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What Congregations Can Learn From The Ritz-Carlton about Radical Hospitality

What Congregations Can Learn From The Ritz-Carlton about Radical Hospitality

Earlier this week members of one of our District Congregational Excellence Committees shared how they sent mystery guests to worship with congregations.  Each mystery worshiper then answered questions regarding their experience.  The most surprising discovery was that while they were usually greeted by the ushers and others, whose role was officially to greet them, many mystery guests reported feeling ignored, as if unseen, by the rest of the congregation.  These guests often left worship feeling unwelcomed despite the scripted “Hello’s” from those trained to greet them!  This would not have happened at the Ritz-Carlton.

The reason, according to Simon Cooper, recent COO of the Ritz-Carlton (one of the leading brands in the luxury lodging), is “our ladies and gentlemen.”  Their staff, whom they refer to as their “ladies and gentlemen,” make 90% of the emotional impact of a visit to one of their hotels.  They are the ones who bring the hotel to life and make their guests’ stay memorable.   

The Ritz-Carlton goes to great lengths carefully to select and train their staff to provide “anticipatory service” that addresses even their guests unexpressed needs.  Most of their guests can afford to go anywhere.  What turns guests into loyal customers at the Ritz-Carlton is something they can’t buy: friendly smiles, warm greetings and caring, over-the top service.  We “engage them emotionally by giving them things they just can’t buy anywhere else,” said Cooper.   (

When this leader in the hospitality industry was asked how they get their people to do this, here is how Cooper responded on two different occasions. 

We use what we call ‘lineup,’ which is a Ritz-Carlton tradition. . . we want every single hotel, everywhere in the world, every partner, every shift, to utilize lineup, which typically takes around 15 minutes every day.  Part of the lineup everywhere around the world is a ‘wow story,’ which means talking about great things that our ladies and gentlemen have done.  That is a wonderful training and communication tool, where every department layers on the [Ritz-Carlton] message.  (

Through encouragement.  You can’t just script responses, . . . so we reinforce the actions we’re looking for through the kind of stories we tell and the kind of actions we write thank-you cards for.  If an employee does something for a guest that is very personal – for example, he leaves work for two hours to take a guest’s broken suitcase to someone he knows can fix it, then brings it back in time for the guest’s flight – we recognize that.  We constantly remind people of the kind of actions that we want to see.  (

What can congregations learn from the Ritz-Carlton about Radical Hospitality?

First, you’ve got to get the basics right.   The basics for the Ritz-Carlton are their facilities and functionality.  Is the location right?  Is the decor appropriate?  Was their room ready and clean?  Was the food outstanding?  For congregations the basics are a little different, of course.  Is the nursery an attractive and safe environment?  Are the bathrooms clean?  Are the facilities inviting and well-kept?  Do the signs help you navigate the campus successfully?  Was the worship relevant?  These are things that first have to be right. 

Somewhere I remember Lyle Schaller sharing a list of basic expectations that if unmet become roadblocks keeping people away, but if met won’t keep them coming back.  If you don’t have adequate parking, if your yard looks like the gardener is on vacation, if the lobby and your grandmother’s attic are easily confused, if the sound system crackles and could have been operated better by a hyperactive, attention deficit disorder middle-schooler . . . then people will stay away.  You’ve got to get these things right first, if you want new people to come back.  But getting these right won’t keep them coming back.  People will stay away if your air conditioning isn’t working well, but they won’t come back just because your sanctuary is comfortably cool.   

It’s emotional engagement that keeps guests coming back.  As Cooper put it, it’s people that make their guests’ stay memorable, not things.  There are lots of churches within a reasonable drive for most people.  They will drive by a string of churches to go where they feel genuinely welcomed – where they receive the things money can’t buy: a sense of acceptance and belonging. In today’s crowded but too often lonely world, people are searching for what Jesus said is the distinguishing characteristic of a community of his followers: a contagious love for others (John 13:35). 

Many members mistakenly describe their congregation as “friendly.”  Bishop Whitaker tells the story of the first Sunday of a new appointment when people greeted him in the fellowship hall, but then turned to focus on their friends.  He found himself wandering alone between little groups of people talking among their friends with their backs towards him.  When he spoke with other visitors, he discovered that this was their experience, too.  Yet members of the congregation were quick to talk about how “friendly” their congregation was.

Describe and reward the behaviors your want.  When Ocoee Oaks UMC relocated to their new facility along a major road less than a mile from a new mall in West Orlando, their pastor Enie Post prepared them for receiving an influx of visitors.  He clearly described the hospitality behaviors that would help their guests feel welcomed.  Park in the back so visitors can park in the front.  When someone is looking for a seat, rather than making them crawl uncomfortably over you, scoot down the row and let them sit on the end.  During the greeting, look for someone you don’t recognize, introduce yourself and chat with them, rather than with your friends.  Imagine new persons as guests in your home: as a gracious host or hostess, how would you take initiative to help them feel welcomed?  Ernie constantly reminded and celebrated the kinds of radical hospitality behaviors for which he was looking.  It worked!

Involve people in welcome ministry that fits their gifts.  Cooper states that they hire less than 2% of the people who apply to be one of their “ladies and gentlemen.”  A friend of mine describes Fellowship UMC in Palm Bay as one of the most radically hospitable congregations in his significant experience of visiting around the Florida conference.  How do they manage this?  Pastor Shirley Groom notices people with the spiritual gift of hospitality.  Then she invites them to do a very special ministry on Sunday mornings.  Their ministry is to notice visitors, to seek them out and to befriend them.  Often they sit with new comers and sensitively help them know about the worship service and the congregation.  They may introduce visitors to persons who are of a similar age and stage in life.  And it is not unusual for them to invite these visitors out to lunch with them.  In short, these persons intentionally treat visitors like guests in their home. 

Do your visitors drive home feeling like they have experienced Christ love embodied in your members?   If so, I bet they come back.  If not, . . .

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Dr. Jeff Stiggins

The Center for Congregational Excellence