I work most of the time in this part of the world – Asia – and every time I interview hoteliers about what makes their hotel better than their competitors, they seem to highlight Asian Hospitality, or Thai Hospitality.

I don’t disagree that Asian or Thai hospitality has its unique attributes. It’s in the culture that Asians are seen as gentle and warm, with some Asian nations coming closer to that image than others. On top of that, if you’re in Thailand you’ll see that we just smile our way through life. The good, the bad, the ugly, just smile. And if you’re a foreigner you get extra smiles!  

At a recent panel discussion, we talked about Asian hospitality. One of my panelists said that Thai hospitality can be complacent. I used to think Thailand and Southeast Asia represented hospitality at its best until I went to the Four Seasons George V in Paris. And people would argue that I shouldn’t compare Thai or Asian Hospitality with George V. My argument is that of course I can compare because if we say we have the best then it shouldn’t matter who I compare it with. At the end of the day it comes down to training. Just because staff smile, nod, and don’t talk back (because he or she couldn’t communicate properly) doesn’t mean it’s good service. It’s actually barely service at all.

Communication skills are lacking in the industry. I went to Sri Lanka recently before the unfortunate events at Easter. It’s such a beautiful country with lovely people – but they can get a little too familiar. I had a driver (third-party company) asking me all sorts of questions: What do I do, Who do I work with/for, Where did I go to school, Why do I look the way I look (having an Indian last name and looking a bit Chinese), but this was hardly the first time. This same situation happens to me all the time in Asia. We misunderstand being friendly with being too familiar. Is being too friendly and too familiar classed as giving good service or good hospitality? No!

Crawling to serve water to guests is a nice gesture, and a traditional way to approach a respected one. That’s no doubt something George V doesn’t offer. But the real issue usually shows up when problems occur. Asian staff don’t know how to handle guests when things go wrong because it is not in our culture to confront an issue – and failing to resolve problems for your guests isn’t classed as giving good service. Yes, we can approach you in the most beautiful fashion when things are going well, but when you have a problem, we will just smile at you.

One of my panelists said that hospitality belongs to everyone. Yes, some cultures may have their strengths over another but is Thai hospitality really better than others? He didn’t think so. In the end, we all agreed that good service is good service wherever it might be found, but no matter who provides it, it takes training.