Defining hospitality

Realizing the difference between service and hospitality has proven to be the central epiphany in Danny Meyer’s career. And industries beyond restaurants are taking notice. Part 2 of a two-part report.

In part one of the 2022 edition of the Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable, which appeared in the April 25 issue, top editors from Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the New York Times travel section, National Geographic Travel, Afar, Town & Country and WonderlustTravel.com joined Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann and Union Square Hospitality Group CEO Danny Meyer to talk about restaurants, travel, hospitality and the impact that the pandemic has had on all of these. In Part 2, Meyer, who hosted the group at his Manhattan restaurant the Modern, talks about growing up as the son of a travel advisor and his company’s work with Hyatt, Marriott and Delta Air Lines and discusses the difference between service and hospitality. 

And the editors share insights about their and their readers’ travel plans and experiences.

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Our readers are more hesitant to travel in the face of the war in Ukraine than they have been around Covid lately.

Laura Redman, digital content director, Afar

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: Danny, you grew up in a travel industry family. What lessons stayed with you, in terms of both what you learned to do and not to do?

Danny Meyer, CEO, Union Square Hospitality Group: My parents lived the first two years of their marriage in the Alsace region of France, where [my father] was stationed as a counterintelligence officer in the U.S. Army. Not much was happening between Germany and France at the time, so for them, it was like an extended, two-year honeymoon. They spent their time traveling to local inns and getting to know the innkeepers, which, at that time, belonged to a loose organization called Relais di Campagna. There was another group, also: Chateau de France. They later combined and became Relais & Chateaux.

When my parents came back to the United States, he opened up a travel agency, and his specialty was sending Americans on driving trips through the French countryside, stopping at all these inns, and he became the first U.S. agent for Relais di Campagna. Some of the innkeepers’ sons and daughters came to live in our home in St. Louis and would sit at the table with us every night and then work in my dad’s office, translating material.

He became president of the American Society of Travel Agents and had a good connection with Travel Weekly. When I was 6 years old, I took my first-ever solo flight, from St. Louis to Chicago, to visit my grandparents. In those days, Delta used a paper placemat before putting down your food. I wrote on the placemat, “Dear Mom and Dad, the food on Delta was tasty, but the stewardess yakked too much.” I had spelled the word “but” “B-O-T.” I gave it to my parents, and my dad somehow had it published on the cover of Travel Weekly.

Weissmann: I had no idea.

Meyer: My father created tour groups for airline employees and their families — anyone recognized by IATA. He would aggregate all these discounts and create these unbelievably low-priced, four-day tours in Rome, Sorrento, Capri, Paris, Copenhagen, London. As my brother, sister and I each turned 20, we got to pick a country to go spend the summer and be a tour guide. And I, of course, picked Italy. So, at the age of 20, I was a tour guide in Rome, working for my dad. And I loved it. I’d be the guy who picked up the group and stayed with them for the whole tour. 

What did I learn? What I learned then, which serves me today, is that, for whatever reason, however someone felt when they started the tour, I wanted them to feel a bit better when they ended the tour.

And whoever the crankiest person was, I was damn well going to make them the happiest person by day four or five. And to this day, I like doing that!

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We’re going to be kinder to the environment, kinder to people. It’s not that it didn’t matter before, but now it’s essential.

Starlight Williams, associate editor, National Geographic Travel

Weissmann: Did you always plan for hospitality to be as central to your restaurants’ experiences as the cuisine?

Meyer: Many years ago, I picked up a Zagat survey and saw that, every year, Zagat asked three questions: What did you think about the food? The decor? The service?

This goes all the way back to when I had only two restaurants: Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. No matter how well we did for food, decor and service, we would do way better on their Top 50 list, where they had asked, “Name your five favorite restaurants.” One year, Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern were numbers one and three as New York’s favorite restaurants. And, that same year, Gramercy Tavern’s food was number eight, the service was probably 10, and the decor was probably 12, whereas Union Square Cafe, the food was that year 15, the service was 20, and the decor was 65. So, how do those numbers, divided by three, equal one? 

