First impressions count

Help your guests to get their rose-tinted spectacles on by carefully managing their arrival

In the distant past, when I was slim with hair, I was the UK manager for a software company and spent a lot of time travelling in Britain and Europe. I became a fan of Marriott hotels and stayed in them when I could, the standards and staff attitude just seemed to be right and somehow, I always felt welcome when I arrived.

On one visit, there was a book by JW Marriott in the room which spelled out the philosophy of the business including one thing that really stuck in my mind – the idea of the vital first five minutes. If you arrive at a Marriott and there’s a long queue at reception there’s a sort of panic button that they press under the desk. This brings staff from other parts of the hotel who will take you to a table and sit you down with a coffee whilst they organise your check-in and bring your room keys to you. Gradually a magical change takes place- the reception area sparkles, the piped music is pleasant and when you get to your room it is more spacious than expected and the furnishings are beautiful.

During this time of intense work I took time out by performing as an amateur comedian and encountered a phenomenon that was also a great lesson – you could say exactly the same words on two consecutive nights, get an ovation for one performance and face the agony of silence 24 hours later. Something was subtly different for the audience which completely changed their experience.

You might imagine that working on Sandbanks means we spend our lives dealing with glittering palatial homes but we actually manage a full range of properties including some that haven’t been updated for 20 years plus. Building standards in the 60s and 70s when some of the blocks were built left much to be desired so cracks, leaks and flaky paint are commonplace. We do what we can but they can never be perfect and this is where you can get consecutive guests saying that it’s the best and worst place they ever stayed in.

The property hasn’t changed, it’s simply a matter of perception and the vital first five minutes after arrival is when you have the opportunity to steer your customers to focus on the good things or the bad. The best way to approach this is to assume that people are going to arrive tired, stressed and possibly a bit annoyed. I’ve been there many times- I promise to finish work at 12.30 so we can get away and arrive in time to unpack and take a stroll before picking a restaurant for a first night dinner. What actually happens is I get home at 2.30, I haven’t packed and I’m interrupted by 3 more calls, I just need to send two emails and we hit the road at 3.30 ensuring that we catch the traffic. Now we have to stop on the way down, pay too much for some poor food and arrive in the dark – the stage is set for a bad experience.

As my wife gets the accommodation details out (or tries to read them on her phone as I forgot to print them) I grip the steering wheel with white knuckles praying that I didn’t cheap out too much on the booking and try to remember if there was proper central heating or parking.

Applying the ‘Vital first five minutes’ rule to a holiday property:

  • Make sure that you give clear directions to the property and that the full address and postcode are on the confirmation.
  • Include precise instructions for where to park and ensure the number of available places has been made clear.
  • Key collection needs to be simple or if you use a keysafe make sure it is lit by an outside light.
  • It’s crucial that the property is warm and leave a light on.
  • A welcome pack is now expected but it’s still better for it to be a ‘surprise’ rather than advertised.
  • Tea, coffee and biscuits all help with the mind-set and for many a bottle of wine will make all the difference.
  • Provide essential items to get the customers started – loo rolls, washing up liquid, cloths, dishwasher tablets, etc.
  • Have a folder with information on who to contact and clear instructions for the tv, cooker, etc.

The other critical area is how you respond to a problem. Someone needs to be available when the guest calls and if they call the agency rather than the caretaker as they often do they need to be looked after rather than just told they have called the wrong number. Keep them up to date on the progress to resolve an issue and call to check things are OK afterward. All of this costs very little and will help ensure a happy experience for your guests so they things in the most positive light possible.

Simon Tolson owner Rumsey of Sandbanks.

Contact Simon on 01202 707357 or

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