Hospitality in real life: How to make every guest feel like a VIP

drinks at a restaurant

We all know that hospitality is the key to success in the restaurant industry—not just getting butts in seats, but building real relationships with your guests and making them feel taken care of. In practice, though, hospitality requires an incredible amount of work: meticulous documentation, next-level interpersonal skills, and constant communication.

To see what that looks like in real life, we talked to two restaurant pros who have mastered it.

At the former restaurant Betony in New York City, General Manager Eamon Rockey catered to guests from all over the world in a special-occasion, fine-dining setting. The restaurant prided itself on tailoring experiences to individuals. “I think of our approach to hospitality as being one that is highly studied and dependent on great amounts of information,” he says. “It’s as personal as absolutely possible.”

Tai Ricci is a partner at Hi Neighbor restaurant group, which operates Trestle in San Francisco. It’s an approachable, neighborhood restaurant, but that doesn’t mean the team there is any less thoughtful about hospitality. “I have a list of 650 regulars—my list of people that I had such a connection with when they walked in the door,” says Tai. “Everyone wants to feel special, and it doesn’t take much at all. You just have to actually care.”

Here, find insider tips from Tai and Eamon for creating incredible guest experiences, plus everything it takes behind the scenes.

Capture as much information as possible

So what kind of details are you looking for? Basically anything and everything the guest wants to share with you. “We ask about special occasions, what they’re doing in New York, what their plans are for the rest of the night,” says Eamon. “All of this plays into the way we’re going to approach dinner with them.” From there, they would send over special menu items or drinks to make their experience more exciting. And they collect all special occasion information, likes, and dislikes in OpenTable’s Guest Notes. “They are the principal tool that we use to category and catalog that body of knowledge and information,” says Eamon.

“You get clues from tables, which we train the staff about,” Tai adds. “If it’s two ladies, you know they’re going to be hanging out for a while, they’re thirsty. They want their wine right now and then they don’t want to see you again. If it’s a business dinner they want to get right down to business. We keep notes on everyone, too, for people that have allergies or like specific wines—we can have something to start talking about with people right away.”

Tailor each experience to the individual guest

At fine-dining restaurants, the stakes are high. Maybe a diner has been planning a trip for the past six months, and this may be their only visit to the restaurant ever. Every moment of their experience is precious.

“It’s not just about giving somebody something that’s great, it’s giving somebody something that’s great and is curated for them,” says Eamon. “If you provide somebody an experience that’s very natural and casual and that is their style of dining, then that’s amazing. You provide the exact same experience to someone who is feeling enormous amounts of pressure to have it be the greatest dining experience of their trip, then the approach to their dining experience has to be entirely different. There’s almost this high-stakes game of minute-to-minute conversation and dish by dish, drink by drink, bottle by bottle analysis that’s really high stakes and very emotional.”

If you know a guest is traveling from Cleveland, pair them with a captain on your team that’s also from Cleveland, says Eamon. “That’s not possible unless you’re being really observant and careful about the information-gathering component of making a reservation.”

Another example: one couple became repeat guests at Betony, and the man decided to propose at the restaurant. He asked the team to print out a wine list into which he could insert photos of him and his soon-to-be wife. Instead of stopping there, Eamon’s team took it to the next level by giving him one of their leather-bound wine lists, recording video from the security cameras, and serving them a “Mariage Parfait” beer because he knew they liked sour beers. The couple was so touched that they invited him to their wedding.

Capture information about dietary restrictions, preferences, and special occasions…

These categories reign supreme for creating special experiences. “Dietary restrictions and preferences in general also so we can steer them away from the things they could eat but don’t want to or steer them toward the things they love to eat,” says Eamon.

He’s also proactive about special occasions. For example, if somebody makes a reservation for an anniversary in March of 2015 and then February rolls around in 2016, he might email that guest, thanking him for celebrating at Betony last year and expressing that they would love to have them back again. “They’re always incredibly impressed,” Eamon says. “We’re armed with a great body of information and record-keeping as a result of using Guest Codes and Guest Notes.”

With drink preferences, you can have cocktails ready for regulars as soon as they sit down, and be ready to recommend a wine you know a guest will love. Another beverage tip from Tai: know water preference. “It sounds like a small thing, but it’s one step out of the system: the server automatically brings you sparkling water. That’s a tiny little touch.”

Finally, remember their names, and call them by their names when they leave. “That makes people feel very important,” says Tai.

…And details about the visit

If you sent over a special amuse bouche, if the guest spent big on wine, all of that should go in your notes. If they went to the CIA and used to work in the industry, add that information, too.

Here’s how Tai remembers visits: “When I’m at the door, I see Tai Ricci’s coming in. Last time she waited 15 minutes and was sent a pate, and she was really full. As soon as she walks in the door, I’ll say, ‘Welcome back! Didn’t you guys wait last time? Let me get you some Champagne and I’m going to get you seated right away.’ And you make sure that that never happens again. Then I go back and write notes: on 7/25 was Champagne greeted, did not wait, sat at this table and was sent this.”

Communicating well with guests is also a great way to avoid negative reviews. Tai says she knows right away if someone doesn’t like what they ordered because they will stop eating. She tells people after they order: “If you encounter anything about this experience that you want to comment on or just don’t like, you need to tell me because it’s the only way that I’m going to get better.”

Most people say everything was great at first, but then they will admit something was under seasoned or not cooked to their liking. Tai takes notes, and the next time they come in and don’t order that dish, she will send it to them, corrected. “They’re going to love it and be really appreciative.”

Show regulars extra love

Eamon had one Betony regular who ordered the same gin martini every visit, prepared in a very specific way. “Whenever he makes a reservation we always have the cocktail made about 15-20 minutes before—he’s always very prompt—and as soon as we see him through the windows of the restaurant we add ice, stir it, and by the time he sits down it’s waiting for him.” That kind of treatment makes people want to come back again and again.

Since Trestle is a neighborhood spot, Tai offers her regulars a neighborhood discount or a glass of wine. She keeps track of these little extras so that if this time they send over a pasta, next time they will send a dessert. “My whole goal is to do whatever I can that costs me nothing to get everyone coming back.”

Share information among key members of your service team

Who needs access to information about guests, and how can you share it in a streamlined way? For Eamon, it was Betony’s reservationists, maitre d’s, and hosts, plus all of the managers. Captains filled out logs at the end of every night and wrote in notes about the guests. The reservations team would input the notes to OpenTable. When the guest came back, the captain got a print-out of the person’s Guest Notes and Codes. “It’s a really cool system that enables us to prepare for someone that we’ve only seen once or twice or haven’t seen for a very long time,” says Eamon.

And every morning, Tai starts her day the same way. “I’ll wake up, pour a cup of coffee, open my laptop, and I’ll check the books.” She texts the General Manager and leaves notes in the reservations so not a single regular guest goes unnoticed.

Start personalizing every guest experience at your restaurant

Show me how