The intangible was the word “hospitality,” and that’s when I finally figured out that we had conflated “service” and “hospitality,” as if they mean the same thing. Having good service means you do what the customer expected you to do. Your 8 o’clock Saturday night table for two is ready at 8 p.m. We got the right food to the right person at the right table at the right temperature at the right time. All that technical stuff is service. And what we’ve learned is, that’s now table stakes. That gets you to the 49-yard line, but if you want the next 51 yards, it’s all about how you make people feel.

So, if you ordered your salmon medium and we delivered it medium, that’s not good service. You expected that. If we say, “Do you want the salmon again? I remember you loved it last time,” that’s thoughtful, as opposed to expected. Now, we’re in the realm of hospitality.

Weissmann: I know you worked with Hyatt in the development of their Caption brand. What other travel brands have you worked with?

Bob Guccione Jr., editor in chief, WonderlustTravel.com: Boy, we’ve run out of names for hotels when we call one “Caption.” What’s next? “Hydrant”? (Laughter from the group.)

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It’s no longer fear of death. It’s fear of gnarly logistics.

Klara Glowczewska, executive travel editor, Town & Country

Meyer: Yes, we do quite a bit of hospitality work. We call it “Hospitality Quotient,” HQ. And we work with a lot of organizations.

We did some very, very finite work with Hyatt. I’m a huge fan of Mark Hoplamazian, who’s the CEO. His values for hospitality are just remarkable. We were brought on very, very early in that project to help them think through how food and beverage would work in a hotel that was supposed to blur the lines between staying in a hotel and being home. And, so, we did that, but when they reopen, we have absolutely nothing to do with its operations.

Weissmann: You’re not going to be doing the food aspect?

Meyer: Absolutely not. 

We are working with Marriott, here in New York, helping them with the Marriott Marquis, to bring that food up to where they want it to be. We work in the Thompson Hotel in Washington, D.C., which is owned by Hyatt. We’ve worked for years with Conrad down in Battery Park City [in New York], where we cook the food for all of their banquets, and then their team serves it.

Weissmann: Are you going to put a restaurant in the Marriott Marquis?

Meyer: We are responsible for a restaurant there, which is their restaurant. We didn’t conceive it, but we’re responsible for upping the hospitality and culinary game. It’s called “Revel and Rye.” And we do all the banquet food, etcetera, for them. 

We’ve worked with Delta [Air Lines], initially for their first-class service and, increasingly, with more of Delta. We work with companies who understand that, in a day and age where what you do is so easily copied, the way that you make people feel becomes the distinguishing competitive advantage. Learning some of the techniques and heartfelt human interactions can up your HQ, which is something that a lot of people are interested in.

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I finally figured out that we had conflated “service” and “hospitality,” as if they mean the same thing.

Danny Meyer, CEO, Union Square Hospitality Group

Weissmann: Any other companies in travel?

Meyer: Not that many in the travel world. We’ve worked with a lot of healthcare providers — interestingly, the word “hospital” lives within the word “hospitality.”

We’ve worked with national retailers. We worked with Clear early on. Some of our alumni work in customer experience for Clear right now. But most of our HQ clients are not associated with the classic use of the word “hospitality.” It’s any business recognizing that if you have customers and you have employees, you need to care how people feel.

Erin Florio, executive editor, Conde Nast Traveler: Danny, when you pay attention to the way the food scenes evolve in so many cities around the world, New York City, possibly similar to London, is absolutely an international food city. The best chefs from around the world come here, people invest here, people return here strictly to eat.

You also have very close ties to a city which decidedly doesn’t feel that way, and that city is Rome. I’ve always been very curious: People are so drawn to traditional Italian food, and Italians don’t like change. Do you have any insight as to why, not just Rome but Milan, Florence — they’re food cities, they’re international cities, they have food scenes that are dynamic in their own way, yet they’re so stifled.

Meyer: It’s an amazing question. I was in Rome about a week and a half ago with some of our chefs and colleagues, and we discussed this very thing and how beautiful it is. 

It’s unlike New York, where you stand out because you’re doing food no one’s ever heard of. You go to Rome and there are 3,000 trattorias and probably an 85% menu overlap. The conversation there becomes a different one: Is this my favorite carbonara or not? And how did they treat me relative to the other restaurants? 

