Lee has been a sleepwalker since he was a boy. At home, at friends’ houses, in hotels – it doesn’t matter. Given this disorder, it’s probably not the best idea for him to sleep in the nude, but there you have it. A few years ago, Lee booked a room in a hotel with glass lifts, glass railings, glass everything. At some point that night, he sleepwalked from his room into the hallway. The door clicked shut and locked him out. At that point, Lee woke up. It was 3:10am.

There was no phone in the hallway, and his own phone was charging in his room. He was completely naked. With no other options, he boarded the seethrough elevator and pressed ‘L’ for the lobby. When the doors opened, he snaked his head out. “Psst,” Lee hissed. No response. “Psst,” he said again. The receptionist finally looked up and saw a disembodied male head sticking out of the elevator. When he investigated, he found Lee huddled in a corner of the elevator, shielding himself with both hands. Lee explained what had happened and asked for a replacement key. “I’m sorry,” the clerk said, “but I can’t supply you with a duplicate key without some proof of your identity, a driver’s licence or a passport.”

“I don’t have any ID on me right this second,” Lee said. “I’m sorry,” the employee said. “It’s strict company policy.” After a heated discussion and the temporary loan of a towel, the desk clerk and a security guard accompanied Lee upstairs and unlocked the door. Flanked by both men, Lee unlocked the room safe, took out his passport, and showed it to the hoteliers.

The heart of the matter

Ask almost anyone working in hospitality why they joined the industry, and they’ll confess their profound love for serving people – and the chance to pick up an occasional amusing guest story or two. Throughout history, the motivation driving hospitality staff has been the joy of human interaction, that gratitude occasionally expressed by a guest as a staff member went out of their way to transform the impossible into the possible. But as technology – supported by buzzwords like ‘efficiency’, ‘cost control’ and ‘lean operation’ – has taken the lead, the human factor has taken a back seat. A quick glance may convince you that everything is just fine.

Who really cares if the internet is down for 30 minutes – and the receptionist suggests logging on to the provider for help getting online? Or that the previous guest in your room set their alarm clock for 4:30am, housekeeping rushed through their seven minutes of cleaning time allotted per room, neglected to reset the alarm clock, and it goes off and wakes you up? As protocols have increasingly taken over, a side effect (with detrimental consequences) has appeared. And that’s the disappearance of common sense.

The loss of common sense, when eggs Benedict was removed from a breakfast menu as a result of Covid-19 – yet scrambled eggs were still prominently featured. The loss of common sense, when guests are required to have their temperature taken when checking in – but guests frequenting the hotel’s restaurants and bars are not. Or loss of common sense in the case of Lee, whose ID was, for obvious reasons, inaccessible.

Common sense, with its close link to empathy, is the willingness to see and experience the world from a guest’s point of view. But now empathy is in danger. This is particularly true among a younger generation invariably shaped by Twitter’s 280-character limit on nuanced emotional expression. Being glued to a smartphone screen during a romantic dinner doesn’t encourage empathy, either. Nor does the steel grip of algorithms on our surfing and viewing habits, producing content that only reaffirms our opinions.

It all eats into our empathy. When combined with all those internal IT systems and protocols, the result is a deadly cocktail that results in the death of one of the hospitality industry’s fundamental pillars: common sense. It is something everyone needs, few have, and no one thinks they lack. It vanishes so slowly that we won’t realise it’s gone until we wake up and realise something is missing. We’ll have lost the ability to connect with guests – the very heart of hospitality.