PROVIDENCE — After being lauded for their dedication during the pandemic, the pivot in customer attitudes from “appreciative” to “awful” was jarring.
The Dean Hotel in downtown Providence was open throughout the entire pandemic. When things were at their worst, people were fine, staffers say. They understood they had to wear masks, and accepted social distancing. They accepted that there wouldn’t be maids cleaning up after them every day or room service on call at all times.
But now the economy has opened up and it’s like a switch has flipped.
“Just five months ago we were considered essential workers,” said general manager Sosothabna Ngin. “Now you’re yelling in our faces because we don’t have room service on a Monday night.”
Those in the hospitality industry say there’s been an increase in uncomfortable interactions with rude customers. So much so, that industry leaders in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have launched public service campaigns urging people to be more patient and kind to the servers and staffers tasked with taking care of them.
Steve Clark, vice president of government affairs at the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said his organization partnered with Clear Channel Outdoor on digital billboards to remind patrons that restaurants are still coming back up to speed. The campaign, which was on display throughout June, also included a series of signs aimed at promoting to-go and outdoor dining options.
The incidents aren’t usually of the table-flipping, fists-flying variety, although that does happen. People don’t even have to raise their voices to cross the line into condescension, although voices do sometimes get raised. But staffing shortages are leading to delays, delays are leading to frustration, and frustration is leading to unkindness toward the hospitality staff. And the hospitality industry in Rhode Island would really like people to knock it off.
“There’s always been that one guy — the person who flips the table and is that worked up, he’s always been here, he’s still here, he’s still coming,” said Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council. “He’s not going to change his behavior. The difference is, now it’s more of, ‘We want what we want, we paid for it, and we want it now.’”
Dale Venturini, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, convened an emergency meeting of the industry trade group on July 1. They came up with an idea: Posters that businesses could hang in the window, part of a “Please Be Kind Toolkit.” Like “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” they will serve as reminders for people to be a bit more humane.
“Welcome back,” one such poster says. “We are experiencing a staff shortage. We ask that you please be kind and patient with the staff that are working. Thank you!”
Said Sarah Bratko, lobbyist for the hospitality association in Rhode Island: “There’s such an excitement to get back into the universe, sometimes we forget there’s real people who are trying to do their jobs. We’re just asking that customers be kind, and patient, and give everybody a little bit of a break. Because the industry is doing the best it can.”
The stress from the pandemic has been tough on everyone, not least the people who worked through it waiting on customers. That’s why there’s another tool in the Rhode Island kit: fliers with mental health resources for staffers who are struggling to cope. In Massachusetts, Clark said, the MRA also distributed resources to its members on dealing with mental health issues.
“I have never heard this sort of collective, ‘People have been so mean,’” Bratko said. “I don’t know if it’s a sign of political divisiveness, or whether everybody lost social skills over the last year. It’s probably a combination of a lot of different things. But it’s bizarre how frequently we’re seeing this.”
After a year and a half of online shopping and grocery deliveries, some people may have become accustomed to a seamless, faceless form of customer service. But while Amazon or GrubHub may drop your package on your porch and leave, guests have to interact with real people, in real time, at hotels and restaurants.
“We are a little worn out, the same way the customers are worn out in their own lives,” said Ngin, at The Dean Hotel. “They sometimes don’t take a second to remember, they’re in the same boat I’m in as well. We’re facing the same exact thing right now.”
While there are always bad customers to contend with, lately the demands have strayed into the absurd. One worker at a Providence restaurant with outdoor dining recalled multiple occasions when the rain or wind would start to pick up, and a customer would look her in the eye and ask, with a straight face: “Is there anything you can do about this?”
As New England enters the midsummer, the problem now may be at its worst in tourist-heavy areas, people in the industry say. Nothing against New Yorkers: It’s just easier to be a jerk to someone if you’ll never have to see them again.
People were cooped up for more than a year. As they zoned out on Zoom or got their millionth lukewarm styrofoam-encased curbside takeout order, they might have been daydreaming of the perfect getaway. And when they finally get to take it, and something isn’t just right — maybe they’re not able to check into the hotel until 3:15 p.m., or they have to wait for a table even as some remain empty due to staff shortages, or the pasta fagioli takes a bit longer to come out than usual — they take it out on the person right in front of them. That person definitely does not deserve it.
Neighborhood mainstays are also feeling the effects. Eileen Harvey, who owns Skeff’s Neighborhood Pub in Cumberland, R.I., and Lou’s Cafe in Manville, R.I., with her husband, is planning to print out multiple fliers from the “please be kind” toolkit, so people have multiple reminders. People generally understand when they explain what they’re up against with staff shortages, Harvey said.
“I’ve got two bartenders cooking right now because they want us to remain open — so you didn’t get enough goat cheese, or chicken cut on the bias, I’m sorry, but we’re trying to do what we can do here,” Harvey said. “They always say, ‘Oh, all right. I’m sorry.’”
At the Red Dory in Tiverton, owner Aaron DeRego said they’ve been imposing limits on tables in order to meet demand, but 10 minutes before they have to clear the table to serve the next customer, someone will try to get in a cappuccino and dessert order.
Bad customers will tally up how much money they’re spending when visiting the area. Things can get downright creepy. Some of DeRego’s staff have chosen to continue to wear masks, which leads to comments like “Take your mask off so I know how to tip you.”
“Man, if we have to put stickers around so customers are kind, what are we doing?” said DeRego. “Why can’t people just be cool and just be happy that this whole thing is over?”
Anissa Gardizy of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.