And I like that conversation. And what I love about Italy is that every one of the [20] regions not only has different food traditions, but you can go to a butcher shop in any of those different regions and you’ll see that they cut the meat differently. That’s how different they all are. What you’re bringing up is real.

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A dish at the Modern known as Eggs on Eggs on Eggs. Ingredients include caviar, egg sauce and fried egg, served with pickled shallots, dill and toasted brioche.

A dish at the Modern known as Eggs on Eggs on Eggs. Ingredients include caviar, egg sauce and fried egg, served with pickled shallots, dill and toasted brioche.

A dish at the Modern known as Eggs on Eggs on Eggs. Ingredients include caviar, egg sauce and fried egg, served with pickled shallots, dill and toasted brioche.

Florio: What would stop Danny Meyer from opening a Maialino [one of Meyer’s New York restaurants] in Rome?

Meyer: Oh, everything. Everything. Or a Shake Shack. Everything would keep me from doing it, because Rome, for me, is one of the world’s greatest living museums, and it doesn’t need us to happen to it. We would be like the house in “The Wizard of Oz,” just landing there. We don’t belong. I want to go to Rome to appreciate but not to give.

Weissmann: Other than Shake Shack, do you have restaurants in any other country?

Meyer: We have a management agreement with an outstanding company based in Tokyo and opened a restaurant, Union Square Tokyo, about 14 years ago. Now it’s called UST, because it has evolved to be a little bit more like Gramercy Tavern. It’s at the base of this extraordinary Skidmore Owings building in Roppongi.

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Once we hit omicron, everybody went into hibernation for a month, and then got it anyway. I think the mindset shifted.

Amy Virshup, editor, New York Times travel section

Weissmann: A question for the editors: What are your readers saying about how they’re feeling about travel at this point in the pandemic? Has it changed?

Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: You had the people who always wanted to travel, no matter what. And you had people who felt comfortable traveling once they were vaccinated. And you have, still, a small subset of people who are fearful of travel, no matter what. I think that group is getting smaller and smaller as time goes on. 

I think 2022 is going to be a good year for travel, because people are realizing that the mental benefits of getting on that plane and seeing something new far outweigh the risks associated now with Covid. We’re living in a post-vaccine world, and restrictions are being lifted. It’s natural for humans to get up and go. And they’ve been denied something that’s so fundamentally pleasurable for so long.

Laura Redman, digital content director, Afar: We treat it more like we’re in variant valleys. We anticipate we’ll be going through this for a long time. But the demand is still going to spike every time we’re in a valley. Our readers are more hesitant to travel in the face of the war in Ukraine than they have been around Covid lately; in the last few months, that’s been top of mind. But, like Jacqui’s readers, ours have been traveling no matter what, as early as summer ’20. First roadtrips, within a few states of their home, and since six weeks after getting that second vaccine, flying internationally. And I don’t see that stopping.

I do think they are going to be thoughtful travelers, responsible travelers, thinking about where it’s best to go in each season. Covid’s going to be the flu, potentially. And we’ll have winter seasons where we have to change our habits a little.

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Did you always plan for hospitality to be as central to your restaurants’ experiences as the cuisine?

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly

Florio: Everything Laura and Jacqui just said is also true of our readers. They always traveled, they just had to temper how they traveled and where they traveled to. But I think now people are also starting to feel, because we’ve lived with this now, that we’re able to form our own opinion. People are starting to feel a lot more comfortable about trusting their gut more often, and that’s enabling them to get back out there. That is a really powerful turning point in this pandemic with regards to travel. We’ve realized that we can take the information and make what can be responsible decisions for ourselves.

People still are paying attention to where they should and shouldn’t be going based on Covid. One thing I think is quite crucial is trying to be more cognizant of the places you’re visiting with regards to where they are with the pandemic, not necessarily where we are.

Weissmann: If so many readers never stopped traveling, why was the travel industry, generally speaking, tanking for so long? Are your readers different than the average population?

Amy Virshup, editor, New York Times travel section: We have a more general audience, and there are many, many people who read travel articles at the Times who aren’t necessarily coming to us for travel. They don’t subscribe to us the way a subscriber to Travel + Leisure or Conde Nast Traveler does, someone who’s focused on travel as a big part of their lives. And I would say many of our readers really didn’t travel for a while.

