Be our guest - Issue 90 - Magazine | Monocle

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Is your nation hospitable? Does it greet new arrivals with a smile rather than a snarl? Are visitors who have lost their way helped, not ignored? We believe hospitality is not just about great service in a restaurant or hotel (although both of those are important). It goes to the heart of whether a nation sees itself as part of a wider community; a place that’s open to the rest of the world. And that in turn can determine whether people want to invest in your country and even how your demands are met in moments of need.

Some nations, such as Canada and Germany, demonstrate that hospitality most vividly with their official welcome for refugees from the Syrian crisis. Yet it’s also on display in countries such as Japan, somewhere with very low levels of immigration – and where the number of refugees taken in each year could fit in a small house – but that nonetheless rolls out the welcome mat for business and vacation visitors like no other.

Hospitality begins before you even arrive: an airline can do its best to make you feel part of the family from the moment you board (we like airlines such as ANA and JAL that have their own theme song). It continues at passport control, at hotel reception and at your first restaurant dinner. All of these interactions, however small they may be individually, help to paint a picture of a nation and its people.

We think this is something worth judging so we’ve put together our first-ever Hospitality Survey. We asked the people who should know best: you, the MONOCLE reader. People from all over the world took part in our survey, so we took a sample of just over 1,000 to find out which airlines and airports you like and which you don’t, the brands going the extra mile and the hotels that really make you feel at home. We also asked you to pick your most hospitable city and friendliest nation.

Over the page are our first winners, as well as musings on the meaning of hospitality and examples of what it means to welcome someone, be they a visitor to Calgary in need of a white-haired guide to show the way to the taxi rank, a Lebanese constituent paying a visit to a politician’s house or a state leader who wants their national anthem played to perfection.

As Britain’s Household Division shows, many countries recognise the importance of a generous reception when they play host to dignitaries or world leaders. From lavish state dinners to public displays of generosity, nations go to great lengths to receive powerful guests, often bolstering their own image at the same time.

Many nations also offer inspired hospitality to entrepreneurs. Yet far fewer seem to have mastered the art of hospitality when it comes to welcoming the everyday guest.


Most welcoming airport

Two big airports in Asia fly to the top of this category. Why? Changi and Hong Kong International are not free of challenges: if you arrive at a distant gate in either you could be in for an epic hike. But people forgive the vastness because they are clean, have a breezy efficiency and know how to ease the journey for people who have paid extra for Business Class.

Both have good lounges and are well connected to the city: by a speedy train in Hong Kong and readily available taxis in both. Add natural light and greenery in the terminals and you shudder to think of Asian travellers arriving at Heathrow’s Terminal 4, let alone JFK. Well done too to Copenhagen and Zürich (which ranked at fifth place on our longer list), two consistently well-run set-ups.

Happy landings

1. Singapore Changi
2. Hong Kong International
3. Copenhagen


Friendliest nation

Maybe it’s because the training starts early – Japanese children are expected to say “Ohayo gozaimasu” (“Good morning”) as soon as they can form the words – but courtesy is second nature in Japan. Friendliness is about old-fashioned decency: treating people with politeness and consideration.

Look remotely lost for a moment in Japan and you will be helped and likely guided to your destination. Without transport in a restaurant on an Okinawan island? Fellow diners will offer to drive you home. Children are welcomed and fussed over and non-Japanese speakers will have their halting efforts praised to the heights. Visitors are thrilled – and frankly amazed – by the warmth and hospitality that still prevails.

Hospitality suite

1. Japan
2. USA
3. Canada


Least welcoming airport

For all its grit, New York is a first-world metropolis with a constant stream of business leaders, diplomats and tourists heading its way. Any such hub needs an airport that can project its status as a global city; JFK doesn’t even begin to convey that message.

Perhaps it has something to do with the worn-out, airless terminal buildings or the abandoned TWA Terminal teasing us about a better past but JFK is a joyless experience. It’s not helped by the gruff security when arriving or departing to the always slow-moving queue for non-resident-visa holders. The final insult is the taxi scrum (and the gridlock getting into town). A smidgen of customer service and traffic-calming aren’t too much to ask for, are they? New York, show us some love.

