The Magic Touch: Lessons From Hospitality Brands


Image via United Airlines

Travel companies go to great lengths to train for higher hospitality, from ballet-inspired exercise classes to Disney field trips, but it all comes down to treating people right.

The robots are here and more will be coming. But not to worry, we have something they’ll never have: the human touch. Even a recent headline from the Inquirer cautions, “Robots will steal your job unless you have the human touch.” So what exactly is this corporeal advantage that, it seems, not all humans possess? We humans certainly invest a lot of figurative stock in this sensorial ability: You can have a light touch, magic touch or Midas touch; you can lose touch, stay in touch, touch base, touch down, touch a nerve or touch a heart. Surely, it’s the last.

“In this digital age, there are many things that can be replaced by automated services, but one of the few things you cannot replicate is the way another person makes you feel,” says Linda Celestino, vice-president of Guest Experience and Service Delivery, Etihad Airways, an airline known for its high standards when it comes to hospitality. For Celestino, a friendly smile and sincere welcome are all it takes to tickle the old ticker. “That personal touch is what establishes a connection, warms the heart and builds loyalty,” she adds.

Even in the virtual Twittersphere, a little human touch can go a long way. A study published by Harvard Business Review this year analyzed more than 400,000 customer service-focused tweets sent to the top five American airlines and top four wireless carriers, and surveyed the tweeters to determine the effect Twitter customer service can have on perceived brand value. The study found that regardless of initial sentiment, customers who received any form of response from airline reps were willing to pay $9 more for a ticket in the future.

Simply acknowledging angry customers boosted brand value by $2, increasing to $6 a ticket if the issue was resolved. Responses to positive tweets reaped the highest reward, with customers willing to pay an additional $28. But perhaps most evocatively, when an airline representative added their name or initials to their first reply, a customer’s willingness to pay increased by $14, when compared with unsigned responses. “When agents sign their name in their tweets or posts, it humanizes them and helps customers feel that the company, or at least someone within the company, is on their side,” explains the report’s authors.


Hospitality brands have trained their sights on the added value good customer service can bring. More than 2,000 cabin crew have now graduated from Etihad’s Norland College-approved Flying Nanny program, and at least two dozen Etihad butlers have, as of 2015, completed Savoy Butler Academy training in conjunction with the distinguished Savoy Hotel in London. On the hotel side, JW Marriott’s Poise & Grace program had its bellhops and concierges undergo poise, posture and body language training in partnership with the Joffrey Ballet. After several highly publicized mishaps, United Airlines sent some 30,000 employees for compassion training and enlisted Special Olympic athletes to provide sensitivity training.

A Savoy-trained butler attending to passengers in Etihad’s The Residence. Image via Etihad Airways

But perhaps the most sought-after customer-service expert among North American airlines is Mickey Mouse. Delta Air Lines, Air Canada Rouge and Alaska Airlines are among the carriers that have turned to the Disney Institute for inspiration. As the consulting arm of the Disney empire, known for its top-notch service and ranked as one of the best places to work, the institute offers tailored leadership, customer service and employee development training for a variety of sectors and customers, from the National Football League to Häagen-Dazs.

Tricks of the trade airlines and other brands have picked up from the institute include referring to staff as “cast members” and customers as “guests.” The mantras “It’s not my fault, but it’s my problem” and “The customer might not always be right, but they are never wrong” are advanced with apprentices. Other pointers include using the word “magic” when interacting with guests, accessorizing frontline staff with name tags and teaching trainees to proactively pay attention to details and remove obstacles.   

Tricks of the trade airlines have picked up from the Disney Institute include referring to staff as “cast members” and customers as “guests.”

Ultra-low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines is the latest airline to send its staff to the Magic Kingdom. The Florida-based budget airline has put its entire in-flight team through the program and has developed a Signature Spirit Service standard that rolled out in flight in 2017. “In the past few months, we’ve noticed an uptick in the compliments we receive from our guests,” said chief executive officer Robert Fornaro in a memo sent in May. “I’ve received personal letters about our professional crews, our clean planes and how well treated our guests feel.”

A little love from everyone’s favorite mouse can add luster to an airline’s brand if marketed well, but travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt warns that unless Disney’s values are internalized, the polish will fade. “What companies fail to realize when they hire firms like the Disney Institute is that hospitality, guest service and guest satisfaction are core components of Disney’s DNA,” he explains. Companies that fail to ingrain and actively advance a customer service culture ultimately end up with “Disney swag and a big fat bill from the Disney Institute,” Harteveldt says.

Spirit seems to have taken Disney’s lessons to heart. In May, the “no frills” carrier launched an Invest in the Guest campaign with commitments to achieve competitive on-time performance, offer travelers more upgrade options, and improve the passenger experience by introducing fleet-wide Wi-Fi. Among cultural improvements, the airline has enhanced modules on anti-harassment policies and anti-bias training, and has prioritized hurricane relief initiatives in support of affected employees and guests.


In the people business, finding the right person for the job is fundamental. Danny Meyer, chief executive officer of restaurant-service leader Union Square Hospitality Group, advocates for putting HQ (Hospitality Quotient) technical skills at the top of the qualifications list. According to Meyer, someone with a high HQ is proficient in six key emotional skills – kindness, optimism, work ethic, curious intelligence, empathy and self-awareness – and has integrity.

In India, the Taj Group’s refined recruitment strategies involve scouting from small cities where traditional Indian values, such as honesty, humility and respect for elders, are more pervasive. American Airlines has tailored its hiring approach through working with different organizations, such as Veteran Jobs Mission to bring military veterans into its workforce.

Partnerships like these that prioritize diversity have proven successful. To turn things around at Continental Airlines in the mid-1990s, chief executive officer Gordon Bethune cultivated a top-down approach to organizational diversity, culminating in the formation of a diversity council in 2000 and alliances with the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Black Flight Attendants of America, National Black MBA Association and National Society of Hispanic MBAs. A work culture that values diversity will excel at catering to a diverse crowd. Plus, customers are more comfortable with businesses that reflect the makeup of their communities.

Regional Canadian airline Jazz asserts that its diversity and inclusion efforts give the carrier a competitive edge. In recent years, the airline’s work with indigenous, disability and LGBTQ+ communities have helped improve representation. After launching its Women in Aviation initiative in 2014, the airline has seen the quotient of female employees rise to 37€¯percent, 30 percent of whom are managers. “Facilitating inclusion by acknowledging the unique and diverse perspectives of all individuals creates one incredible team of employees – and we celebrate that,” says Colin Copp, the company’s president.

Perks that promote collaboration keep employees happy, and customers happy in turn. A recent study by Cloverpop found that inclusive teams make better decisions 87 percent of the time and deliver 60 percent better results. In 1996, Continental introduced an incentive program that rewarded each employee with $65 every month the airline ranked in the top three for national on-time arrivals. In a 2001 article, the airline’s director of diversity and fair employment practices told Ad Age, “Employees tell us these programs have driven home the importance of looking at the person next to you as a team member, regardless of their ethnicity or lifestyle.”

In the end, what can be more human and more magical than that?

The Magic Touch” was originally published in the 8.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.