It's a Pep Talk: Five Star Hotel

Is it “Five Star Hotel?”

I have a confession to make. It’s not a secret and I think it’s penance free–I’m obsessed with value proposition. Don’t worry; it doesn’t have anything to do with my neighbor’s swimming pool or neighbor’s husband or aging with dignity. Technically, for schools and businesses it’s what you offer, a sales pitch, the WHY in PLEASE BUY. Philosophically, I see value proposition as a way of life and the single-most effective consideration in building and sustaining a successful school or business.

For the past 15 years at opening faculty meetings, I’ve given a little value-proposition pep talk. Everyone has come to expect it, and it is met with tongue-in-cheek anticipation. I start with rhetorical Q and A:  “What is the most expensive elementary school in the state?” (We are) “Why is that okay?” (Because we are the BEST elementary school in the state). What follows is a story, a metaphorical framework that I hope will stick in some way to give us a cultural code that lasts the year and helps us continue to develop and articulate who we are and WHY we are worth it.

This is my FIVE STAR HOTEL story:

I’d never seen a room like it. The walls were bright white, textured plaster that gave the illusion of space and honored the art that was the floor. I took my shoes off so I could feel the cool Vietri tiles, vibrant patterns in red, yellow, and deep green. Fizzy bubbles of surprise and relief rose within me. So far it was measuring up.

Our 15th anniversary felt like a huge milestone at the time, worth a stretch in the budget to honor the tripling of years my uncle predicted at our wedding we would last. Yes, our tenacity deserved a triple back flip, so I booked Amalfi and a five-star hotel.

“Special” is the word my mother in law uses at Christmas when she is certain you won’t recognize the dollar value of the gift she is giving. Just before you break the first seam, she says, “Now, this is special.”  You know you are in trouble when she adds, “This is the big one.” That means it’s a ceramic life-sized donut or a Limoges watermelon pillbox. Regardless of the size, they cost a lot, so they are “special.”

Our hotel in Amalfi was “special.” It was 2007 and the Euro crushed us. We paid more for one night than we spent for the entire 3-night Royal Caribbean cruise just five years earlier. The pressure was on. If it was going to be special, it needed to be worth it.

It was both.

The story could end here. I could say it was special and worth it and you might believe my quick testimonial, but you don’t really know WHY. I haven’t proposed the value yet.

ATTENTION TO DETAILS. The room was small, rendered like an artist’s study for a much larger work. Beautiful basket of fruit, fresh, white linens, doors lined with gauze curtains that opened to the ocean and a morning sunrise. A shower as strong as rain forest waterfall–I thought Dan might never resurface. Lush towels. Vietri pottery soap dish. Quality products. Water beside the bed. 68 degrees. These details mattered to us. 

DIFFERENTIATION. Built on the side of a cliff, hotel amenities rested dramatically beneath the main building. The workout room was a tree house perched suspended in air halfway down to a salt water pool that drained and filled each day with the cool Mediterranean sea. A few steps below the pool was the actual ocean where the brave swam laps in a dense blue current. 

SERVICE. The hotel staff was authentic, pleasant, and personable. They projected “vacation” rather than scurry, hurry, too much perky, yet they made stuff happen. Dan asked the manager to recommend a local restaurant, one popular with actual “locals.” We wanted to be “a local” for a night. “Yes, yes, sure, no problem,” he said. “It is a little down the road, so the restaurant will send a driver.” Done. Handled. 

EXPERIENCE. At 7:30 PM, a beat up silver Toyota Corolla pulled to the hotel door and out popped a handsome young man in a black t-shirt. “You are the Prides, no?” He asked in a thick Italian accent. Hurried, he opened my door, apologized for his messy car. For a moment I felt unsure, looked at Dan who sent me a smile echo and a shrug. In we plopped, pushing his backpack and headphones to the side.  And off we went, a ten-mile mystery drive up the winding Amalfi coast, windows rolled down to soft, dusky air.

Francesco the driver pulled into the restaurant entrance, hopped out of his seat and opened my door. “There is the door to the restaurant,” he pointed. “Stay right there and someone will greet you soon.” He jumped back into his driver seat and drove off leaving us to wonder.

Within seconds, the restaurant door opened and there was Francesco the host dressed in a crisp, white button down shirt. “HELLO there!” He semi-shouted, short on breath, and as if he’d just seen us for the first time. “Where would you like to sit?” Given that there was not a single person in the restaurant, we chose a prime seat on the outdoor terrace that overlooked the ocean.

Just as we discussed the possibility that the concierge had played a joke on us, Francesco the waiter appeared, an apron placed over his crisp white shirt. We asked him if he was planning to cook our meal too. He laughed, ”No I am not the chef. But he will be here SOON! I am the grandson of the owner of this restaurant.”

Three hours later, we’d eaten the best meal of our trip at this 100 year old family-owned restaurant. And we learned actual locals don’t eat until 9. “Why didn’t you just tell us to come later?” We asked. “Because you wanted to come at 7:30 and the hotel said 7:30,” he answered. We were the hotel’s customer, and the hotel was his customer…

By the time we left, the place was packed. Customers, a host, wait staff, and a chef. Francesco’s grandfather drove us home. He didn’t speak a lick of English, so we exchanged “grazie” at least twelve times before we landed at our “special” hotel door. 

MEANING. Value is not about cost; it is about meaning, and value proposition is about defining what that meaning is.

This is what sticks: everything we do must be FIVE STAR HOTEL.

For you hard core readers, let me dig a little deeper. Value is subjective. Our experience with that five star hotel in Amalfi was valuable to Dan and me for reasons that might not matter to another couple. Businesses “use [value proposition] to target customers who will benefit most from using the company’s products, and this helps maintain an economic moat.” Yes, economic moat. Thank you for making up that term, Warren Buffett (

I spend most of my professional time helping define and articulate value proposition for schools and small businesses. It doesn’t just happen by sitting in a room with the Headmaster or CEO talking about what’s awesome. It happens through a careful examination that starts with the customer. It happens when we figure out why customers are there in the first place and what makes them want to stay. To be FIVE STAR you have to strive for five stars. You have to know what it means, why it is special, and how you can show your difference.




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