Terminally bad

1. New York JFK
2. London Heathrow
3. Paris Charles de Gaulle


Least friendly nation

One suspects France would be disappointed if it didn’t win this category. Rudeness, particularly in Paris, is part of the French brand. If it were a problem we’d stop going but we don’t; more than 80 million tourists visit every year, making France the most popular tourist destination in the world. The key is professionalism: even if French waiters, shop assistants and hotel staff are unlikely to ever demand that you “Have a nice day”, they will perform their tasks with the utmost professional seriousness.

A lack of friendliness is more of a problem for the nations in second and third place. China and Russia’s brusqueness not only has an impact on tourism, it also affects the way the countries are viewed diplomatically.

Truculent trio

1. France
2. China
3. Russia


Most hospitable city

Good service is often associated with money: the higher the cost, the grander the hospitality. But Tokyo is proof that exceptional hospitality boils down to small gestures and that even the most ordinary places can do it well.

You find it in the oshibori – the refreshingly hot, damp towel you receive the moment you sit down in restaurants – old-fashioned bars and kissaten (coffee houses) around the Japanese capital. You see it when a cashier neatly spreads your change on a money tray and hands you the receipt with both hands. It’s in the care that goes into wrapping your purchase, in the send-off you get from a shopkeeper who stands outside until you have turned a corner and in the bow that comes across as both polite and professional.

Urban achievers

1. Tokyo
2. Bangkok
3. London


Most hospitable airline

Like the Pierre Balmain-designed outfits that have adorned its cabin crew since 1972, Singapore Airlines offers a well-tailored approach to service. While the Singapore Girl advertising cachet of its flight attendants is no longer fashionable, this airlines’ well-trained staffers remain on point with their service.

This hospitality spans from First Class all the way to the back of the cabin, where the attention can sometimes go astray on other airlines. In addition, lounge and in-flight menus are fussed over by a panel of quality international chefs and its air-sommeliers are considered to be some of the world’s best. We toast its consistently surprising and generous hospitality.

Extra-mile-high club

1. Singapore Airlines
2. Emirates
3. Cathay Pacific


Most hospitable hotel chain

Wonderful hospitality can defy borders. The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is the top choice in our survey for most hospitable hotel chain because it delivers its charm across numerous outposts around the world, spanning diverse regions and cultures.

So what is its secret? It’s a safe bet that the satisfaction of the hotel’s employees – from managers to guest-room attendants to chefs – has something to do with it. With one of the lowest employee-turnover rates in the industry, Four Seasons has been consistently crowned one of the best corporations in the world to work for. That matters. When people care about their jobs they care about their customers – and hospitality is nothing if it’s not the business of caring.

Service supreme

1. Four Seasons
2. Mandarin Oriental
3. Ace Hotels


Brands that go the extra mile

The Apple Store may be crazily busy but its happy, truly helpful staff selling ever-popular products make it the winner. Interestingly, the company that has benefited so much from (and helped to create) the digital revolution is one that also gets why products need to be sold face to face. Those stores have transformed the brand’s image.

Tesla’s appearance at number three is interesting. Despite its celebrity it remains a tiny car-maker, with just 31,000 cars delivered in 2014 (BMW sold about two million in the same period). Two German car-makers made our top five (Audi was fourth) indicating that, despite the Volkswagen scandal, Germany’s biggest auto brands are still hugely respected around the world.

Marque of quality

1. Apple
2. BMW
3. Tesla


Most hospitable dining scene

There’s no doubt that some people will be baffled by London’s place at the top of this list: British service hasn’t enjoyed a stellar reputation over the years. Yet the win is warranted. London’s dining scene has boomed in recent years and its service has improved to match. And with such a competitive and lucrative food scene, the city pulls in great people from around the globe to run its bars and restaurants: it’s likely your barista will be a Kiwi, the chef from Mexico.

New York at number two is less of a surprise as the city’s waiters and bartenders are uniformly upbeat and capable. Sydney’s passion for coffee, mixed with Australians’ renowned affability, also makes for relaxed and wonderfully welcoming cafés.

Head of the table

1. London
2. New York
3. Sydney


Best independent hotels

It’s pleasing to see that some very good hotels got onto the winners’ podium in this category – and that they don’t all have the same approach to looking after people. Ett Hem is about a homely, attentive style of hospitality; Claska has a modern simplicity; and NoMad touches on that New York vibe of fun lobby and comfy retro design.

