'And you think strawberries are for
eating . . .'
The following are excerpts
from a speech first delivered as the keynote of the AMERICAN MARKETING
ASSOCIATION annual meeting in New York City in 1973. It was published
the Saturday Evening Post in 1974, October issue.
note that the speech is copyrighted to Mr. Lavenson's estate, i.e.
his family and cannot be used for commercial purposes.
owned a marketing and advertising company before being invited to
become a senior management executive with Sonesta International
Hotels. He was given responsibility for the company's hotel and
food interests and some non hospitality businesses, including the
famous Mad Magazine and Hartman Luggage. For the last three years
of that period he was president and chief executive officer of the
chain's 'flagship', the famous Plaza Hotel in New York City.
Unprofitable in the
year before his assumption of the hotel's direction, the Plaza was
profitable each year of Lavenson's tenure until it was sold
in February 1975 to Western International Hotels.
"Across the street
from the Plaza Hotel in New York is a movie theatre, and they were
lucky enough to be one of the early ones to get to the movie, 'Jaws'
don't know if that happened in Chicago, but in New York it was a
complete sell out. I wanted to get to see it.
I bought a ticket and
went in, and I couldn't find an empty seat. As a matter of fact,
the only thing I did see was one man lying prostrate across five
seats. So I went and got the usher and said, 'You get that
guy to sit up so I can sit down'. So the usher went down and rapped
the man on the feet and said 'Sir, would you mind sitting up so
that this man can sit down?' And the most terrible groan came out
of this prostate — prostate? — no, prostrate figure. He just went
'Ohhhh.' And they couldn't get him to move, he just groaned.
So finally they got
the manager, and the manager came down — shone a flashlight in the
man's face and said,'Sit up. You are occupying five seats. You only
paid for one, and this man wants to sit down.' The man went,
'Ohhhhhh.' The manager leaned close to his face and said,'Sir,
how did you get here? Where did you come from?' And he said
(in a hoarse voice), 'The balcony'.
Well, that explains
how I got in the hotel business, because for ten years I was a corporate
director and marketing consultant for Sonesta International Hotels,
and I had my office in a little building next door to the hotel,
and I went there every day for lunch, and I often stayed overnight,
and I became in ten years a professional guest.
I'm sure those hotel
men in the audience know that there is no one who knows more about
how to run a hotel than a guest. But about five years ago, I fell
out of this corporate balcony and had to put my efforts in the restaurants
where my mouth had been and into the guest rooms, and night clubs
and theatre, into which I had been putting my two cents.
In my ten years
of kibitzing about the way things were run at the Plaza, the only
really technical skills that I had developed was removing that little
strip of paper without tearing it that says, 'Sanitised for your
protection'. When the Plaza Hotel staff learned that I had
spent my life as a salesman; that I was not a hotel figure; that
I had never been to a hotel school — I wasn't even the son of a
waiter — they went into shock.
who was then president of Sonesta Hotels, didn't help their apprehensions
much when he introduced me to my staff with the following explanation:
'The Plaza has been
losing money for the past five years and we have had the best management
in the business. So we have decided to try the worst'.
I don't know if you
have ever heard the definition of the kind of hotel managers there
are. If you have ever observed a manager close at hand, you
will know there is one who walks through the lobby spotting cigarette
butts, and the first time doesn't see them. The second kind of manager
walks through, sees the cigarette butts and calls the porter and
asks him to pick them up. And then there's the third kind of hotel
manager who walks through the lobby, sees a cigarette butt on the
carpet and picks it up.
I am the fourth
kind. I walk through the lobby and I see a cigarette butt on the
carpet, and I pick it up myself, and I smoke it. Well, that was
actually all I knew anything about when I became president, and
I didn't really know how to start on the job, so I just began wandering
around the hotel looking for cigarette butts.
