“Economy” has become a 4-letter word this past year. Since December 2008, when it was announced by the National Bureau of Economic Research that the United States was in a recession (and, in actuality, had been since 2007), the media coverage of our nation’s reaction to the recession has been that American families have scrimped, fretted, used up savings and run up credit in every effort to stay afloat in the standard of American living to which they’ve become accustomed. In some cases, families have scrimped, fretted, used up savings and run up credit only to have the big bad wolf huff and puff and deliver a foreclosure notice – sinking their American dream in pile of debt and offering instead a substandard lifestyle they never thought they’d experience. As we approach December 2009 with cautiously positive retail forecasts for the holiday season and a rough, life-changing year behind us, I think it’s fair to say that the trials and anxiety our nation’s citizens have experienced in this Great Recession have been legitimate, often uncontrollable products of national circumstance and the ever-influential economy.
However, what I’ve seen as a hospitality professional over the past year has been the rise of what I’ve begun to call the “bourgeois problem”. As a result of the travel industry’s ungainly nosedive into the red since 2008, hotels, airlines and all other travel providers have reduced their rates and fares to low levels that never would have been considered prior to the recession in an effort to bring their revenues back into the black. While some Americans haven’t even been able to consider travel because they struggle just to provide for their families, others have capitalized on the opportunity to experience luxury hotels at amazing discounted rates, exotic vacation destinations and inexpensive domestic air travel. Most of these opportunists with a little bit of disposable income are members of the American bourgeoisie, whose interests are determined by the common materialistic “standard” and whose expectations about the value of their limited and hard-earned money determine how they spend their disposable income. We in the hospitality industry should all be thanking these savvy opportunists for staying in our hotels and renting our cars and continuing to provide us with our jobs, right?
Well, to all the bourgeoisie: Thanks.
But truth be told, the “bourgeois problem” is that the public – the bourgeois public – has an alarming amount of power over the businesses of this country at the moment. Individuals whose self-described standard of excellence in travel prior to the recession included discount fares on Southwest airlines and hotel stays in airport Red Roof Inns are now able to afford first class upgrades and weekend getaways to luxury properties – and they know it. Organizations’ “target” demographic has changed dramatically in the past year, and in many cases the exposure to a whole new type of traveler – the one who previously felt a luxury hotel or family cruise was out of his or her vacation budget – has been a wonderful boon for the industry, as hopefully we’re creating relationships that will continue long after the nation begins to feel economic recovery. No, the bourgeois problem lies in the expectation level of the consumer; the attitude that retailers, hospitality professionals and service providers must work harder, offer more excellence, and in many cases, give things away – because if we don’t, the potential guest or customer will simply go elsewhere and find someone who will. Scary. The bourgeois motto is not only “What have you done for me lately?” but also “What else will you do?”
As a hotel manager, I am asked every day by guests to give them things. Champagne, because it’s their anniversary. Further reduced rates, because our 3-star hotel neighbor is offering less. Free breakfast, because of course it’s available at the Embassy Suites. I understand that it’s smart – particularly in this economy – to compare one’s options to receive the best value. But in many cases, I would like to retort with, “Why?” Our rooms certainly do not have less value simply because we have reduced their nightly rates. We haven’t hired unqualified staff to provide less excellent service just because we’re in a recession. And, “free” amenities such as champagne and breakfast have a cost to the hotel. But the expectation from the bourgeoisie seems to be that the perceived value of their dollar – to them – should dictate what organizations provide.
Let me be clear that I do not exempt myself from the bourgeois group. I’ve found myself breaking die-hard allegiances to Alaska Airlines and Bank of America over the last year in favor of lower fares and sexier interest rates elsewhere – without even a backward glance. While I make an effort not to capitalize on “the recession” as a way of getting freebies (I think our nation is better served if businesses thrive than if I get free stuff that contributes to a company’s slow spiral out of business), I have found myself asking for reduced rates, lower payments or extended deadlines to accommodate my own financial concerns. But I look around and realize that I’m asking for these things from the comfort of my expensive (albeit small) apartment, where I’m wearing warm (and some designer) clothes, talking on a cell phone that I’ve chosen to pay upwards of $150 a month for to have all the bells and whistles on and affording it all by going to a job every day where I get paid to do (mostly) tasks I really enjoy in the company of excellent professionals.
All of the above is why I call this phenomenon the “bourgeois problem”. Because the people who can’t afford to travel don’t. And the people who have next nothing – who are truly lacking in food, shelter, safety and basic living needs – are struggling enough with those daily challenges that they’re not asking for more, but just to be taken care of. And the rest of us? Well, we’re asking the businesses and organizations of this country to provide us with more when we feel that we have less, so we can continue to carry on in our rightful pre-recession standard of living. We the bourgeoisie choose the problem of perceived financial instability, and propagate it for ourselves – whether we realize it or not.
I’ve given a larger portion than usual of my disposable income this month to philanthropy, which means I’m choosing not to travel to San Francisco next weekend for a family gathering. But, who knows? Maybe fares will go down at the last minute, and Virgin America will offer a complimentary beverage and a first class upgrade. If so, I’ll probably jump on the flight, with a bunch of other savvy travelers – just me and the bourgeoisie.