But I think that shifted once we hit omicron when, first, everybody went into hibernation for a month, and then everybody got it anyway. It was, like, “I’m not going to die,” right? Like, “I could get sick, some people get seriously sick, but many people do not get seriously sick.” 

I think the mindset shifted toward, “The worst thing that’s going to happen to me is that I’m going to get stuck somewhere.” And our readers, at that point, started to get much more concerned about “What if I go to Europe and get stuck in Europe?” as opposed to “Am I going to get Covid and die?” It’s not completely realistic that you’re OK if you get it, and we shouldn’t be glib about it, but I do think omicron shifted the mindset for our readers.

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You still have a small subset of people who are fearful of travel. I think that group is getting smaller and smaller.

Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure

Florio: You’re right: It’s less about the health and the safety, it’s more about the logistics. You don’t want to find yourself tangled in that quagmire of, “I’m stuck in place because I’ve tested positive. I feel fine, I don’t feel a threat to my health, but I can’t get back.”

Klara Glowczewska, executive travel editor, Town & Country: Yeah, it’s no longer fear of death, it’s fear of gnarly logistics. People have been exhausted by it, but it’s becoming less of a deterrent. Everybody I know is traveling, and if they’re not traveling, they’re got 10 trips planned for the next year and a half. It’s like a feeding frenzy. Which, I feel, is lovely. 

Starlight Williams, associate editor, National Geographic Travel: I feel the pandemic created a more conscientious traveler, and not only about things directly related to the pandemic. For instance, how you interact with the local culture. We’re going to travel but be kinder to the environment, kinder to the people. It’s not that it didn’t matter before, but now it’s essential. Our readers are choosing places that add value, to yourself and to others, and not just going wherever it’s just easily accessible. It’s more slow, experiential travel that has long-term value.

Guccione: I have nothing to add about the travelers and the readership but want to add a couple of things about how we proceeded. 

As an editor, I never allowed a single photograph of somebody wearing a mask. We covered the pandemic in a couple of photo essays and dispatches from around the world, with writers from around the world writing about exactly what was happening on their street, in their house. I had a thesis that I didn’t want to make it sadder. Nobody needed to be told to wear a mask, nobody needed to be told to get a vaccination. I presume most of my readers are smart. I just thought, visually, I want it to be escapist.

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On the menu: roasted chicken with morel mushrooms and spring garlic.

On the menu: roasted chicken with morel mushrooms and spring garlic.

On the menu: roasted chicken with morel mushrooms and spring garlic.

Weissmann: Danny, did you go anywhere after the pandemic was declared?

Meyer: I had had two longstanding plans to travel in March 2020, first to China for the first Shake Shack in Shanghai, but China was already hit hard by then. The second trip was going to be to Rome, which of course happened to be in the first Western country to truly get hit.

My first trip was in late July of 2020, and it was to the Point at Saranac Lake [in upstate New York]. The Point was open, but they couldn’t get their cooks in from Canada. But we were closed everywhere, so what a wonderful thing: they employed people who I otherwise would have laid off. 

The cooking team from the Modern was up there, including our chef, Tom Allan, and I went up there to see these guys. It’s five hours north of here, and even though I was scared to death to go into a hotel, that was the first one.

And by this point, I’ve had five trips to Europe: two to Italy; one to France, where I got omicron; one to London; and one to Greece. Also, the Turks and Caicos and Anguilla. And I’ve been to St. Louis many, many times.

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Boy, we’ve run out of names for hotels when we call one “Caption.” What’s next? “Hydrant”?

Bob Guccione Jr., editor in chief, WonderlustTravel.com

Weissmann: How about the rest of you? Have you been traveling, and traveling internationally?

Williams: My first international trip was May of 2021, with my family, to Dubai. We weren’t concerned about the dying part; we were concerned about, will we make it there? Will we make it back? And it was a nightmare because we flew from D.C. to Atlanta, had a long layover, and then Atlanta to Paris, and Paris to Dubai. Paris and Dubai had different testing requirements, and we weren’t sure whether our tests would still be valid by the time we finally arrived in Dubai. We did so much research, but it still felt chaotic.