One day early in my
career there I got a little idea what I was up against with professional
staff when, in walking through the lobby, I heard the phone ring
at the bell captain's desk, and no one was answering it. So to give
a demonstration to my staff that there was no job too demeaning
for me I went over and I picked up the phone and said, 'Bell captain's
desk. May I help you ?' The voice came on the other end. 'Pass it
on, Lavenson's in the Lobby.'
Now frankly I think
that the hotel business is one of the most backward in the world.
It's an antique. There has been practically no change in the attitude
of room clerks at hotels since Joseph and Mary arrived at that inn
in Bethlehem and that clerk told them that he'd lost their reservation.
One of the executives
in a new organization read a speech I gave about a year after I
had been at the Plaza and the speech was called, 'Think Strawberries'.
Maybe, he thought it was some magic formula for buying strawberries
out of season. Some of you may have seen it since the Saturday Evening
Post reproduced it in their October issue. And if you did read it,
you know it wasn't about buying strawberries, or even growing strawberries.
The speech was about selling strawberries.
At the Plaza Hotel,
'Think Strawberries' has become the code words for salesmanship.
Actually, a team approach to what I consider to be the most exciting
profession in the world — selling But hotel salesmanship is salesmanship
at its worst. So it is with full knowledge that I was taking
the risk of inducing cardiac arrest on the hotel guests if they
heard one of our staff say a shocking thing like 'Good morning,
Sir or 'Please' or 'Thank you for coming' or 'Please come back'
— I decided to try to turn the 1400 Plaza employees into genuine
hosts and hostesses who, after all, had invited guests to our house.
Secretly, I knew I didn't mean hosts and hostesses; I meant
sales-people. But before the staff was able to recognise my voice
over the phone, a few calls to the various departments in the hotel
showed me how far I had to go.
'What's the difference
between your $85 suite and your $125 suite?' I asked the reservationist
over the telephone.
The answer — you guessed
it. 'Forty dollars.'
'What's the entertainment
in your Persian Room tonight?' I asked the bell captain.
'Some singer' was his
'A man, or a woman?',
I wanted to know.
'I'm not sure, ' he
It made me wonder if
I'd even be safe going there.
Why was it, I thought,
that a staff of a hotel doesn't act like a family of hosts to the
guests who have been invited, after all, to stay at their house?
And it didn't take long after becoming a member of that family myself
to find out one of the basic problems. Our 1400 family members didn't
even know each other. With a large staff working over 18 floors,
a thousand guest rooms, six restaurants, a nightclub, a theatre,
three levels of sub-basement including the kitchen, a carpentry
shop, a plumbing shop, an electrical shop, and a full commercial
laundry, how would they ever know all the people working there —
who were the guests? — who was just a burglar smiling his way through
the hotel while he ripped us off?
I can assure you that
in the beginning if he smiled and said 'Hello', he was a crook.
He certainly wasn't one of us. Even the old time Plaza employees
who might recognize a face after a couple of years would have no
idea of the name connected to that face. It struck me, that if our
people who worked with each other every day couldn't call each other
by name, smile at each other's familiar face, say good morning to
each other, how on earth could they be expected to say astonishing
things like 'Good morning, Mr Jones' to a guest?
A short time after my
arrival there, the prestigious Plaza staff were subjected to uncouth
blasphemy. The Plaza name tag was born, and it became part of the
staffs uniform. And the first name tag appeared on my own lapel,
on the lapel of God Himself. And it's been on the lapel of every
other staff member ever since. Every one — every one, from dishwasher
to general manager at the Plaza Hotel, wears his name in large letters
where every other employee, and of course, every guest, can see
Believe it or not, Plaza
people began saying hello to each other by name when they passed
in the hall, or in the offices. At first, of course, our regular
guests at the Plaza thought we had lost our cool and we were taking
some kind of gigantic convention there. But now the guests are also
able to call the bellmen, and the maids, and the room clerks, and
the manager, by name. And we began to build an atmosphere of welcome
with the most precious commodity in the world — our names — and
our guests' names.
