Service With a Smile Is Harder for Hospitality Workers in Masks

As you’ve likely discovered from interactions at your local grocery or drugstore, employee-customer relations are a bit strained. Making someone at an establishment feel welcome when both parties have half their face covered isn’t an innate skill. Employees need to be taught how to do this successfully, says Richard Delany, president of the Old Edwards Inn and Spa in Highlands, N.C., about a three-hour drive from Atlanta and Charlotte. A small Covid-19 cluster among the staff led to a few cancellations when the hotel reopened in May, but now business is booming. “We feel really good about the safety procedures we put in place,” Delany says. Here are edited excerpts from a late-July conversation he had with Arianne Cohen.

What made you realize that your staff would need instruction?

An employee said to me, “Richard, have I done something wrong? The last couple of times I’ve seen you, you seemed upset with me.” Which was not the case. I’m usually pretty happy-go-lucky, high-fiving people and smiling, but I can’t high-five them anymore, and they can’t see my smile. If someone who knows me cannot recognize my temperament and expressions, then obviously guests are gonna have a hard time doing that with our employees.

What did you train your staffers to do?

Make eye contact with guests immediately, so they can sense their temperament and the intention of their greeting, and also to speak to guests as soon as possible, so they can hear it in our voices.

So when a guest approaches the front desk, what does your staff do?

The No. 1 thing is to stand at attention whenever a guest enters one of our public areas—it shows recognition and respect—and to sort of nod the head gently in a welcoming, “good afternoon” movement.

What about smiling?

We encourage smiling at all times, and that’s sort of hard because when you’ve got a mask on, you feel like you don’t need to. And to smile bigger, because the bigger you smile, the more it can be seen in the eyes. It is all sort of overexaggerating the welcome process.

Masks Up

Share of employed U.S. adults who say they are always doing the following while working

Data: Gallup

Do employees have ID tags?

We took pictures of all our employees smiling, which they wear around their necks so the guest can see what that employee looks like with a smile on their face. This has been a huge hit.

Have you had to shift what workers say?

Since speech is such a big part of how the guest is perceiving employees, they need to make sure that they’re upbeat. The other thing is being careful about what is said and how it is said.

Sarcasm doesn’t work from behind a mask?

[Laughing] No, sarcasm does not work.

What have you had to retool?

We got feedback from our guests that they appreciate our efforts, but several times they saw someone pull a mask down to speak. So we made sure that the absolute standard is that you cannot remove the mask.

What kind of masks does your staff wear?

We thought it’d be fun to use fabrics that we use in the hotel—fun floral masks, paisley, different-colored stripes that match the interiors of the public areas and the rooms. Guests have picked up on that.

What’s your advice to other managers?

Vet what masks their staffers are wearing. Some of our employees have come in with masks that cover a little bit more of a face than they need to. Stay away from the big, black Darth Vader-looking masks. They’re not really welcoming.