But in pole position came the Upper House in Hong Kong. While it’s owned by the Swire group we’ve let is squeak into the independent category because, according to our readers, it hasn’t got the feel of a chain. It’s more glamorous and robustly five-star than other entries here and from the great service to the up-for-fun bar, it’s a place that really works.

Uniquely welcoming

1. Upper House, Hong Kong
2. Claska, Tokyo
3. The NoMad Hotel, New York; Ett Hem; Stockholm

Taking refuge

By Tomos Lewis

Canadians have joined their government in welcoming refugees; it proves that hospitality is most powerful when embraced by all.

“You are home; welcome home,” said Canada’s new prime minister Justin Trudeau as he welcomed a young Syrian family at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in December. They were the first of 25,000 refugees from Syria’s civil war who will be resettled in Canada by March, with many more expected to arrive before the end of the year. The Canadian response is in stark contrast to the approach taken by many governments elsewhere, which has been characterised in several cases by uncertainty, protest and fear.

“The Canadian government is in many ways reflecting the popular mood,” says Hershell Ezrin, senior counsel at the Global Public Affairs consultancy in Toronto. “We have a tradition of welcoming refugees in this country, whether Vietnamese boat people or, more recently, Kosovars. We have traditionally responded, and responded quickly.”

That response has included healthcare provisions for Syrians arriving in Canada for the first time, as well as language lessons, cultural programmes and play centres, which have even been set up at the country’s major airports for the children of new migrants. “Canadians have always taken the position that internationalism is a good place for Canada to be as a middle power,” says Ezrin. “We don’t have an enormous military capacity but this [humanitarian response] is a place where we can contribute more effectively.”

Canada’s welcome has been matched by Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel opened the doors to about a million refugees; a stark contrast to other European nations that, in some cases, have literally built fences to stop refugees coming in. While Merkel’s decision has caused political difficulty at home, it has transformed the image of Germany overseas. There is a difference in the manner that both nations are accepting refugees though: Canada has pre-screened all new arrivals before they board a plane; Germany’s screening process takes place in-country.

What’s striking in both countries is that the decision by political leaders has also been embraced – to an extent – by citizens. Crowds gathered to welcome refugees in Germany while in Canada, applications from individuals wishing to sponsor Syrian refugees have been received from across the country. That’s not just in its major cities but also from Fort McMurray in Alberta to St John’s on the Newfoundland coast. Hospitality isn’t simply a job for governments: when matched by citizens it can be incredibly powerful.

Are you experienced?

By Peter York

When I meet a Lady Robot in a shop, hotel or restaurant telling me something deeply scripted, I blame B Joseph Pine II and James H Gilmore. They are the US authors who gave us The Experience Economy in 1998. It proposed a New World Order for business. We’d all been through various economies and thought we were in the Service one. But no. That had been devalued by our rush to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy, meaning we wanted more than goods and services: we wanted Experiences so that, in Oprah-speak, we could “grow”.

Experiences meant that everyone who ever attempted to sell you anything in a shop, help in a hotel or wait on you in a restaurant should be Trained Up to Add Value (training schemes are full of Capital Letters) by making your exchange altogether deeper and more interesting. There was huge potential for training firms to tell US ladies in sales positions how to go beyond “Have a nice day” and be your New Best Friend. They could be trained as Mind Readers and Mood Sensors. They could ask you how you were feeling today or what the rest of the week held for you. They could make the whole thing vivid and memorable. They were told – these eager US ladies and, latterly, surly male UK customer reps – that they’d earn more commission if they could trot out scripted patter, put themselves on first-name terms with you and always ask whether there were other services they could perform for you.

All this is utterly maddening to the more mature, snobby kind of Brit, who doesn’t want an under-educated 20-year-old’s views on their clothing choices or to hear a waiter explaining a restaurant’s concept and who didn’t want to share with someone who rationally couldn’t be expected to see the world like you. Just get on with it.

Peter York is a writer and a regular guest on Monocle 24 radio.