A number of years ago
I met a man named Dr Earnest Dikter. Maybe you know him. He was
the head of a thing called the Institute for Motivational Research.
And he loved to talk about service in the restaurants, and the lack
of it. He had a theory that I just think is nuts. Dikter believed
that when you go into a fine restaurant, you are hungrier for recognition
than you are for food.
Now just think about
that. It's true. If a maitre d' says to me, 'I have your table ready,
Mr Lavenson', I positively float over to my chair. And after a greeting
like that, the chef can burn my rare steak for all I care.
When someone calls you
by name, and you don't know his or hers, another funny thing happens.
A feeling of discomfort comes over you. If he calls you by your
name twice, and you know you're not world famous, you have to find
out his name. And this phenomenon we saw happening with the Plaza
staff name tags. When a guest calls a waiter by name — because it's
there to be read — the waiter wants to call the guest by name. Hopefully
it will drive the waiter nuts if he doesn't find out the guest's
name. The waiter will ask the maitre d'. And if the maitre d' doesn't
know, he can see if they know at the front desk.
Why this urgent sense
of mission? What makes calling a guest by name so important? I
am now about to tell you a secret which is known only in the hotel
industry. The secret is calling a guest by name — it is a big payoff
— it is called, and you can write this down if you want, a tip.
At first there was resistance,
particularly on the part of the executive staff to wearing name
tags. I was suspected of being what the old-time hotel managers
liked, being incognito when wandering around the hotel. It avoids
hearing complaints and, of course, if you don't hear complaints,
there are none. Right?
Don't ever — ever —
walk up to a guest and ask, 'Is everything all right?' In the first
place, he may die of shock before he answers. We only had one staff
member at the Plaza, only one out of 1400, who refused to wear a
name tag. Not only was it beneath his dignity, but for 16 years
he had always worn a little rosebud in his lapel. That was his trademark,
he said, and everyone knew him by it. And he said he would resign
before he would wear a name tag. His resignation was accepted along
with that of the rosebud.
And just between you
and me, there were times when I regretted wearing a name tag myself,
especially on a Plaza elevator where guests can become a little
impatient. You see, the Plaza elevators were built at the same time
as the hotel, 1907, and they are hydraulic. They are not electric.
And a trip on a Plaza elevator is roughly the equivalent of a commute
from Earth to the Moon.
With my name tag on
my lapel, all passengers held me personally responsible just as
they do the pilot of a plane in a two hour holding pattern over
I soon learned I couldn't
hide, so I took the offensive, and feeling like a perfect idiot
I smiled at everybody and said, 'Good Morning' to complete strangers,
and this was in New York. Those guests who didn't go into shock
smiled back. One man, with whom I had ridden all the way to the
18th floor, really caught the spirit. He answered my 'Good morning',
when we got on in the lobby, with a smiling 'Good afternoon ' when
we reached the top floor.
About 500, almost a
third of the staff of the Plaza, are Hispanic. I don't know if you
know what that means in Chicago. That means they speak Spanish.
That means they understand Spanish. It also means that they don't
understand English, and they don't read English. But all our communications
to the employees were in English. The employee house magazine, with
all those profound management messages, and my picture, were
It seems to me that
to say we had a language barrier at the Plaza would be an understatement.
Before we could talk about strawberries, we first had to learn Spanish
and put our house magazine in both English and Spanish. We started
lessons in Spanish for our supervisors, and lessons in English for
the staff. It was interesting to me to note that the staff learned
English faster than our supervisors learned Spanish. With 1400 staff
members all labelled with their name tags, and understanding why
Spanish and English,
with all of them saying 'Good morning', and smiling at each other,
we were ready to make salespeople out of them.
