—read by Will himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. One size fits one.
For more than a decade I owned a restaurant called Eleven Madison Park. In 2006, it was a middling Brasserie. By the time it sold it in early 2020, it had been named the best restaurant in the world. Our kitchen served innovative and delicious food, and our service was as gracious and as close to technically perfect as possible. It was because of those things that it was consistently on the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world. It was a hot dog, however, that earned us the number one spot on that list, and it was the winning strategy that gave birth to unreasonable hospitality. Unreasonable hospitality became the guiding principle that turned ordinary transactions into extraordinary experiences.
In 2010, while clearing appetizers from a table of four foodies, I overheard them talking about their amazing trip to New York. They had been to all the best restaurants, but the only thing they hadn’t tried was a New York City Street hot dog. It was one of those cartoon moments where the animated lightbulb appears over the character’s head. I went back to the kitchen, dropped off the dirty plates and ran outside to the street corner in front of the restaurant to the hotdog cart just outside.
I bought a hotdog and ran back into the kitchen. Then came the hard part of convincing the chef to serve it in our fancy fine dining restaurant. Serving what New Yorkers call a dirty-water dog at a four-star restaurant? I told him to trust me, that it was important to me, and he finally agreed. Before we brought out their final savory course, a server and I returned to their table and put the artistically-plated hotdog in front of them. They freaked out. I had served thousands of dishes and nobody had ever responded the way they did to that hot dog. In fact, before they left, each person at the table exclaimed that it was the highlight not only of the meal, but of their trip to New York. They’d be telling the story for the rest of their lives.
“There are few things that will energize you more than seeing the look of complete joy on someone’s face when they receive a gift you are responsible for giving them.”
Hospitality is about making people feel seen, and the best way to do that is to treat them as a unique individual. A bottle of vintage champagne and a bucket of caviar would not have had the same impact as a two-dollar hotdog. At staff meetings at Eleven Madison Park, we spent each night dreaming up really cool experiences to deliver to our guests.
A family of four from Spain was dining with us on the last night of their New York City vacation. The children at the table were overwhelmed with excitement: thick snow was falling and they’d never seen snow before. The dreamweavers somehow found a store that was still open selling sleds at 8:00 pm on a Friday night. After their meal, we had an SUV whisk the whole family up to Central Park for a special nightcap: a few hours of play in the freshly fallen snow. With these gestures, the guests were happier than ever. But so was our team. For the first time, they had creative autonomy. They weren’t just serving plates of food, they were coming up with their own ideas that were directly affecting the guest experience. They were empowered.
We all felt great because we were making other people feel great! There are few things that will energize you more than seeing the look of complete joy on someone’s face when they receive a gift you are responsible for giving them. It’s an addictive feeling, and as every single one of us became addicted to going above and beyond for our guests, we quickly found ourselves going above and beyond for one another as well.
2. Take what you do seriously without taking yourself too seriously.
Too often our self-imposed standards get in the way of us giving the guest the thing they actually want. Until the moment of the hot dog, I had been so focused on technical excellence, that I hadn’t realized something important. In a restaurant, the food, the service, and the design are simply ingredients in the recipe of human connection. If we could be unreasonable in our pursuit of that, we could give our guests an experience they would remember forever. Our brand really was unreasonable hospitality.
“In a restaurant, the food, the service, and the design are simply ingredients in the recipe of human connection.”
People approach branding the wrong way, letting ego define their brand. Instead, it should be the connection that defines a brand. If you’re in the customer service industry and hospitality isn’t at the center of your brand, you got lost somewhere along the way. Take what you do seriously without taking yourself too seriously. Don’t let anything stand in the way of investing in how you make people feel.
3. Every business can be in the hospitality industry.
Unreasonable hospitality is not just for fancy restaurants! Choosing to care more doesn’t cost anything, not to mention the fact that that hot dog only cost two dollars and the impact it had was priceless! You don’t need a huge budget to start infusing unreasonable hospitality into your work culture.
For most of America’s history, we functioned as a manufacturing economy. Now, we’re a service economy, as more than three-quarters of our GDP comes from service. Globally, it’s 65 percent! Whether you’re in retail, finance, education, healthcare, computer services, communications, you do the same thing for a living that I do. You are in the business of serving other people. If you look closely enough, you will start to see opportunities for unreasonable hospitality all around you.
An example would be real estate agents. Whenever renting or purchasing a new apartment, the agent can at best leave a bottle of sparkling wine in the fridge. At worst, they can throw the keys on the kitchen counter. This is someone with whom a buyer or renter may spend weeks, if not months. Imagine if they overheard someone talking about the nook where they would do yoga, and then the buyer or renter walks in to find a new yoga mat, along with a candle and a note. Compared to the average commission, that is a small investment in what will inevitably become a lifelong relationship.
This isn’t rocket science, it just requires caring more, and trying harder. Making good products is no longer enough, serving them efficiently is no longer enough. It is now how you make the people you work with and those you serve feel that matters most of all. We are on the precipice of becoming a hospitality economy and every business can choose to be in the business of hospitality.
4. Hospitality is a leadership skill.
We know that people and teams excel at a high-level when they feel in community with each other. They excel when they are aligned and connected. In the corporate workplace, this used to happen organically, but in today’s post-pandemic world where most work is done remotely, the conditions of the game have changed. That means leaders must change how they’re playing the game.
“Host leadership is taking a collection of individuals and making sure they operate as a team.”
Previously, leaders needed to inspire and provide clarity and direction. Today’s leaders also need to be exceptional host leaders. Host leadership means that leaders today must intentionally create the conditions for their teams to come together, to genuinely connect. Host leadership is taking a collection of individuals and making sure they operate as a team.
Leaders who master this will be set apart from the rest in their ability to attract and retain top talent, as well as lead high-performing, motivated teams. People stay at companies and work for leaders to whom they feel connected. Genuinely engaging with someone to create an authentic connection is hospitality. Today, hospitality is a leadership skill.
5. Hospitality is the greatest tool when it comes to solving problems.
The very end of the meal is always precarious. First of all, it’s time to pay, and that’s never fun. The cold, hard reality of those numbers on a check can throw cold water on any magical vibe you’ve built. The timing is hard to get right. When some guests are ready to leave, they’re ready to leave. People get impatient if the process of getting the check and out the door takes too long. At the same time, you don’t want to give them the feeling that you’re trying to rush them out. At Eleven Madison Park, we used hospitality to solve both potential problems. We didn’t wait for the guest to ask for the check. Instead, at the end of their meal, we’d bring the bill over and drop it off— with an entire bottle of cognac. We’d pour everyone at the table a splash, and leave the full bottle . We would encourage them to help themselves and pay the check when they were ready.
People were delighted by this. The ability to pour for themselves felt luxurious and surprising. Most importantly, there’s no way a person who has just been given a full bottle of free booze feels like they’re being rushed out. At the same time, the check was right there whenever they were ready. This is a hospitality solution: a problem that we solved, not by sneakily chipping away at the service we were offering, but by blowing it out in the opposite direction. We gave more, not less.
When we’re faced with a pernicious problem in our businesses, we often fall back on the tried-and-true. We push harder, try to be more efficient, and cut back. Instead, ask yourself: What is the hospitality solution? What if you forced yourself to be creative, to develop a solution that worked because of—not in spite of—your dedication to generosity and extraordinary service?
To listen to the audio version read by author Will Guidara, download the Next Big Idea App today: