Building connections

Nita Luthria Row

Growing up, I led a fairly peripatetic existence and I studied at a few different schools in India and abroad. In those days, many parents didn’t worry so much about which board the school was or what its reputation was. Convenience was key. So I studied at a state board school for some years in Bombay, then at a CBSE school in Kuwait, back to an SSC school in Bombay, and finally at an international school in Baghdad.

In my school in Kuwait, I remember having a subject called needlework, and at the time, I never understood why we had to learn embroidery and knitting. In the school in Bombay, I vaguely recall some cooking lessons but my interest in cooking awakened much later. I don’t remember learning anything of practical value from these lessons.

However, after I returned to India and completed my college education, I decided to join my family in their line of work – hotels and hospitality. As part of my training, I had to work for a month in every single department of the hotel from telephones to housekeeping to kitchens to guest relations. That one year as a trainee was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

After my year was over, I joined the marketing team of another hotel company and since then have held various jobs from telemarketing manager to home caterer to school administrator to home maker to my current role as head of an elementary school. Yes, a far cry indeed from the hospitality industry it would seem. Nevertheless, that one year’s grounding in hospitality and guest management has stood me in good stead in each of my roles.

So what are the values and skills I learned during that one year that have helped me in my various jobs?

  1. A service mindset: First and foremost in the things I learned during my stint as a trainee was that you have to approach your work with a desire to serve your customers. One learns that one needs to develop a problem-solving attitude rather than blame throwing or passing the buck. You learn to recognize that when someone comes to you with an issue, you need to listen to them respectfully rather than argue and then figure out how to resolve the issue to the other person’s satisfaction. At the very least, you learn the power of admitting and accepting when you are at fault and make amends. This is a useful mindset to cultivate in any relationship, professional or personal. Furthermore, you learn how to make people feel welcome whether it is your home or your office. You have to learn to shed any prejudices or biases you may have and treat every person who walks into your environment as special and deserving. You understand how important it is to make it a point to remember people’s names, their likes and preferences, any allergies or medical conditions that you may need to bear in mind.
  2. Dignity of labour: As a trainee, one was given the jobs no one else wanted to do and one just had to do them. There was no question of saying no. So whether it was cleaning toilets or wiping tables or deseeding chillies until your hands and face felt like they were on fire, you did what you were supposed to. You also realize quickly that education does not give one an edge as very often, the most skilled bakers and chefs were not highly educated and yet had so much to teach you. It was both enlightening and humbling at the same time.
  3. An eye for detail: When we were made to take rounds with our managers, we learned from them how to scan a room and spot a painting that was askew, flowers that needed their water changed, a stain on a tablecloth – all this in just one quick but keen glance. It becomes second nature soon to straighten the cutlery and spot anything that is out of place or not looking presentable.
  4. The importance of SOPs: Whether one is answering the telephone at the reception or checking in a guest or preparing a room, there are always standard operating procedures or SOPs to be followed. This helps minimize errors and guarantees a level of efficiency in a large organization. It also ensures that everyone is on the same page and leaves very little room for ambiguity. In almost every job I have held, I have found that spelling out these procedures has always been of immense value.
  5. Grooming: This last one may sound a little superficial but one of the most valuable skills I learned as a hotel employee was to drape a sari elegantly. The sari is one of the most graceful garments and learning how to carry it off is something I feel proud of. While physical appearance is no measure of efficiency, being well-groomed does help convey an air of professionalism that automatically inspires trust.

Home science or home economics is often the precursor for people wishing to enter the hospitality industry as there are some overlaps that prepare you well for it. While most young students might view the hospitality industry as glamorous and exciting, it is in reality very demanding. What one sees on the surface is the plush air-conditioned surroundings, fancy food, celebrity guests and so on. What one doesn’t see are the hours of being on your feet, the running around, and having to deal with so many different kinds of people.

Like any other profession, it requires commitment, perseverance and motivation. Like all other industries, hospitality is also going through changes. There are now completely automated hotels in which you have little or no interaction with humans. However, people thrive on interaction and relationships. I do believe that my stint in hotels taught me the value of cultivating good relationships with other people, something that always stands one in good stead no matter what you do.

The author is the Head of Junior School at Bombay International School. She describes herself as a tech junkie, tree hugger, and forever learner. Her Twitter handle is @knitarow. She can be reached at [email protected].

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