There was just
one more obstacle we had to overcome before we suggested that they
start selling: asking for the order. They had no idea what the product
was that they were supposed to be selling. Not only didn't they
know who was playing in the Persian Room and they didn't know that
the Plaza had movies, full-length feature films without commercials,
on closed circuit TV in the guest rooms. As a matter of fact, most
of them didn't know what a Plaza room looked like unless they happened
to be a maid, or a bellman who checked in guests. The reason that
registration thought that $40 was the difference between the two
suites was because he had never been in one. Of product knowledge,
our future salespeople had none, and we had our work cut out for
Today, if you ask a
Plaza bellman who is playing in the Persian Room, he will tell you,
Jack Jones. He will tell you it's Jack Jones because he has seen
Jack Jones and heard Jack Jones, because in the contract of every
performer there is a clause requiring that performer to first play
to the staff in the Employees' Cafeteria, so that all the staff
can see him, hear him and meet him. The Plaza staff now sees the
star first, before the guests. And if you ask a room clerk or a
telephone operator what is on TV closed circuit movie in the guest
rooms, they will tell you because they have seen the movies on the
TV sets which run the movie continuously in the Staff Cafeteria.
Today, all the room
clerks go through a week of orientation which includes spending
a night with their husband, or their wife, or (laughter) — just
like a guest. They stay in a room in the Plaza. The orientation
week includes a week of touring all the guest rooms, a meal in the
restaurants, and the reservation room clerk gets a chance to actually
look out the window of the suite and see the difference between
an $85 and a $125 suite, because the $125 suite overlooks beautiful
Central Park, and the $85 suite looks up the fanny of the A-Bomb
The Plaza had a sales
staff of three men, professionals. They were so professional that
they never left the hotel. They were good men, but they were really
sales servicemen who took orders that came over the transom. Nobody
at the Plaza ever left the palace, crossed the moat at Fifth Avenue,
and went looking for business. No one was knocking on doors. No
one was asking for the order.
The Plaza, as you may
know, is a dignified institution. It was so dignified that it was
considered demeaning to admit that we needed the business, no matter
how much money we were losing. And if you didn't ask us, we wouldn't
ask you. So there! We weren't ringing our doorbell or anybody else's.
You had to ring ours. And this attitude seemed to be a philosophy
shared by the entire organisation, a potentially large sales staff
of waiters, room clerks, bellmen, cashiers, doormen, maids, about
600 guest-contact employees.
If you wanted a second
drink in the Plaza's famous Oak Bar, you got it with a simple technique
— tripping the waiter, and then pinning him to the floor. You had
to ask him. You'd think, wouldn't you, that it would be easy to
change that pattern of Oak Room waiters. After all, they make additional
tips on additional drinks. Simple sales training. Right? Right?
I had our general manager
for the Oak Room — the maitre d' learn my new policy. It was inspirational.
When the guest's glass is down to one-third full, the waiter is
to come up to the table and ask the guest if he'd like a second
drink. Complicated, but workable. Couldn't miss, I thought.
About a month after
establishing this revolutionary policy I joined the general manager
in Oak Bar for a drink. I noticed at the next table there were four
men all with empty glasses. No waiter was near them. After watching
for fifteen minutes my ulcer gave out and I asked the general manager
what happened to my second-drink programme? And the manager
called over the maitre d' and asked what happened to the second-drink
programme. And the maitre d' called over to the captain, pointed
out the other table and said, 'Whatever happened to Lavenson's second
drink programme?' And the captain called over the waiter, and he
broke out into a wreath of smiles as he explained that the men at
the next table had already had their second drink.
If you asked for a room
reservation at the Plaza it was very simple. You were quoted the
minimum rate. If you wanted a suite, you had to ask for it. If once
there you wanted to stay at the hotel an extra night, it was simple
— beg. You were never invited, and sometimes I think there's simple
pact among hotel men, it's actually a secret oath that you swear
to when you graduate from hotel school, and it goes like this:
'I promise I will never
ask for the order.'
When you are faced with
as old and ingrained a tradition as that, halfway counter measures
don't work. So we started a programme of all our guest contact people,
along with all of our salespeople, using a new secret oath — everybody
sells. And we meant everybody — maids, cashiers, waiters, bellmen,
assistant manager, general manager, and me — everybody!
