by James Lavenson

When the president of our hotel group, Sonesta Hotels, first introduced me to the staff of our Hotel Plaza, he said, “The Plaza has been losing money the last several years and we’ve had the best management in the world. Now we’re going to try the worst.”

To give the staff even more confidence, they discovered that I’d never been a hotelier, never been to Cornell Hotel School. In fact, I wasn’t even the son of a waiter. I’d spent my life as a salesman.

Now I was the head of a family of 1,400 people in a top class hotel, and all I’d ever done was eat in the restaurants and stay overnight.

So I started with what I knew. Salesmanship.

A tape recorder attached to my phone proved how far we had to go. “What’s the difference between your $85 suite and your $125 suite?” I’d ask the receptionist disguising my voice over the phone. You guessed it: $40.

“What’s going on the Persian Room tonight?” I asked the Bell Captain. “Some singer,” was his answer. “Man or woman?” I persisted. “I’m not sure” he said. Which made me wonder if I’d even be safe going there.

Another basic problem. The staff didn’t even know each other. So the first thing was to introduce name tags, for everyone from the dishwashers to the general manager.

Recognition: Now, a number of years ago I heard Dr Ernest Dichter, head of the Institute of Motivational Research, talk about restaurant service. He had reached a classic conclusion. That when people come to a fine restaurant, they are hungrier for recognition than they are for food. It’s true. If the maitre d’ says “We have your table ready, Mr. Lavenson”, then as far as I’m concerned the chef can burn the steak and I’ll be happy.

Another fact. When someone calls you by name and you don’t know his, a strange feeling comes over you. You have to find out his name. This happens with our Plaza name tags. When a guest calls a waiter by name, the waiter wants to call the guest by name. It will drive him nuts if he doesn’t. He’ll ask the maitre d’, and if he doesn’t know he’ll ask the bellman, who will ask the front desk. Calling guests by name has a pay off. It’s called a tip!

Knowing the product: Well, with 1,400 people all labelled and smiling, we were just about ready to make salesmen out of them. There was just one more obstacle to overcome, before we started suggesting they “Ask for their order”. They had no idea what the product was they would be selling. Not only didn’t they know who was playing in the Persian Room, they didn’t know we had movies – full length feature movies without commercials – on closed circuit TV in the bedrooms.

As a matter of fact, they didn’t know what a guest room looked like unless they happened to be a maid or a bellman. The reason the receptionist though $40 was the difference between two suites was because she’d never been in one, much less slept in one.

Today, if you ask a Plaza bellman “Who’s playing in the Persian Room?”, he’ll tell you Ednita Nazzaro. He’ll tell you because he’s seen her. In the contract of every Persian Room performer there’s now a clause requiring him/her to perform for our employees in the cafeteria before he/she opens in the Persian Room. Our employees see the star first before the guests.

If you ask any member of the staff what’s on the movies, they’ll tell you, because they’ve seen it… on the TV sets running the movies continuously in the employees’ cafeteria.

Our new room clerks have a week on orientation. It includes spending a night in the hotel, and a tour of 1,000 guest rooms. They can look out the window and see the $40 difference in suites since the view of the park doesn’t even closely resemble the back of the Avon building.

You had to ask: After six months, we decided it was time to look at our sales effort. I couldn’t find it. The Plaza had three men with the title of “salesmen” – and they were good men. But they were really sales SERVICE people who took orders for functions or groups who came through the doors and sought us out. Nobody, but nobody even left the place, crossed the moat at Fifth Avenue, and went looking for business. If you didn’t ask us we wouldn’t ask you. So there! You had to ring our doorbell.

This condition wasn’t unique to our official Sales Department. It seemed to be shared by our entire staff. If you wanted a second drink in the Oak Bar, you got it by tripping the waiter. You asked for it. If you wanted a room you were quoted the minimum rate. If you wanted something better or larger you had to ask for it. If you wanted to stay at the hotel an extra night, you had to ask. You were never invited.

Sometimes I think there’s a secret pact among hotel men. It’s a secret oath you take when you graduate from hotel school “I promise I will never ask for the order”.

EVERYBODY SELLS: And we meant everybody. Maids, cashiers, waiters, bellmen -the works. We talked to the maids about suggesting room service, to the doormen about mentioning dinner in our restaurants, to cashiers about suggesting return reservations to departing guests. And we talked to waiters about strawberries.

A waiter at the Plaza makes anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 a year. The difference between those two figures is, of course, tips. When I was in the advertising agency business, I thought I was fast at computing 15 per cent. I’m a moron compared to a waiter. Our suggestions for selling strawberries fell on responsive ears when we figured, with just the same number of customers in the Oyster Bar, that if the waiters would ask every customer if he’d like a second drink, wine, or beer with the meal, and then dessert – given only one out of four takers, we’d increase our sales volume by $364,000 a year. The waiters were way ahead of the lecture.

They’d already figured out that was another $50,000 a year in tips! The toughest decision to make since I’ve been in this job, was to choose between staying on as President or becoming an Oyster Bar waiter.

Sell Strawberries: But while our waiters appreciated this automatic raise in theory, they were quick to call out the traditional negatives. “Nobody eats dessert anymore. Everyone’s on a diet. If we served our chocolate cheesecake to everybody in the restaurant, half of them would be dead in a week.” “So sell ’em strawberries!” we said, “but sell ’em!”

So, not daunted by the diet protestations of the customer, the waiter now goes into raptures about the bowl of fresh strawberries flown in that morning from California, or wherever he thinks strawberries comes from.

We show our waiters every week what’s happening to strawberry sales. This month they have double again. So have second martinis. And believe me, when you get a customer for a second martini you’ve got a sitting duck for strawberries…with whipped cream. Our waiters are asking for the order.

“Think strawberries” is the Plaza’s new secret weapon. Our reservations now think strawberries and suggest a suite overlooking Central Park, rather than a twin-bedded room. Our bellmen are thinking strawberries. Each bellman has their own reservation cards, with his name printed as the return addresser and he asks if you’d like him to make your next reservation as he’s checking you out and into your taxi. Our room service order takers are thinking strawberries. They suggest the closed circuit movie on TV ($3 will appear on your bill) as long as you’re going to eat in your room. Our telephone operators are even thinking strawberries. They suggest a morning Flying Tray breakfast when you ask for a wake-up call. You just want a light breakfast, no ham and eggs? How about some strawberries?

The results: We figure we’ve added about three hundred salesmen to the three sales service team we had before. But most important is that we’ve added five pure sales people to our Sales Department. Four of them are out on the street calling cold, on the prospects to whom they’re ready to sell anything from a cocktail in the Oak Bar to a Corporate Directors meeting to a Bar Mitzvah.

The chewing gum people sell new customers by sampling on street corners. The Plaza has chewing gum licked by a mile. Our sales people on the street have one simple objective: get the prospect into the hotel to sample the product. With the Plaza as a our product, it isn’t too difficult. And once you taste the Plaza, frankly you’ll love the rooms.

I made sales calls myself with one of our salesmen. As a matter of fact that’s why I’m here today. We called on your program chairman and tried to sell him strawberries. He promised that if I showed you a strawberry he’d book your next luncheon at the Plaza. I’m looking forward to waiting on you myself.