The Monocle guide to hosting | Monocle

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Global education rates have never been higher but there’s a skills gap that’s getting wider. Whatever happened to the art of hospitality? Certain softer skills – the ability to read a room, put others at ease, offer a drink or diffuse a difficult situation – are vanishing from our collective repertoire, whether in a presidential palace, boardroom or shop.

This is, in part, an issue of practice and it’s no surprise that we’re a little rusty. In the private sector, entertaining, training and travel budgets are being slashed to cut costs and preserve profits. At a state level, insular nations are selling off embassies and cutting back on diplomatic staff in a bid to tighten their purse strings. 

Technology, ostensibly a tool for greater efficiency, has compounded the problem. In the rush to automate and appear innovative – and rely on the internet for all our interactions – have we lost a little of the human touch? Artificial intelligence can analyse data but can it put people at ease? Instant messaging can transmit information but what message might a crisp, handwritten invitation or taking someone out to lunch send?

off-grid solutions
Make room for private moments 

To solve thorny problems, we need radical candour. The right setting can promote this – think Camp David, with its off-the-record conversations and spitting fire, where negotiators can get to know each other and build a rapport. Leaders need space to chew over hard-to-navigate issues and find solutions away from the flashbulbs.

So let’s be mindful of efficiency for its own sake. One might easily ask, “Who needs an office when you can join a call from your kitchen table? Who needs a deal-sealing dinner with clients when you can send the contracts over by email? Who needs a newspaper when you can scan the headlines on social media? Who needs an ambassador when you could run a killer social-media campaign?” 

It’s a slippery slope and every substitution can diminish national brands and small businesses alike; it’s disappointment by a thousand cuts. The solution? We need to get out more.

Great leaders – of countries, cities or companies – already know the inherent value that honed hospitality skills can add to their work. They know that presentation and how they treat people have knock-on effects and that the architecture of their office, where they decide to manufacture their product and how they treat guests can tell a story about who they are and what they stand for. 

So read on for 50 lessons in hospitality that we have gleaned on the road and across our reporting. We offer tips on how we can all be a little more attentive, whether we are chairing a global debate or just throwing a decent dinner party. Let’s enrol you in monocle’s hospitality school. It’s time to narrow that skills gap. — L

words to the wise
Master another language


A president (or any leader) with a confident command of another language sends a bigger, more outward-looking message to the world about the nation or organisation that they represent. In politics, having someone at the fore who can switch codes, acknowledge and appreciate difference, and still be patriotic is a helpful bulwark against nativism. Polyglots can win points for a flawless address but can also tune in to mutterings from the other side, should things get fractious.

news and views
Stay informed


What you read matters. Clickbait is a little like junk food: consume too much of it too often and the effects will start to show. A good media diet will give you perspective and remind you that others know more than you about a lot of things. Lively journalism can inspire, inform and entertain. And it needn’t be just hard news. France does breezy morning radio better than most, while picking up a newspaper such as Les Echos will whisk you into fresh conversations beyond what you’ll find in the Anglophone news cycle.

A good media diet will give you perspective and remind you that others know more than you about a lot of things

friendly disposition
Be diplomatic


Investing in outreach is important if you want to succeed on the world stage. Finland’s diplomatic saunas spring to mind: many of the country’s embassies and consulates abroad come with a wood-panelled space in which to slough off formalities and forge human connections. While some countries are flogging embassies and cutting staff, the smarter ones realise that friendships would soon evaporate without them.

conversation starter
Don’t be dull

Spin a decent yarn and say something interesting. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be a comedian to crack a joke or a novelist to tell a story. “How are you?” isn’t an invitation to recount everything that has happened to you today in detail. Be selective and find a thread; be enthusiastic about something and tell people what you think. You’ll get much more back from engaged interlocutors.

right on target
Be direct

It’s not always cheeky to ask for what you want. Most people will be happy to meet you in the middle if you request something graciously and in good faith. Whether you’re trying to negotiate a deal, secure a job or a commission, or just get a little information, it’s often best to ask. That doesn’t mean butting in or being brassy – far from it. It’s all about being certain of what you’re after and getting to the point.