We talked to the maids
about suggesting room service, to the doormen about suggesting our
restaurants, not the one at the Pierre, to our cashiers about suggesting
return reservations to the parting guests. And we talked to the
waiters about strawberries.
Now I don't know how
it is in Chicago, but in New York the waiter at the Plaza makes
anywhere from $12,000 to $20,000 a year. The difference between
those figures, of course, is tips. I spent 18 years in the advertising
agency business, and I thought I was fast computing 15 per cent.
I am a moron compared to a waiter.
Our suggestion for selling
strawberries fell on very responsive ears when we described that
part of our Everybody Sells Programme to the waiters in our Oyster
Bar Restaurant. We had a smart controller, and he figured out that
if — with just the same number of customers already patronising
the Oyster Bar — the waiters would ask every customer if he'd
like the second drink, wine or beer, with his meal, and then dessert
— given only one out of four takers — we would increase the Oyster
Bar Restaurant sales by $364,000 a year.
The waiters were well
ahead of this lecture. They had already figured out that was $50,000
more in tips, and since there are 10 waiters in the Oyster Bar,
I, with the aid of a pocket calculator, could figure out that that
meant five grand more in tips per waiter. And it was at this point
that I had my toughest decision to make since I'd been in the job,
which was whether to stay on as president, or become a waiter in
the Oyster Bar. But while the waiters appreciated this automatic
raise in theory, they were very quick to point out the negative:
'Nobody eats dessert any more, ' they said, 'everybody is on a diet.
If we served our specially, the Plaza chocolate cheesecake to everybody
in the restaurant, we'd be out of business because they'd all be
dead in a week.' 'So sell them strawberries,' we said, 'but sell
Then we wheeled out
our answer to the gasoline shortage. It is called a dessert cart.
It has wheels. And we widened the aisles between the table so that
the waiters could wheel the cart right up to each table at dessert
time without being asked. And not daunted by the diet protestations
of the average guest, the waiter goes into raptures about the bowl
of fresh strawberries on the top of the cart. There is even a bowl
of whipped cream for the slightly wicked. And by the time the waiter
finishes extolling the virtues of luscious strawberries, flown in
that morning from California or Florida — or wherever he thinks
strawberries come from — you, the guest, not only have an abdominal
orgasm, but one out of two of you orders them.
We showed the waiters
every week what happened with strawberry sales. The month I left
the Plaza they doubled again, and so had the sales, incidentally,
of second martinis. And believe me, when you have a customer for
a second martini, you have a sitting duck for a strawberry sale,
and that is with whipped cream. The Plaza waiters now ask for the
order. They no longer stare at your waistline and say, 'You don't
look like you need dessert'.
is becoming the Plaza's sales password. The reservationist thinks
strawberries and suggests that perhaps you would like a suite overlooking
Central Park rather than a twin-bedded room. Bellmen are thinking
strawberries. Each bellman has return reservation forms with his
own name imprinted on them as the addressee, and he asks you, in
checking you out and into your cab, can he make a return reservation
The room service operators
were thinking strawberries. They ask you if you'd like to watch
the closed circuit TV film in your room as long as you're going
to be there. No trouble, 'We put three bucks on your bill and you
never notice it compared with the price of the sandwich'. Our telephone
operators think strawberries. When you leave a wake up call, they
suggest a Flying Tray Breakfast sent up to your room. 'You want
the light breakfast, no — ham and eggs; how about strawberries?'
We figured we added
about 400 salesmen to the three-man sales staff we had before. Additional
salesmen, at no extra expense, didn't exactly thrill my Board of
Directors. But I will tell you what did tickle their fancy. The
Plaza sales volume my last year there went from $27 million to a
nice round $30 million. And our controller was seen giggling in
his cage where we kept him, since our profits were double the year
I'll tell you what pleased
me most. The Plaza sold $250,000 worth of strawberries in the last
six months alone - $250,000 worth of strawberries!
