Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Joy in Serving and Connecting through Comedy: Riehlife Interview with Theo McKinney guest experience specialist at Hotel Carlton, San Francisco

Hotel Carlton sign

The Hotel Carleton is: enchanting, international, eclectic, cheerful, and bohemian. So is Guest Experience Specialist Theo McKinney. Maybe that’s why the two are a well suited and fitted.

Experience Manager Theo McKinney at Hotel Carlton Desk

Riehlife: Theo, as you know my brief encounter with you at the Hotel Carlton was a highlight of my recent visit to San Francisco because of the atmosphere you created around you at the desk with your colleague, the other guests in the lobby and myself. What I felt was your joy in serving. Could you speak to that? Where does that come from in your background? That kind of quality, that purity, doesn't come from customer service training.


Theo: Let me start by saying this: When I greet guests who are traveling together, where one has been to The City before, but the other hasn’t, I usually like to point out how “the only thing better than seeing San Francisco for the first time, is watching someone you love, see it for the first time.”

Living in this city for over 20 years now, I still get a little bleary when I have to leave it (even on vacation!) because I know there will be something about being here that I’ll miss terribly while I’m away (usually, it’s the food). Therefore, this line of work resonates with me, because it causes me think back to that sense of amazement I felt when I visited San Francisco for the very first time…every single day, through the eyes of people from all over the world.

Back when I saw this place for the very first time, I was so blown away by the artistic scene, the geographic beauty of the place, the kindness and tolerance of its people, the amazing architecture, and the effortless way the city blends the cultures of the world, Spanish and American/Native American history with up-to-the second technology, that I remembered clearly how I couldn’t wait to show it to someone else who didn’t know the USA had such an international city.

[Through my work at the Carlton] I get to vicariously sense that same feeling of discovery every single day. How great is that?

Riehlife: Theo, you’ve said that “the gathering together of the whole experience as a package and wrapping it up in a bow” is what you especially enjoy about your work. If you were to design a new title for yourself other than Experience Manager, what might it be?

Theo: Since this interview, I've been tossing around the title of "Innkeeper-Concierge" as in the olden days, when people traveled very long distances by stagecoach and needed a place for a few days.


Riehlife: I stayed at another Joie de Vivre property in San Francisco that was physically gorgeous with cozy features (Petite Auberge, rated by Conde Naste as one of the nations’s top 75 hotels), but the staff was merely perfunctory. This leads me to wonder about how staff is chosen and trained for this group of upscale boutique hotels. It would seem easier to choose folks such as yourself that possess at their core a code of service. What are your thoughts?

Theo: This may sound surprising, but it’s all about the timing, as far as I can tell: the pretty physical aspects of a hotel should ideally be looked upon by the staff as merely the beginning of a great hotel experience; more like a backdrop than the event itself. It should never be presumed to serve as the whole package, as some hotels take it.

I think boutique hotel administrators forget that they are in the inn-keeping business first and foremost, where the whole idea should be to host people who happen to be strangers in a really exceptional place.

It is helpful to keep in mind that guests are people who are hoping to discover a sense of a home away from home that reflects something wonderful about their “traveling” selves (sometimes in contrast to their at-home-selves.) I feel the most important time during a guest’s stay therefore, has to be while they are physically inside the hotel interacting with “the natives”.

Curiously, other hotels will schedule the majority of their staffing to be present when there are hardly any guests in the hotel. Then, when the time comes for guests to return to their room and really experience their hotel as guests who innately desire to be hosted, everyone but one or two people are left on staff to look after them.

Clearly, under these circumstances, staff stress levels would have to go up, and they can often be overwhelmed by the simplest complication if it comes at the wrong time; under-supporting the staff at this most crucial time of all as far as the guest is concerned, seems wrong-headed: opportunities to bond-–-truly bond---are lost.

Looking after guests with your best people on staff while the guests are physically in the hotel is a strategy that makes sense for guests and staff members alike.


Riehlife: What I saw at the desk that I really loved was the joking around between you and Giovanni and the rest of us. That confidence in being light-hearted really sets an attitude of comfort and hominess. Is this something generally encouraged at the Hotel Carlton, or just something you do? How do you make the guest feel important, comfortable and...

Theo: I personally insist on this comedy approach; when things get hairy, I have no qualms about completely absorbing the problem myself so that the staff around me can go on with an earnest and untroubled smile; this only makes sense from a management standpoint because a happy smiling staff automatically means happy smiling guests, which I believe, is the whole point of the hotel biz.

When I first started working at the Carlton (clearing dinosaur eggs from the primordial ooze--it’s been that long), I noticed that everyone at the front desk was always so tense and preoccupied with paperwork, often trying to impress the bosses with their paperwork prowess rather than making the guests in front of them happy.

When I started as a bellman (again, well before the Kimpton days even), they actually told me we “didn’t have the time to show guests where they were on the map because there was too much work to do” and "just give them the map and let them go so we can get our work done.”

Huh? This simply didn’t make sense so I got myself in trouble a lot, at first. But then, the idea caught on, after they saw what I saw as a lowly bellman: that a happy set of guests is much easier to deal with, than ones who are looking in vain to feel smart about their hotel choice. Great service makes them believe in the hotel and the city they are visiting like no elaborately fashionable remodel ever will.

That’s why the comedy is definitely encouraged. When people are traveling, they go through hours and hours of being treated as: a ticket number, a cab number, a table number…”a number” and not a person; “a ‘thing’ to be processed”. The best hotel experience should be aimed at yanking people out of their numerical “travel mode”, and placing them gently and reassuringly into the “hosted guest mode”. It’s about creating a sense of belonging to an alien environment, and nothing gives them that, better than getting them to laugh together with a native.

And at the very same time, nothing makes an employee feel more efficient than getting them and their guests to relax one-on-one, so they can take the time to really “hear” what each guest is looking for in their hotel experience (and please note, what they really want, is rarely exactly what they think they want; after all, how can they know what is even possible, in an alien environment?)

A hotel’s job is to give them a clear interpretation of their possibilities and then, help them get matched up to what turns them on, whenever possible as often as possible.

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