Common courtesy

By Andrew Mueller

The most useful lesson that travelling widely inculcates may sound so banal as to be barely worth crossing the street for – but it is one that is nevertheless insufficiently understood. It is that most people, in most places, are basically OK. Folk generally mean you no harm, are usually minded to wish you well with your endeavours and will probably help you out if you need them to. So it seems odd that it’s nevertheless possible to have travelled widely – your correspondent claims 80-something countries, many of them more than once – and yet find oneself thinking of some places as friendlier than others.

There are, broadly, three sorts of national hostility: official, circumstantial and cultural. The official sort is the most common, and the most tiresome. It encompasses everything from vexatious visa requirements (India, Russia), entry procedures that are either discourteous (US, Israel, Russia) or disorganised (Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Mali, Russia) and, once through passport control, a general sense of the state as predator rather than protector (Iran, Venezuela, Russia). Circumstantial unfriendliness refers to the sort of difficulties that would deter most visitors not equipped with notepads and cameras. But that can be deceptive: it’s often the case that places at war or something like it are hospitable once you get there, and almost invariably so that people who don’t have much are most eager to share it. I’ve only visited Gaza once, and only for a few days, but the thing I found most dreadfully depressing about that depressing, dreadful place was that almost everyone I met there was delightful.

Which leaves cultural unfriendliness: a general sense that the visitor is, if not exactly unwelcome, then of little interest beyond the contents of their wallet. It’s difficult to charge entire countries with this, however, as the variations within borders can be immense: the US contains New York, which even Parisians regard as somewhat brusque, but also many places in which a stranger in town can barely pay for their own drinks.

As with most things, you get out of travel what you put into it. If it does ever seem that a plurality of the people you’ve met in a particular location have been disagreeable, it’s always worth considering the common denominator of those encounters and wondering if it might not be the place that’s the problem.

Andrew Mueller is a contributing editor for MONOCLE.

Crafting the real thing

By Andrew Tuck

The word “hospitality” scatters in its wake a slew of misplaced associations. So, like a giant seagull, let’s pick off the biggest of these troublesome connections: hospitality is not about formality or being reverential. A waiter’s flourishing of a bottle of wine on cue doesn’t make him a wellspring of hospitality. Just because the ambassador smiles so keenly at the embassy party that her face freezes doesn’t make her a perfect host. Hospitality should be deep rooted.

And here’s the nice thing. In our new, more relaxed world there are companies, restaurants and hotels who show great hospitality with an easy, relaxed manner. Think of the hotel lobbies that once looked like dowager duchess’s parlours, full of over-stuffed cushions and equally stuffy guests.

Today the best have thrown open their doors and welcomed their cities in. They have made it their pleasure to let you use their electricity, perch for the day while you hold meetings, order coffee and generally settle in. They welcome you in the hope of generating sales but it also makes them part of the world beyond their doors and rather enjoyable places to be (of course, some people abuse this hospitality but that’s a topic for another day). The Ace Hotel group does this casual hospitality to perfection and was mentioned by lots of our survey correspondents.

Or what about the cafés in which someone asks to take your coat or dripping umbrella? Offer you a paper to read while you wait for your guest? These details speak of a business that wants to look after you.

Too many people think of hospitality as an industry when surely it is a craft. And while industry is a good thing, in hospitality it encourages too many processes: too many people pretending to be nice. The trouble is that the difference between someone smiling because they have been told to and someone smiling because they are just genuinely delighted to have you on their turf is obvious to anyone.

Andrew Tuck is editor of MONOCLE.

People power

By Ben Page

What determines how people would rate the most hospitable places, airlines and hotels in the world? I’m a geeky researcher so I collected feedback from 1.7 million people across 200-plus countries. I looked at what they said about more than 1,000 hotels and airlines – and 180 cities – in a total of 85 different languages.

Ultimately it boils down to people. While different cities have different physical styles, heritage and climates, what matters most of all is the people. You know it when you step on board a plane or walk into a hotel or restaurant: the people who make you feel welcome are those who are friendly and thoughtful without being overbearing.

Yes, there are basic hygiene factors – no one wants an overpriced, dirty place to stay or eat – but those things are, hopefully, a given. There are thousands of clean yet nondescript hotels, restaurants and cities that offer nothing in the way of inspiration. What stand out are those places where people recognise you.

One of my favourite restaurants is in Naples. It isn’t much to look at but on my annual visit the owner and staff remember my name, even though I never book. The food is lovely, the owner is charming and I always feel great. Recognition is why airlines and hotels spend so much time trying to remember who you are, only to end up simulating familiarity in an obviously bureaucratic, box-ticking fashion. My restaurateur doesn’t have a database.

