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Is Technology Killing Hospitality?

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When I was in yachting – back in the day – my laptop weighed more than my aeroplane luggage allowance, a cell phone was something you kept in your cabin all season and needed dusting off at the end of the summer, we still used to buy phone cards to call home (from a pay phone 2 miles away), and a tweet was a sound the odd bird made in port.  

The only application (App) we knew, was when the guest with the serious skin condition asked us to apply sunscreen on his hairy back (why was it never the gorgeous ones that wanted that assistance?). Our internet sessions consisted of a once a month, one hour email session in a port at the stinky internet café where you needed gloves to use the keyboards (and why was it that there were always these shady types hanging around those internet cafes?).

Most yachts had an internal phone system that guests rarely used. One yacht I worked on had a “buzzer” under the dining room table, but the only person who ever used it was the owner (who hated people in general, so he would probablyhave liked to be served by “Bee Dee Bee Dee Uh Oh” from Buck Rogers – if you are too young to know who this is, well, google it).  Even though the charter guests knew about this buzzer, they never used it.  Oh, and of course, there was one yacht I worked on that had a universal remote control (WITH a touch screen!).  Wow, what a step into the future! 

12105198504 c01c785236 zI still travelled with my trusty old cocktail making book, napkin folding book and Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopaedia (plus about 50 other books in my luggage at any given time).

Apples were still a fruit that we served our guests as part of a breakfast platter which they ate on the aft deck, enjoying the view and an early morning chat with their friendly breakfast Stewies. Will there be a time that they insist on room service (a tray you leave outside their door and then disappear) so they can stay in bed and read their Kindle?

The only WhatsApp we knew was that annoying “WUZZZZUUUUUPPPP” that everyone said to each other for a while after that really stupid Super Bowl Commercial (about a really horrible beer) about a hundred years ago. See  (

Speaking of Youtube - does this mean Chief Stews have also become obsolete?  Don’t know how to fold a towel? – then youtube it!!  I even found a few youtube videos of people cleaning toilets with a toothbrush (granted, they were doing so as a prank or out of pure evil, but I still learnt so much!)

To prove my point about how confusing life can be for a computer/robot, when I typed in ‘clean a toilet with a toothbrush’, referred me to the following entry:  When your google search gets it so wrong, it does make us feel a little safer in our jobs, doesn’t it!

You might be standing in the stew pantry and receive a tweet from your boss saying that he wants another coffee. You turn around and press the “Mr Smith coffee” button on the coffee machine (for which you needed a week-long training course to operate) and then all you need to do is put a coffee cup underneath the spout…

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I am not that old fashioned – I understand how technology can make our lives easier and our jobs faster, but I can remember using Atlantic Crossings to research travel books and then typing up various guest itineraries with the phone numbers of local restaurants, tourist offices, etc. to have it handy when the charter season was in full swing. Guests loved finding this in their guest welcome folders, so you took the time and effort to make it complete and interesting. I am sure there is a more modern way to do it today, better and more efficiently.

The question remains, however, are we googling ourselves out of the REAL yachting crew experience? Will our obsession with technology replace those odd afternoons when the boss’ wife asks you to sneak off with her to keep her company while she is having a Martini at the Marina Bar, because her husband does not want her to drink any more today (you drink sparkling water, of course). That same lady cries for two days when you resign your position after two years to join a larger yacht. 

Meeting a Stewardess on the yacht docked next to you and asking her to lend you a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue, because your charter guests decided that even though it was not on the Preference Sheet, this is now their most favourite drink.  This same Stew becomes your best friend and was also bridesmaid at your wedding. You walk up to meet the Harbour Master in this small Italian Marina where you are docked for a week awaiting guests and, before you know it, he has invited your whole crew to a barbeque in his village up in the mountains of Italy. You still send him a hand-written, snail-mailed Christmas card each year.

What is the scenario today?  Guests google the restaurants and they also book it, because the website had an online booking option. Or we do it for them online. Now the question is – will we out-app, out-tweet, out-google and out-Apple ® ourselves of a job?

Instead of your boss getting up in the morning, being met by you and your pretty smile, he stays in bed and reads his “Wall Street Journal” on his Ipad and sends a Bluetooth message to the ‘do it yourself coffee machine’ in his cabin to make him a coffee just the way he likes it? We used to think tying a satin ribbon around the newspaper and having it wait by the boss’ favourite morning spot was rather fancy.

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Often people ask me why I stayed in the industry so long. My answer is always the same: I LOVED hospitality. I loved the rush I got before a busy season, or on those one day turn-arounds. 

There was NOTHING more satisfying to me than seeing a happy and content guest, a group of guests getting up from a meal that was executed perfectly, an “absolutely nothing pleases me” guest swooning over a flower arrangement or a table setting that you made (and even taking photos because she wants to show your idea to her daughter’s wedding planner). 

There was nothing that made me happier than working on a yacht where the boss’ wife spent so much time talking to you about little everyday things; you sometimes had to make up a fake emergency with one of the Stewies just to get away. 

What is REAL hospitality? This is what makes us unique and special as professional human Steward/esses – the fact that we can have a group on board and read every little whim and mood on a guest’s face.  Writing down on your cheat sheet that one guest likes his bananas still a little green and another guest does not like it when you fold the towel in your normal yacht-way, but she prefers it draped over the shower door before she takes a shower. 

We feel true and real joy when guests leave a yacht ecstatic about their time on board, when they write in your guest book that you were the best team of Stews they have ever had on any charter yacht they have ever been on. Only a REAL person who truly takes pleasure in his/her job can provide such real satisfaction and joy to a guest.

You cannot programme a robot to smile just at the right moment, or deal with a seasick guest, or read a tense situation between guests at the dining room table and realise that you should not be there right now and disappear, or make a bed that will have any army lieutenant cry tears of joy, or in one day iron anything from a grungy engineer coverall to the latest Versace creation given to your boss as an engagement gift, the only one of its kind in the world. 

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You cannot replace the warmth of a truly good Stewar/dess, the extra effort that goes into setting up a tea tray, or the individual touch we add to anything from the sun tan lotion basket to colour coding the boss’ shirt cupboard.  And unless they design a rust-proof, waterproof robot, those things won’t do too well on the early morning swim that your charter guest’s child insisted on having with her new toy - the Stewie robot (model number Whiskey Tango Foxtrot 988700).

No robot can make a theme evening come together like a human, breathing, thinking, living Stew – the setting, the menu, the music selection, the décor, the table setting (using locally sourced flowers unique to that area), the ambience, the lighting, the dress code – everything perfectly selected, not by a computer programme, but by a professional, creative, experienced human being. And the enjoyment and satisfaction on your guests’ faces when, as a surprise, you organised, not on a website, but actually meeting the most amazing classical guitarist at a local restaurant for an after dinner treat to finish off your Spanish-themed evening.

I think our human jobs are safe – for now…

* Image Credits: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann  Flickr/Nomadic Lass  Flickr/Hammerin Man Flickr/Ramona.Forcella

About the Author:

After working in the super yacht industry as a stewardess, chief stew and purser for 10 years, Isobel Odendaal moved back to her home country, South Africa, and co-started a training school for super yacht steward/esses, Super Yachting South Africa, where she continues to learn and teach every day. 

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