I spent the weekend just gone down in Ramsgate on an impromptu getaway. It is off-season for Britain's seaside resorts at the moment: the beaches are desolate, the streets empty, the wind ferocious. But through the magic of Groupon, I was spelled away to the Royal Harbour Hotel nonetheless, hoping for nothing more than a spot of peace and quiet and some respite from the insistent beeping of my iPhone.
The offer promised a sea view, and a sea view I did receive. Not an azure coastline exactly, more a boatyard stretching into a grey expanse of horizon with no discernible separation between sea and sky. The room was small but cosy, the bed soft, sheets crisp.
The Royal Harbour Hotel is a two-star establishment - a testament to the total pointlessness of the star rating system. It was built in 1799 and hasn't changed all that much since. No intrusive installation of elevators or newfangled entry systems. Just stairs and keys.
So why am I waxing lyrical about this far-flung establishment, you ask? The answer is simple. I was made to feel more welcome, at ease and at home that I have anywhere (excluding the domiciles of friends and family) for quite some time. In trying to work out how this sense of contentment was achieved, I have drawn up a few pointers, or lessons.
Honest: The honesty bar
Let's start with that stalwart of any vacation: alcohol. At the Royal Harbour, the bar is a small nook in the corner of the drawing room. It is quite simply stocked: miniatures of vodka, whisky, gin and rum; beers in the fridge; a decent red and a middling white. There is also an honesty book that allows guests to record their poisons. No one hovers to make sure you are pouring precise measures of vino tinto, there is no CCTV camera blinking from above. Owner James Thomas has instead opted to trust his guests to respect the house rules.
How distressing that such trust felt almost alien in today's hyper-alert society. I and my guest drank a few tipples that first evening, each was dutifully recorded in the book. No one ever talks about the overwhelming joy, as a customer, of being trusted. The times you're 50p short and promise to make up the difference later. The 'pay-what-you-can' schemes. The business decisions that place blind faith in the honesty and goodness of everyday people.
Are there any areas of your business where you can show a little faith? Consider the benefits rather than the risk: Less customer service, more customer bliss. By showing your customers that you trust and respect them, you are creating long-standing devotees.
Old fashioned: Total brand immersion
The Royal Harbour Hotel has a very specific 'ness'. It's somewhere between Agatha Christie (without the murder and deceit) and a Bloomsbury Set haunt. There is a leaning tower of vinyl available for guests to pick and play on an old-fashioned record player. Guests create their own atmosphere by dictating the soundtrack to the evening. We shared our DJ set most amicably with a group of German visitors lolling in armchairs at the other end of the room. Paddy Roberts' Songs For Gay Dogs was one of the highlights.
The whole hotel is chock-full of books - real books - not those appalling 'just for show' book ornaments that have become all the rage in the past decade. Bookshelves gasped on every floor and in every room, heavy with everything from leather-bound anatomy bibles to Dante.
Board games are everywhere too: I played Solitaire (the game with marbles, not cards), a dice game called Crossword and eyed up a game intriguingly called Pit.
Every wall in this Georgian building is littered with art. While some of the pictures were not exactly to my taste, others were genius. I was particularly entranced by the replicas of Van Gogh's famous works in the dining room, all recreated on cardboard using a 3D effect.
Marketers talk about 360 branding but seldom have I seen the term in practice so expertly. Not an inch of the hotel diverted from the theme. Miss Marple would have been comfortable in any room in the house, while Vanessa Bell could happily paint her portraits in the Royal Harbour's calm setting. With one notable exception. The rooms all have televisions, and I'm fairly sure even Miss Marple's little grey cells would be flummoxed by the remote control and DVD player.
There's a reason the hotel is as it is. James Thomas has styled it exactly to his taste. He has chosen every picture, and masterminded the building of every new addition. Market researchers demand that we tailor our products and services precisely to the needs of our target customers, but sometimes you have to have the courage to trust your own vision.
It's a lesson Reggae Reggae Sauce founder Levi Roots shares in this video interview, and it's a valuable top for any business owner with a customer-facing company: if you wouldn't eat it, wear it, stay there, use it, recline on it, or have it on your wall, why should anyone else?
Good: Free cheese
At 9pm every evening, the Royal Harbour Hotel lays on a cheeseboard fit for a king. Gratis. On Friday evening, there were three kinds of brie, a fabulous double Gloucester, a mature cheddar, a glowing red Leicester. That's just a fraction of the choice, which also included two pates. Crackers groaning under their burden, we munched our way through several hefty chunks of various genuses. Food truly is the way to a (hu)man's heart.
Especially free food.
Business owners, entrepreneurs, lend me your ears. Forget the canapé, the cocktail sausage, the mini-muffin. Few things bring the same levels of pure joy as a glorious cheese selection. For philistines of fromage, there is even a cheese festival happening this weekend on London's Southbank, boasting hundreds of varieties and tasting opportunities.
Treat your shoppers, visitors, drinkers, consumers, browsers and customers to some cheese.
They might even blog about it.
Find out more about The Royal Harbour Hotel.
Agree with these lessons? Disagree? Hate cheese? Leave your comment below or tell me on Twitter