Once the greatest human need – to be appreciated – has been met, what next? Beauty, of course. It is why Paris is the city that more people in g20 countries want to visit than any other. While beauty can be in the eye of the beholder, hotels with great staff (and a great view) are perennially popular. Get those two right and you will always win.

Ben Page is chief executive of Ipsos Mori.

Security blind

By Steve Bloomfield

The old American embassy in Addis Ababa was beautiful. One of the few old buildings still standing in Ethiopia’s capital, it had a sense of grandeur yet still managed to feel welcoming to visitors. It was also, after the twin embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, deemed too vulnerable. Ugly concrete blast walls were hastily erected, protecting it but also hiding it away from Ethiopians.

This pattern was repeated across the world as the US began to realise that its embassies were soft targets for terrorist attacks. A massive programme of embassy construction began, overseen by the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. Beauty went out of the window; so too accessibility. These buildings were no longer meant to be welcoming: their primary function was to protect their inhabitants, come what may.

The security concerns were understandable as more than 200 people were killed in the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks. Yet in the rush to make these buildings fortresses, something about the original idea of an embassy has been lost. These structures were a nation’s hospitality frontline; they were also places of learning and entertainment.

In Nairobi, for example, the embassy library would be packed with Kenyans eager to read books they couldn’t find in their own poorly funded libraries. In nations where democracy was under threat – or still to be fought for – the US embassy had a symbolic role too. The Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze was seen by many as a beacon of hope. Its symbolism doesn’t work so well if there are checkpoints and armed guards between you the flag.

A better balance needs to be found. The more impressive ambassadors realise they need to work harder now to make a connection with the local population. But an embassy still offers a nation’s first impression. What message are you sending when you’re locked away behind a blast wall?

Steve Bloomfield is MONOCLE's executive editor.

Make a move

By Trish Lorenz

Despite restrictions elsewhere in the EU, Portugal continues to invite immigrants into its fold.

Young, wealthy and successful, Edmund Zhao is typical of a new generation of immigrants making Portugal their home. The property developer from Hangzhou in eastern China first visited Portugal in 2013 and bought a €500,000 apartment in Estoril, a beachside town on the outskirts of Lisbon, on the second day of his visit. For that price he didn’t just get an apartment: his investment also gave him Portuguese residency.

At a time when many countries are turning inwards, Portugal is bucking the trend and in the past five years has introduced schemes to attract foreign residents to the country. The most significant is the so-called golden visa, a five-year residency permit granted to non-EU citizens who invest a minimum of €500,000 in residential property. Immediate family members are included and holders can apply for permanent residency after five years.

Zhao is one of more than 2,100 Chinese who have taken advantage of the programme since it launched in 2012, along with 100 Brazilians, 91 Russians and 73 South Africans. “Portugal is a fantastic place to live,” he says. “I love the weather, the clean air, the fresh food, and the people are really friendly.”

Despite growing calls within the EU to tighten entry restrictions, Portugal’s welcome to these immigrants remains undiminished. The government estimates that holders of golden visas have invested more than €1.6bn in Portugal since 2012, providing a welcome boost for its struggling economy.

“It was during a time of financial crisis and we were looking to attract investment,” says Manuel Nogueira, a lawyer who helped lobby Portugal to introduce the visa and advised the government on the legislation. “But it wasn’t just about money. It was also about attracting brains and ideas and building awareness. The programme has helped the world rediscover Portugal and has benefited trade, especially with China.”

Zhao now lives full time in Estoril. His firm Golden World Property Investment Consultants offers advice and management services to potential Chinese investors. “Europe, and especially Portugal, is cheap in comparison to China so it makes good financial sense,” he says.

Given current debates around European border security, most commentators believe that the EU will pressure Portugal to stop issuing golden visas in the next few years. Roman Carel, founder of Athena Advisors, a property-investment firm that works with potential golden-visa buyers, thinks the programme will end within three years but says: “I admire what Portugal has done. The €500,000 threshold attracts a wealthier, economically active population. It’s very positive immigration and Lisbon is much more cosmopolitan now than five years ago.”

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