you think strawberries are for eating . . .’
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.
Lavenson 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 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.
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
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.
Paul Sonnebaum 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
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
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.
entertainment in your Persian Room tonight?’ I asked the bell
‘Some singer’ was
‘A man, or a woman?’, I
wanted to know.
‘I’m not sure,
‘ he said. 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 it.
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
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
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 the airport.
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 in English.
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 in both 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, 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 us.
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 movies 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
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 building.
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
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
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
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
Our suggestion for selling
strawberries fell on very responsive cars when we described that part of
our Everybody Sells Programme to the waiters in our Oyster Bar
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 them!’
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
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’.
‘Think Strawberries’ 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 for
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 before’s.
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 Sales 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
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
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 scepticism
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."