November 2020

Take it down a notch

Helpful tips for handling angry guests.

Written by David Meeker | 0 comment

Strategies for de-escalating a guest conflict are an important part of staff training at many resorts, but will be especially valuable this winter. With the stress and politicization of the pandemic, coupled with modified resort operations, mask mandates, and capacity limits, staffers will likely deal with more conflicts than normal. Knowing how to calm an unhappy guest—or fellow staff member—isn’t a given skill for most people, but there are some simple strategies staff can employ to turn a bad situation around. Or, at least, keep it from getting worse.

The Approach

Be cognizant of your body language when facing an unhappy guest. Keep in mind the 7-33-55 rule of interpersonal communication: People convey 7 percent of what they really mean through spoken words, 38 percent through tone of voice, and 55 percent through body language. In other words, body language says a lot.

Tahoe Training Partners’ Laura Moriarty advises to stand with arms uncrossed and open palms up, keep an “open face” (i.e., no grinning) and maintain eye contact. “Your goal is to act in a relaxed, controlled manner. Take a deep breath and think before you speak. Do not add to the drama,” says Moriarty.

“Most people can be calmed through emotion spread,” adds U.S. Army Col. John Vermeesch, Ret., a leadership coach and instructor for the SAM Summit Series Bootcamp: Resilient Leadership Training ( Also known as “emotional contagion,” it’s when one person’s emotions and behaviors trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people.

High Peaks Group CEO and fellow Bootcamp instructor Paul Thallner says emotional spread works both ways, of course, so it’s vital for staff members not to take the bait. “If you get caught up and match the agitated person’s emotional state, nobody wins,” he says.

All three experts advise to stop, listen, and take the time to understand why the guest is so frustrated.

The Three A’s

Mt. Hood Meadows, Ore., uses a procedure called “the three A’s” as a guideline for staff to help bring a conflict with a guest or co-worker to a positive resolution. The three A’s, as explained in the Meadows employee procedure:

Assess. Let the guest/co-worker explain his or her frustration.

Acknowledge. Paraphrase what they’re frustrated about. This shows you understand and would like to help. It is also OK to apologize for the frustration a guest is feeling, but avoid assigning blame.

Act. Provide a resolution. If you cannot resolve the issue, ask your supervisor or guest services department for assistance.

Code of Conduct

Mt. Hood Meadows has established a code of conduct for guests, too, to set expectations, says VP of resort operations Jeremy Riss. “We have used this very effectively in the past with difficult guests. Basically, if you want to recreate at Mt. Hood Meadows, we need to be confident you can follow these guidelines.”

The code of conduct includes a few simple tenets, such as: treat everyone with courtesy and respect, don’t cut in lift lines, and follow instructions of Meadows team members. Riss says the resort will be adding other expectations for this season “that are a starting point for being at the resort, such as social distancing and wearing a mask.”

It would be wise to develop and promote a code of conduct for your guests. Clearly setting expectations ahead of time could help mitigate confrontations.

Simple Responses

When a confrontation does occur, though, Moriarty suggests using the acronym L.E.A.S.T. to guide a basic response to an angry guest, building on the three A’s:

Listen: “Let me see if I understand you correctly, [paraphrase the guest’s issue].”

Empathize: “I understand your concern.”

Apologize: “I’m sorry this has happened.”

Solve: “What can we do to address this?”

Thank: “Thank you for your patience while we work this out together.”

This approach suits many, but not all, confrontations. “If they are causing the issue by not complying or by being hostile, we’re not asking them what we can do to address the issue,” she says.

Scripted Answers

Mountain High in California has come up with several “scripts” for staff to use in response to predicted conflicts with guests this winter. For example:

Scenario: Guest refuses to wear a mask indoors.

Customer: I don’t want to wear a mask, and you can’t force me to.

Employee: We appreciate you doing your part to keep yourself, our customers, and employees safe. To enter the building, a facemask is required. We must follow these guidelines to keep the resort open for all to enjoy.

Customer: Nah, I’m not wearing a mask.

Employee: Local and state guidelines require all to wear a mask. If you choose not to, you will have to leave.

Practice Makes Perfect

Vermeesch suggests taking some time to conduct scenario-based training for anticipated situations so staffers can practice their approach and responses. Rehearsing will help staffers react in a way that diffuses things instead of defaulting to their natural responses in conflict situations, which may not be ideal for de-escalating anything.

“You have a much better chance of behaving the way you want to behave when you’ve rehearsed that behavior in a controlled environment,” he says.