Opinion Columns & Blogs

Joe Mathews: Hotel California needs to be more hospitable

“I hate the [expletive] Eagles,” declares Jeff Bridges as the stoner-turned-detective hero of “The Big Lebowski,” the classic Coen brothers film study of Los Angeles.

But even if you aren’t a fan of the best-selling band of the ’70s, you’ve gotta give the Eagles this: Their most famous song was so dead-on that it now explains our state’s economic, geographic and demographic realities.

You’re a Hotel, California.

As Californians pick up the pieces from the Great Recession, the trend is clear. The parts of our state’s regional economies that involve Californians serving other Californians – construction, real estate, government – have been hit hard. But the economic sectors that involve Californians serving people from elsewhere – trade, technology and export-oriented pieces of media, entertainment, agriculture, education and health – are mostly growing. So it’s more important than ever for us put on a hospitable face for the world.

Friendliness to visitors is all the more crucial since we are producing fewer new California residents (because of big declines in California’s birth rate and in immigration) and since some of our fundamentals – relatively high taxes, heavy regulation and decaying infrastructure – are unattractive. Any hotelier knows that when you’re overpriced and a little ragged around the edges, like, say, the Hotel Del, you must make up for it with good hospitality.

Especially when it comes to travel and tourism. The amount spent by visitors to California can seem small – it’s a little more than $100 billion, equal to the size of the state’s general fund, which is less than 10 percent of the economy – but its impact is outsized.

While famous attractions like Disneyland and the Golden Gate Bridge are important pieces of their local economies, tourism packs an even bigger punch in smaller inland communities with undiversified economies, where one or two steady attractions can be a lifeline. A report from Dean Runyon Associates finds that Sierra counties like Mariposa (Yosemite Valley) and Mono (Mammoth Lakes) get more than half of their local taxes via tourism.

Tourism is California’s Great Unifier, connecting all our diverse regional economies and equalizing the disparities between the places we live. Which is why we all must understand the first rule of living in the Hotel California: bringing the state together starts not with how we treat each other but how we treat our guests.

From this perspective, state officials made a big mistake by letting California’s national parks close during the government shutdown instead of finding the money to keep places like Yosemite open. And it’s one more reason that the new law to grant drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants makes sense: It sends a welcoming message to the world.

That means we need a greater sense of urgency about expanding our seaports and airports. For infrastructure, we must prioritize projects at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and other places that support global trade. To make us better hosts to outsiders arriving in the state, our schools should require children to gain fluency in multiple languages – Spanish and at least one Asian language, plus whatever language it is they speak in the United Kingdom (the No. 1 source of visitors to California) and Australia (the No. 3 source). State bureaucracies should offer concierge service to people who come to California to start businesses, and each of our municipal governments should offer its residents free, public courses in their particular civic history, so more of us can serve as impromptu tour guides when out-of-town visitors stop us on the streets.

In a conversation with Margie Ferree Jones, a professor at Cal Poly Pomona’s world-class Collins College of Hospitality Management, I learned there are at least three lessons you hear in hospitality class that might apply to us Californians.

1. Seize the moment. In the hospitality business you’re selling perishable products, like that night’s hotel room and restaurant dinner, so don’t wait to engage your customers.

2. Work with intangibility. You’re not selling an object that someone can take home – you’re helping people create great experiences and memories.

3. Make human connections in the service of repeat guests. Learn and remember people’s names and what they like.

We’d all be better at our jobs if we learned those lessons. And the relationships we build with visitors via hospitality can make a lasting impact. The members of the Eagles, for example, weren’t from California, but they learned about the state, and ultimately fell in love with it, through their lodgings.

“Hotels were a big part of our lives,” Don Henley told the director-screenwriter Cameron Crowe in 2003. “The Beverly Hills Hotel had become something of a focal point, literally and symbolically.” Henley and Glenn Frey went and saw Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” a play and later a movie, as they put the song together. Said Henley: “We saw it as our homework and research.”

Californians can do their hospitality homework, too. The next time you find yourself with a free moment, find a mirror and practice your smile. Also try out a few key phrases to use with visitors.

Such as: “What else can we do to make your stay in California more comfortable?”

And: “We’d be happy to help you check out anytime you like, but we hope you never leave.”