What hoteliers and restaurateurs can learn from the recent #deltameltdown

Over the years I have become a follower of innovative and evolving brands, and the passion they evoke from loyal fans. I talk about these brands, wholeheartedly recommend them and show them love with my credit card. Why the love? How they treat me when I’m with them face-to-face, the memories they are catalysts for, how they treat their teams or communities served, and what they stand for really does have an impact. On a grand scale, brands like Lululemon, Starbucks, Four Seasons and Deltaall come to mind.

But the reality of business is that at times things do go wrong. Really wrong. When this happens, how a service-driven brand recovers tests them. This was the case for a major U.S. airline last week… Delta. Delta Airlines is a brand I often speak about as a game-changer, balancing delivery of genuine hospitality, operations efficiency, customer experience, and innovation. Emerging from bankruptcy, they have become one the most profitable, well regarded global U.S. carriers. But, If you missed it, last week Delta had a #deltameltdown.


The airline canceled almost 4000 flights, delayed people in airports for hours (and days) on end, watched its mobile app crash, rebooked customers onto flights that were subsequently canceled and had sustained airport lines hundreds of feet long and phone hold times over 3 hours (even for the most loyal customers). A string of bad storms across the southeast closing Atlanta for several hours Wednesday, with subsequent crew and airplane placement issues across the system, and additional weather issues in other cities, caused havoc. Speculated additional problems, including a breakdown of the staff scheduling system and lack of Delta’s ability to rebook customers on American Airlines, exasperated the issue.

Plenty of articles critique the problems, but that is not my focus here. Instead of pointing fingers, I thought this was a timely example to highlight what restaurants, hotels, and other service-driven businesses need to think about to handle the significant failures that inevitably happen. On a much smaller scale, what can we learn from this to avoid damaging brands and businesses, and losing goodwill that has built up with customers over a long period?

So, what does a brand or service focused business do to minimize "the heat"?

Plan, Plan, Plan

Put one or two simple platforms in place that prematurely mitigate the issues:Most businesses are not on the global scale of Delta. For smaller restaurants or hotels, do you have teams from sister hotels or properties that are in place to urgently lend a hand when volume rapidly increases? Can you proactively update your customers through text, calls or your website if you are having delays or changes to service? In short, do you have a clear action plan ready to be implemented on a dime if you have a serious problem like a power outage, huge group check-out volume or multiple call-outs at once?

As the issue is going on, do everything you can to do right by your customers

Be honest and transparent: Apologize, and tell your customers what’s wrong and how long it should take to be resolved. “A group extended, and your connecting rooms are severely delayed in being ready,” versus “it should be done soon.” Skirting around the real issues will lead to increased frustration (as guests incredibly find out the breadth of the problem). A wonderful boutique hotel I visited in Manchester last year had a hotel-wide power outage, resulting in no water or light from mid afternoon through the night. Instead of saying “ it would be fixed soon” they were clear that they had no idea when it would get resolved and told customers about what they could do to help them.

Dial up the hospitality, apologies, and service: A small investment here can pay dividends back in overall customer satisfaction.  Is everyone being as friendly as possible, recognizing customers are very frustrated? Has your leadership team pulled aside your front line staff for a “zen” moment to recenter everyone and make sure the team understands the game plan to work through the issues? Can you offer snacks, water or drinks as customers wait? Can you block rooms nearby for customers to freshen up/shower until you are up and running? Are you able and willing to put customers above the bottom line, and invest to minimize their unhappiness? Although you might know who your most loyal customers are, you cannot pinpoint who will be most vocal about their experience. A base level of support and problem resolution for every customer is essential.

Be calm and strategic: Instead of moving rapidly into fire-fighting mode, slow down to speed up. Identify how added team members (managers or corporate support) can best help the situation. Then, pull them away from their day to day focus and give them a clear task to be responsible for and arm them with details on the situation (see # 1 above). Team members running around like chickens without heads adds to confusion and frustration of everyone.

Don’t pretend it did not happen – close the loop and move on

Offer up a sincere, personalized apology: Instead of ignoring what happened, have you fully apologized to those inconvenienced? Can you invite them back to experience your regular service? Have you used their name, and contacted them in a personal way on the phone or via text (not just sending them a form email)? The recovery effort takes an outsized role in customers long term impressions of your brand and experience… moreover, depending on how the recovery is handled it may actually outweigh the effects of the initial issue. Here’s a great (albeit old) HBR article on the many facets of service recovery and areas to focus on. Although the technology for engaging guests has changed, the content and approach are relevant.


Evolve the story on social channels: Respond to negative reviews, apologize for the inconvenience, highlight the irregularity of the situation and focus on the changes you’ve made to prevent it again. Can you introduce new updates about your experience or offer so the focus isn’t just about the past problems?

and Delta…?

Airport and telephone staff were as helpful as they could be given the situation. There are plenty of stories of pizza reaching planes and snacks and drinks offered throughout the airport gate areas. However, those gestures couldn’t overcome the sheer reality of hundreds of thousands of people stranded. Think of brand equity being built up over years like deposits in a piggy bank. With the #deltameltdown the bottom has fallen out, and with thousands of customers, they have to start dropping the pennies in again.

However, I’m a believer that the consistently premium guest experience Delta delivers over competitors will help move it ahead from the challenges it faced last week. The experiential goodwill it has built up is stronger than that of many competitors, and its customer experience regularly exceeds the competition. I imagine that Delta will focus on limiting fallout from the drama by properly apologizing and personally responding to their customers, then learning from this experience to continually improve. It doesn’t hurt that rival #United had a brand promise failure and enormous social PR disaster this week – diverting away lots of attention!

What do you think? How do you mitigate guest experience failure and brand fallout when a crisis hits? If you have a premium product, how do you turn the tides after a big challenge? If you were the execs at Delta, what would you do to bounce back and win over the love of your disappointed customers?