NEW YORK -- Chrissy Denihan explains her curious corporate title of chief comfort officer for Affinia Hotels by saying, "We just want people to feel like they're being hugged."
And to ensure that her warm and cuddly aspirations are shared companywide, she heads up the brand's Tender Loving Comfort, or TLC, training campaign
Denihan, the granddaughter of the founder of Affinia, which owns and manages hotels in New York, Washington and Chicago, has been in her position for a year. Chief Comfort Officer Denihan -- the title is on her business cards -- has so far launched initiatives on two fronts: training associates to read the body language of guests and inaugurating a weeknight Comfort Hour, during which guests and staff discuss changes the hotels are considering.
"We decided that we needed to make our hotels places that people wanted to come back to because they feel like they're being hugged while they're with us," Denihan said. "It starts with the way our associates work with each other -- feeling good and treating each other well -- and that trickles down to the guests."
Each Affinia hotel has a dedicated TLC leader, who together comprise the TLC Crew.
If it all sounds a bit too touchy-feely New Age to you, you would be wise to hold your guffaws, because the proof seems to be in the pudding. Market Metrix, which measures guest satisfaction through surveys, rated Affinia tops in service in the Upper Upscale category in its most recent report. In addition, the brand showed the biggest year-over-year increase in service ratings of any hotel brand.
Market Metrix reported that guest satisfaction with hotels in general improved in 2011 over the prior year, rising 1.2 points on a scale of 100, to 84.5. Affinia, meanwhile, gained 9.7 points, to achieve a satisfaction level of 94 in the service category. The Market Metrix Hotel Index is based on 35,000 customer interviews each quarter.
Jonathan Barsky, co-founder and chief research officer of Market Metrix, said that over the last year, customer satisfaction scores for hotels have edged higher, despite the recession. He attributes recent gains, in part, to improved hotel performance and the positive industry outlook.
During the recession, Barsky said, scores slipped as hotel operators emphasized cost, competing on price promotions and perks. Yet Barsky's research suggests that is too limited a definition of value for most consumers.
"We have seen across the industry that the guest experience is a consistent key driver of customer loyalty," Barsky said. "Guest-experience factors are more important than hotel location or price."
The first step in the TLC program, Denihan said, was to bring in Patti Wood, an expert in reading body language. She spent months training the staff how to "read" guests through their physical and facial expressions. "Eighty percent of communication is nonverbal, and we wanted our team to notice those things," Denihan said.
Staff were trained to understand how to use body language to get "comfort cues" from guests.
"For instance, I was at one of our hotels last week and I watched a TLC Crew member interact with one guest who was checking out and was clearly in a hurry," Denihan said. "She approached him and expedited his checkout. A few minutes later, three younger guys leaned over her desk, and she spent a great deal of time planning their stay in New York. She knew they were definitely more relaxed about their time."
Once learned, she said, body language is relatively easy to read.
"One thing Patti Wood talks about is that when someone is standing with one leg crossed over another in a leaning pose, that indicates relaxation and not being in a rush," Denihan said. "Also, we learned to look at the guest's feet. If they are pointing right at you, they are there to stay. If they're pointing in a different direction, they're ready to leave."
Desk staff aren't the only ones encouraged to read guests' body language.
"It even extends to housekeeping," Denihan said. "Sometimes, a housekeeper will be cleaning a room with the guest in it, and even if the guest said it was OK, the housekeeper can read if they're making the guest uncomfortable and will leave."
Last fall, Affinia launched Comfort Hour as an alternative to happy hour.
"It's a chance for guests to learn more about our hotels and to test out possible changes," Denihan said. "We roll out our Comfort Cart with items that range from pillows to tech items to bath amenities, and guests can sample those. We launched our new cloud pillow as a result of Comfort Hour tests. It is made of 10 million micro air beads. ... Twice a week, we offer mini-blondies and a nonalcoholic signature drink. The other nights we just have a back-and-forth between guests and staff."
The TLC Crew member at each hotel serves as an ambassador to guests, but the Comfort Hour is hosted by the entire staff. The TLC program requires that the hotels deliver an acoustic guitar, iPod/iPad charger, yoga kit, golf putter or choice of pillows to a guest's room at his or her request.
The TLC training is continually reinforced and maintained with tools like TLC Tip Sheets, which provide body language graphics and tips such as, "To connect with a guest that's experiencing a challenge, match their body language, and then open yours to take the guest to a better place."
Asked what exactly a CCO does, Denihan said, "I oversee the TLC movement, working with different teams at each hotel, sharing stories about how we can make guests comfortable and being on property frequently during Comfort Hour."