go offline
Meet in person

Pleased to e-meet you? Really? Online communication can be useful for getting things done and exchanging information but peeling yourself away from the screen and meeting people matters much, much more. So prioritise forging some proper connections. Some conversations lose their nuance when they’re typed up and require a phone call, while others simply deserve to happen in person.

building a brand
Get the look

Establishing a clear identity is crucial, whether you’re a state or a business. On a national level, we’re fans of how Japan and Switzerland present themselves (in everything from flags to flag carriers) but the city of Porto is also setting a benchmark. Designer Eduardo Aires’s azulejo-inspired illustration and marque are being rolled out across Portugal’s second city, offering a coherent sense of place. In terms of companies, look to the understated service at Chanel’s shops, whether in Beijing or Bal Harbour, Florida.

medium is the message
Give it meaning


Doesn’t a crisp invitation or a thoughtfully jotted “thank you” message – with flowers or that book you mentioned over lunch – mean so much more than a text or email? Isn’t that the way to make people feel welcomed and acknowledged? The message itself is important but so is what the embossing, foiling and finishes convey. This is true whether you’re hosting a corporate event or an intimate gathering. This is what making an effort and a fuss over people looks like. Welcome to the fold.

people power
Read the room


Here’s a subtler lesson that’s glaringly absent from the world’s common-sense curricula: be observant and assertive. Cultivate an ability to spot when tempers need cooling in a discussion or pulses set racing in a lagging pitch. Then there’s having the wherewithal to intervene: to intercept a drink that’s bound for someone who doesn’t need it or to rescue a person who is trapped in a boring conversation. The best hosts can see when service slips, a staffer isn’t at their best or when a quiet word is needed.

host with the most 
Lay on a party


Embassy bashes can open the doors to a nation’s best bits and drop subtle clues about the diplomats’ wider mission (to entertain as well as persuade, to win friends as well as advance interests). An ambassador who can host a spot-on lunch and knows the power of their national dish, deftly placed design and liberally poured drinks is an invaluable resource. A smart residence helps too. Decisions must be made at a national level to invest in embassies with pull and outreach that resonates. Global influence starts here.

heat of the moment
Take the temperature

Keep an eye on the thermometer: don’t wait until people start keeling over with heatstroke or succumb to frostbite. Ensure that there’s an outside space where people can cool off or smoke too. Have a few nice bottles of white and something bubbly in the fridge for special occasions (or ordinary events that need livening up). Red wine is perfect for a sit-down dinner but beware of passing out glasses of it over nice carpets.

in you come 
Start at the door

Whether you’re running a restaurant or hosting an office bash for clients, a smooth front-of-house operation starts at the door. A smiling face and an an assured knowledge of who’s coming (as well as how to address them and pronounce their names) are good places to start. Taking coats and bags, transferring dripping umbrellas to holders and directing bubbly drinks to expectant hands should all happen smoothly.

Mix it up
Have other interests

If your work involves regular meetings and events, there’s a good chance that you’ll have industry fatigue after the umpteenth conversation in an airless trade-show hall. So why not show that there’s more to you than your job title? Why can’t you be both a furniture-brand founder and an avid wine enthusiast? Or an ambassador and an amateur fly fisherman? Or, perhaps, a ceo-cum-female kickboxing champion?

learn from the best
Get back to school


Every nation should have a hospitality school and some good reasons to enrol (such as fair pay and jobs at the end). Think of the soft-power coup of Switzerland’s world-renowned schools that turn out polite, multilingual students who take the precision that their country is known for to hotels in cities from Sydney to San Francisco. The ability to set a table or spot when someone’s glass is dry is a life skill.

meet and greet
Learn people’s names


Sounds simple, right? Then why don’t more people have the knack? It’s a great courtesy to introduce a new acquaintance to someone with their name and a relevant, polished précis. It also signals that you have made the effort to listen to what they have to say. Avoid those toe-curling conversations in which one person reaches fruitlessly to retrieve a lost name. Be assertive and introduce yourself. Oh, and the golden rule: never guess (Julia, Jessica, Janet?). When it doubt, it’s best just to ask.

food for the soul
Break bread together

Many companies have closed their staff canteens in the dull pursuit of efficiency but, however you slice it, eating al desko is extremely crummy. Why not invest in a decent dining room and acknowledge that companies (and countries) need a budget to wine and dine clients and visitors? Great food and something refreshing to drink, as well as a change of scenery, can work wonders in ending a stalemate.

personal touch 
Master the fundamentals


Another easy to deploy but often overlooked win is to reacquaint yourself and your staff with some time-honoured meeting tips. Smile, make eye contact and have a firm handshake (in some parts of the world, this will vary). Then ask some standard questions. Is there anything that you need? Are you thirsty? It’s incredible how many organisations leave visitors waiting, dry-mouthed, in airless meeting rooms.

