Language of Luxury

Lost in Translation

BY Sara Heslington

Last summer, while staying at a ‘luxury’ resort in a small Ethiopian village, I had an experience that made me ponder the language of luxury and the role of language generally in delivering great service.

In my early years of budget travel, I would gladly assume responsibility for bridging the communication gap with phrase books and dictionaries but as my budget extended to luxury hotels with English speaking staff, I started to rely on the language skills of those service providers.

In Ethiopia, I found myself becoming frustrated when I was unable to explain to a local maintenance worker that the room phone was out of order and that only one of the five bathroom lights was working. All of which led me to question: does the burden of communication lie with me, the guest, or with my host?

Behind Chinese and Spanish, English is the world’s third most commonly spoken language and is pretty much the lingua franca of international tourism and business. Although many luxury travellers are native or second language English speakers, the growth in global travel from the BRIC countries and other emerging markets means language is becoming an issue of greater significance in the discourse of luxury hospitality.

Luxury brands have been responding, connecting for instance with Chinese travellers through apps such as WeChat and by translating websites and other communications into multiple languages. Welcome as these measures are, they fail however to allow team members to build effective relationships in their daily exchanges with guests using their native tongue.

In 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that £1 in every £5 spent by Chinese tourists in the UK was at Harrods. To better serve this market and naturally to maximise this source of revenue, Harrods regularly posts job openings for Chinese speaking sales associates. While luxury hotels do hire multilingual staff, there is still room for more targeted recruitment based on language skills and across the board increased language training for all staff.

Frontline employees that are able to engage with guests in their own language will be better equipped to provide a personalised service because guests may freely communicate their expectations, needs and wants and offer constructive feedback. Interacting in a guest’s native language also shields team members from the frustration I experienced in Ethiopia and the potential embarrassment that may be associated with communicating in a foreign language. This is particularly important in cultures where the idea of saving face is paramount to relationship building.

There are certain ‘moments of truth’ in all customer journeys and a sensible starting point is to identify these points for your own guest and ensure that here at least, language does not become a barrier for genuine understanding between the service provider and the receiver. A failure in communication at such moments can be costly for even the strongest of brands.

In addition to enabling communication, language also has political and social implications. According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, conversations are effectively economic exchanges that signal the wealth and authority of the parties. In the luxury hotel environment, therefore, it is safe to assume that this power resides with the guest who should not be required to reject their own language to communicate effectively with staff. While non-native English speakers may be practised resorting to a second or third language to communicate, should they be put in this position when paying for a luxury experience? If luxury is about providing a service beyond satisfying the basic needs and wants, shouldn’t the basic need to communicate in a familiar and comfortable language be a priority for those offering luxury service?

Many of our clients come to this firm asking what can be done to further differentiate their brands from the competition. It’s rarely this simple but the most common solution you will find in blogs, articles and research about differentiation is to focus on experiences. But as it becomes more and more difficult to conceptualise unique experiences, perhaps scrutinising more carefully how brand experiences are communicated and, more specifically, the language with which they are delivered could be a new lever in the search for distinction?

Unfortunately, this isn’t an issue for which there are any quick fixes. Despite the plethora of brightly-packaged audio language courses to be found in airport duty frees, mastering a language can take years. There are thousands of languages and it would, of course, be impossible to ensure that every guest could be cared for in their native tongue but hotels know very well their key source markets and that’s where to start. Technology, too, can play its role in profiling, for example, guest language preferences and to facilitate translation. Base staffing and smart use of outsourcing based on guest language requirements are further ways in which brands can reach more guests using their native languages.

As luxury brands continue to seek differentiation for their offerings and to elevate the customer experience thereby deepening relationships and loyalty, removing the burden of communication from their guests will help ensure they don’t invest into these efforts only to become lost in translation.

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