Gifford: I started traveling domestically in July of 2020. Because of the school restrictions, I didn’t want to fly internationally, because I would have to attest on my son’s school form that I had left the state, and New York state was really strict back then. We did finally go to Anguilla, which was, at that time, CDC Level 1 — so, the safest. We went in December 2020, we stayed for almost a month.

Weissmann: A workcation?

Gifford: Yes. I felt like, at that point, I needed to see what it was like. Since then, I’ve been to Kenya, France twice, the U.K., Mexico twice. I was just in the Middle East: Dubai, Saudi Arabia. Bermuda. The requirements for each country are different, so that’s the stress of it, right?

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People are starting to feel comfortable about trusting their gut more often. And that’s enabling them to get back out there.

Erin Florio, executive editor, Conde Nast Traveler

Florio: I went for my first domestic trip in the summer of 2020 and, internationally, September 2021, to Italy. It was fairly easy. 

The second trip was a return to Italy over Christmas. My parents were going to go to London to see my sister, who lives there, but London was surging. My parents, last minute, freaked out and said, “It’s not worth the risk. We’re going to come with you.” So they joined me and my partner, and we all went to his family’s house in Italy. And there, we all got omicron and couldn’t return to the States. 

My 1-year-old also got it, which kind of sent me into a little bit of a tailspin, but everybody was fine. In the end, it wasn’t a health crisis, it was a logistical crisis. 

Since then, I’ve been to Mexico, and I’ve been to London. I found that when I was in London, I didn’t realize how ingrained the mask wearing had become in me. I didn’t realize how attached I became to the mask until I didn’t need to wear it anymore.

Virshup: I took a work-from-anywhere trip in January 2021, skiing in Stowe, Vt. And this January, Crested Butte, Colo. My first international trip was in October, to Italy.

We went to Oregon last summer and were supposed to go whitewater rafting. First, our flights were all delayed, and then, as I was standing at Crater Lake, my phone rings, and it’s the outfitter from the whitewater rafting company. “Well, we have to cancel your trip, because one of the guides got exposed.” We found other things to do, but it was definitely the summer from hell for so many people.

And I recently went to Canada, skiing in Québec. When I landed, I got picked to be randomly tested. At first, I was, like, “Ahhhhh!” and then I was, like, “Calm down. Not that big a deal.” And the problem wasn’t being asked to get tested — I really didn’t care — but they also said “You need to download this app.” Yet another app to my phone, typing in my name and email and coming up with a password. I couldn’t find my glasses. I was going to cry.

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For dessert: strawberries and rhubarb with creme fraiche ice cream.

For dessert: strawberries and rhubarb with creme fraiche ice cream.

For dessert: strawberries and rhubarb with creme fraiche ice cream.

Redman: My first international trip was Iceland, six weeks to the day after we got our second vaccines. At that time, they tested you right as you got off the plane, and then you had to go to your hotel and wait for your results. I think we waited maybe six hours and then we had free rein around the country. We didn’t have to mask — I mean, you barely see anyone, right? It truly felt like a special, private experience. We saw a volcano erupting, which made it one of top three trips in my life. 

We haven’t talked today about traveling with unvaccinated people yet, but I have two kids under the age of 5. We still travel, but it’s always kind of in the back of my mind. So far, knock on wood, no one’s gotten the virus.

Glowczewska: I started traveling domestically in April of ’21, and my first international trip was to Peru in July. And it was slightly reckless, because I went when Peru had the highest death rate per 100,000 people. All the hospitals were overwhelmed, I was told.

But I had just been vaccinated at that point, and I was going on a cruise on the Amazon with Aqua Expeditions. I knew we were going to be outside most of the time. 

I never felt anxious for a moment. I’ve never seen anybody so buttoned up as the Peruvians. On the plane, double masked and a face shield. Everywhere, double masked. 

I got up early one Sunday in Cusco, and there was this beautiful music coming from a church. But they turned me away because I had only a single mask. I just never thought that would be an issue.

And I was in Poland for three weeks, and Paris and Cannes for the International Luxury Travel Market in France. And Turks and Caicos.

Guccione: This won’t take long for me to say where I’ve been. Arnie, does Eataly count?

Weissmann: No.

Guccione: Then the answer is: I’ve gone nowhere.

Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography

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