It’s incredible how many organisations miss leave visitors waiting, dry-mouthed, in airless meeting rooms

take note 
Put pen to paper 


Some masterful waiters can commit 20 orders to memory (all three courses and drinks too) but if you know that you’re not possessed of such mnemonic powers, then just take notes. Don’t be afraid to scribble down some pointers in a handsome, linen-bound notebook by the likes of the Geesthacht-based Leuchtturm1917. It’s good to commit fleeting thoughts to paper and carrying a notebook also signals that you’re ready to listen.

ready, steady, go...
Make the first move


Set up a club, a company, a campaign – whatever you want. That’s how things get done. Having some skin in the game shows that you’re serious about what you do and that you’re not all talk. It’s also a quick way to convene people who agree with you and help them feel a part of something bigger. Being a leader is about rallying people around your idea and creating your own community.

keep the peace 
Hold something back

Knowing more than you let on – and being a little mysterious now and then – can be advantageous in hospitality as in life. You might know something juicy or have the inside track on a situation but it never hurts to have a poker pace. The softly-softly approach to getting your way can help everyone else save face and allow you to get your way. Nobody likes a scene.

lead by example
Hit the shop floor

A healthy sense of responsibility that cuts across all parts of a business can be useful. It’s always heartening to see an owner on the restaurant floor or a ceo overseeing the finer points of an event. An understanding of people’s roles and how it all works is invaluable. Training sometimes involves telling people how to do things but there’s no substitute for showing people how it’s done.

be mindful of others
Adjust your volume

Turn it up if you’re in boisterous crowd and down if you’re sharing sensitive information. If you’re taking a call, retreat to somewhere suitable, such as between train carriages, outside or a meeting room. Phones, tablets and laptops, even when used with headphones, should be inaudible to those around you. Whether you’re a train conductor, head waiter or ceo, it’s up to you to institute such common decencies.

go with the flow 
Prepare for the unexpected

Rules are a starting point but we also all need to be alive to opportunity, willing to change plans and embrace the delightful dynamism of an evening, event, supper or summit that goes off-script. As the host, it’s your responsibility to set the tone and alter arrangements if the energy sinks or intervene when itineraries shift and new situations unfold. Your guests will thank you for it.

smell of success
Sniff it out


It’s easy to forget how persuasive a good odour can be. A fresh, woody incense stick by Kyoto-based Shoyeido or scented paper from Montrouge-based Papier d’Arménie can dissipate a musty smell, while some rules (no fish in the company canteen, please) can keep the office smelling fresh. Parisian firm Sézane gets things just right; its parcels arrive spritzed with (rather than soused in) a subtle lemony scent.

nurture and nature 
Clean up

Great hosts understand that good service isn’t a matter of ticking boxes and that there are countless ways to show it. What about leaving a bench outside your business for people to perch on for a natter? Or gardening a little beyond your own patch to spruce up your neighbourhood? And getting a handle on that graffiti? How about supporting local charities or giving a little time to worthwhile causes? It could be as simple as helping to keep your street litter-free and the shutters painted, or putting a few charming pot plants outside.

take a back seat 
Be driven


A chauffeur who knows the city’s back streets and history, can answer questions and advise on a table is an invaluable resource when you’re in town for business, especially if they have an alternative route to the airport. Having a driver (and perhaps a small entourage) also sets a certain tone. Meanwhile, visitors often get their first taste of a new city from their taxi ride from the airport. Wouldn’t a few words of another language, some help with luggage, a smooth ride and a clean car send a better signal?

dial it down 
Get the light right


LEDs might be energy efficient but they’re far from a fix for the scourge of bad lighting. Overlighting a space is the fastest way to make everyone in it feel uncomfortable and look bad. Opt instead for dim, flattering, low-wattage alternatives and lamps with shades – perhaps a Hase TL reading light from Kalmar Werkstätten or a floor lamp by Paavo Tynell. The mood should evoke intimacy, not an interrogation.

dine and wine
Set the table for success...