We created the Order
of the Strawberry Patch. It's a little strawberry insignia worn
on the employee's name tag, and any staff member, except those,
naturally, in the Sale Department, who gives the sales manager at
the Plaza a lead, just a lead, for rooms, or banquet business, gets
to wear the little strawberry patch. He has joined the sales staff.
And if that lead is converted into a sale, a savings bond is given
to the person who suggested it.
Let me tell you what
happened with that strawberry patch programme. There's a captain
in the Oak Room — his name is Curt, and he likes savings bonds.
He also has a wild imagination, and he imagined that if a Plaza
salesman would call on his wife's friend's daughter, who was getting
married, the wedding could be booked at the Plaza.
Obviously he was insane
— the Oak Room captain's wife's friend's daughter, who lived in
Brooklyn, with a wedding at the famous Plaza. The Plaza salesman
was persuaded to call the lady in Brooklyn. At first he didn't want
to go. But he was given a powerful incentive like keeping his job.
And, of course, you can guess the result, or, can you? Would you
believe a $12,000 wedding?
And that's not all.
Just before I left the Plaza, Curt told me that his wife's friend's
daughter had a sister, not yet married.
I believe I mentioned
there's a laundry in the Plaza. Thirty ladies work in that laundry,
three levels below the street. When they are working, these ladies
don't exactly remind you of fashion models. They wear short white
socks and sneakers, no make-up, and I suspect, although I have never
been able to prove it, that three of them chew tobacco.
You can imagine the
skepticism which greeted one of those ladies when she asked if she
could earn a strawberry patch for a lead on a luncheon of her church
group. How many members? Only 500! At least 500 showed up for lunch
at the Plaza dressed to the heavens and paying cash. That laundry
lady is papering her walls with savings bonds.
An Oak Room captain,
and a laundry lady, like hundreds of other Plaza staff members,
they wear the strawberry patch on their name tag.
Everybody sells, and
that includes me. I made sales calls with the Plaza salesmen, and
I have only one regret. I got so worked up myself over the strawberry
programme that I was indiscriminate about whom I called on. And
one day I called on Western International Hotels, and sold
them the whole place.
And lest I forget what
I have been preaching. The Plaza staff awarded me this (indicating
a strawberry patch on his tee shirt), the biggest strawberry patch
of all. They told me if I wore it, I would never go hungry, and
they must have been right, because I just had a free lunch."
The above story was
contributed to us by Hospitality Management International Lecturer,
Kevin Fields, who says:
"As a hospitality
lecturer, it is often difficult to get students to understand concepts
and theories which may be new to them. Perhaps that is my fault,
perhaps it is theirs. What I have learnt over the years is that
a suitable anecdote often gets the message across effectively. I
can usually draw upon experience from industry to illustrate a point
but the most effective anecdote I use isn't one of my own. It is
based upon an after-dinner speech entitled 'Think Strawberries'.
I read about this a few years ago and have used it ever since to
demonstrate how a few techniques and change of attitude can massively
impact upon a business's efficiency and profitability. Please read
the story - I defy anyone not to learn a lesson from at least some
part of it!"
Kevin Fields (Mr) M.Soc.Sci.
Lecturer: Hospitality & Tourism Management
of Food, Tourism & Creative Studies
August 8, 1999 - A tribute
to Mr. James Lavenson, whom we discovered a bit too
yourself to be advised of the new location of our unique
hailed site of the Lowe Organization's
Fill in our feedback form for business queries and subscribe
to our Easytraining
Thank you for visiting.
We hope you will find value in the free online information
provided in our "how to" articles. Bookmark http://www.easytraining.com, watch out for new additions
to the site and recommend it to friends.
Claire Belilos, CHIC
Hospitality Consulting Services
Vancouver, B.C., Canada Tel:
our Terms and Conditions