Start with some reassuringly weighty flatware, such as the Kay Bojesen Grand Prix collection, anything from Portuguese firm Cutipol or Japanese brand Sunao. Opt for linen napkins, elegant white plates from Astier de Villatte or something functional from Norwegian firm Figgjo. Add a Reiko Kaneko vase with fresh blooms as the centrepiece and brassy Skultuna candle holders to cast a warm glow. 

friends with benefits 
...and seat people well

Thoughtful place setting can work wonders. It shows that you have considered who might enjoy an evening next to who. Will that writer enjoy a conversation with your editor friend and might saucy Sally hit it off with randy Ralph? Let’s see. If things head south, you can always readjust with a quick seating change. Otherwise, sit back and survey the people who you have brought together.

curiosity pays off
Ask questions

Try to find out about others. We have all been monopolised by a new acquaintance who tells us everything we didn’t need to know about their new car or troubles with their mother-in-law in painstaking detail. Spare us. We need a little more journalistic rigour in our lives and to ask more questions – proper ones that make people think. Speaking of which, if you meet someone who doesn’t return the favour after you’ve asked them three questions, they probably aren’t very pleasant anyway.

We all need a little more journalistic rigour in our lives and to ask more questions

nobody does it better
Hire Italian waiters


Really. Or at least take some lessons in how service is done in Italy. It always comes with a smile, genuine affection and a sense of flair in the delivery. Italian waiters won’t hide a wince when you add parmesan to seafood, pour ketchup on your calzone or order a cappuccino after noon – and that’s fine too. Being hospitable needn’t mean giving everyone everything. It can be about politely reminding people of the rules.

hands free 
Hang up


Don’t look at your phone when you’re in company. It’s rude and it probably doesn’t hold the answers that you’re yearning for. Be in the moment. There are few things more dull than the sight of people staring at a member of their group who can’t find something in their files. Put it away, on silent. Even having the thing face-down on a table is a reminder of tedious to-do lists, messages to respond to and people to call.

tune in
Listen and learn


Productivity culture has made us feel as though every moment must be seized – but don’t forget to breathe now and again. The object of conversation shouldn’t be to get to the end as quickly as possible, so give people some time. Connection often comes from dropping your guard and going off-script. Seizing on an interesting or unexpected nugget of information can take you down exciting and unexpected avenues.

shake things up
Make a cocktail


Personally mixing up a treat for your guests will make an impression. If you’re entertaining people at home, have the kit and ingredients that you need on hand to dash out a French 75 or a tart gimlet while conducting a conversation. Stay a cocktail or two behind your guests to maintain the veneer of control (and in case any final food prep needs administering).


Stay a cocktail or two behind your guests to maintain the veneer of control

first things first
Get off to a good start


First impressions count. If you’re a business, you’ll make it with the foyer, the fresh flowers on your reception desk and the smile behind it. If you’re running a restaurant, it’ll be with the gleaming windows, tended planters and hand-painted signs. For an airport, it’s the smiling immigration staff (the UAE and New Zealand do this well). Getting off on the right foot makes everything that comes after that little bit easier.

in praise of analogue
Use your common sense


How many times have you spotted the terror on the face of a teller or young waiter when the internet flickers and a payment system or booking platform crashes? Technology sometimes makes mountains out of molehills and a little common sense can help. Understand the end goal. The app’s down? Apologise, jot down the reservation in a ledger, show these nice people to their table and be done with it.

warm welcome
Think of others


A bowl of water for the pooch? A place for older visitors to sit and wait? Something to keep the children entertained (not a noisy tablet, mind)? Being a little circumspect about who is passing through your doors and offering something for them shows care and attention to detail. And don’t forget: considering canine comfort can be an excellent way to display your humanity. Hospitality for all, please. Now there’s a good boy.

Don’t forget: considering canine comfort can be an excellent way to display your humanity

get out and about
Travel more


Experiencing new places in person will broaden your horizons and remind you that the world is a big and beautiful place that can introduce you to fresh opportunities and better benchmarks. Whether you’re a diplomat or a business leader seeking to test the market in a new city, there’s no substitute for breathing the fresh air of an unfamiliar land. And if it just happens to be Kyoto in the spring, then so be it.

keep others in mind
Get to the point


Be realistic about meeting times. Yes, of course I’d be delighted to meet you for a coffee. No, we won’t need three hours. Being presumptuous with other people’s time is a surefire way to annoy them. If you’re pitching, keep things short and to the point (if they like you, you’ll probably be asked to stick around and explain things anyway). And know your audience. How likely is it that the ceo, editor in chief or minister in front of you has half a day to hear you out? A little consideration saves everyone time.

back to basics 
Show some respect

Hospitality doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere. What happened to the idea of forging a career in hospitality, as many unflappable oldsters still do in southern Europe, rather than treating service as something for low-paid students or unskilled labour? We need to respect the industry more and offer fair remuneration and career progression. We also need to see that automation isn’t always best.

make the cut 
Suit yourself


As the era of athleisure slouches towards the horizon, it’s time to think a little more smartly about presentation. Making an effort in your appearance shows respect for the people who you meet and drops some subtle cues about your attention to detail. A leather-soled brogue from Heschung, Ludwig Reiter or Alden will help you stand taller and a little deft tailoring will improve both your posture and outlook. 

remember your manners 
Come bearing gifts

If you’re invited somewhere, arrive with a gift: a good bottle of wine, a tasteful bouquet, the best loaf of bread in town or something thoughtful for your host. Politely present it, then let it go. If someone’s rustling up a dinner, it’s possible that they have a drinks pairing in mind and they don’t need your rundown on the subtleties of cave-made Georgian wine or the artisanal vinegar or mead you’ve sourced. Pop a cork in it.

keep an eye on the clock
Punctuality matters

Good timekeeping shows respect for the person you’re meeting. An occasional delay is sometimes inevitable but reputation matters. As Mark Twain once said, if you get a reputation as an early riser you can sleep until noon. That holds true in the wider world: get to work, meetings and engagements on time and people will quickly forgive you for inadvertently keeping them waiting once in a blue moon. The only exception? If you’re arriving for dinner at a friend’s house, it’s fine to be 15 minutes late.

in good taste 
Craft matters


The things with which we surround ourselves influence how we feel and reveal something of our outlook. Can a company claim to be responsible if it makes its wares cheaply in far-off factories? Doesn’t a European hotel hit a bum note when it claims to support local craftspeople but sources its crockery from China? Buying and backing local talent tells a story about where your priorities lie.

Making Friends
Be a good neighbour

Here is another easy win. If you’re running a bakery, make sure that the people nextdoor are well catered for with fresh buns and crusty loaves. Offer a discount to your loyal supporters and do your best to keep your community happy. Wonderful things can happen when you forge a community.

home sweet home
Put people at ease

If you’re hosting people overnight, you’ll need to kit out a spare room. Don’t worry, we have you covered. Plump for some soft pillows from Frette on a Schramm mattress and pressed sheets by Danish fabric firm Tekla, topped with an Eleanor Pritchard throw. Provide fresh soap and shampoo too (not half-finished ones pinched from a hotel), as well as a fluffy Imabari towel and a pair of cotton-linen room shoes by Kontex.

good design
Make your spaces work

Architecture sets a mood. What feels more miserly than a space where the windows won’t open? Whether it’s a residence or a workplace, the ingredients of a good building never change: plenty of light, natural materials and finishes, and a little texture always work. The Danish embassy in London, the Norwegian outpost in Stockholm and the Brazilian embassy in Rome are just some of the fine examples of spaces where generous proportions strike the right balance between grandeur and intimacy.

keep the party going
Stay the course

It’s a common misconception, especially in certain parts of the Gulf, that service should be servile. Not a bit of it. A great host is your equal, there to guide you with authority and charm. And if the evening’s heading for an after-dinner dance or karaoke bar, the host should lead the way and set the tone (and perhaps step up to sing the first tune).

trust in others 
Keep an open mind


Making a concession to another point of view can move mountains and create goodwill. Whether it’s quibbling over an invoice or hammering out a complex deal, negotiations take trust. It’s also important not to jump to conclusions and then dig in. Give those who you disagree with the benefit of the doubt. Thinking the best of people is a life skill and you’ll meet more good ones than bad ones in the end – trust us.

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