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Hotelier Goes 'Undercover Boss' With Mixed Results (VIDEO)

First Posted: 01/13/12 08:32 AM ET Updated: 01/13/12 08:56 AM ET

Stephen J. Cloobeck wants to be the greatest hotelier ever. Those who know Cloobeck or have met him are well aware of his aspiration because he periodically says, "I want to be the greatest hotelier ever."

This pronouncement was met with a smattering of applause at the screening this week of the season premier of "Undercover Boss," in which Cloobeck dons an unflattering wig and joins the employees of his timeshare empire on their daily rounds only to learn about their lives and the shortcomings of his business.

The hospitality industry is perfect for this reality treatment thanks to the vast economic disparities between its haves and have nots and the hypocrisy that necessarily grows out of running a bottom-line business that traffics in intimacy and comfort. Cloobeck, who looks exactly like someone who would run a company called Diamond Resorts International, is perfectly suited to the small screen, which he nearly fills with his square frame as he wanders around his beach home, drives his Ferrari and hugs his ex-model wife, a moment that, if captured in paint, would have been dubbed Trump Gothic.

Cloobeck claims to have initially turned down CBS when approached about being on the show because he felt the exercise was unnecessary and because he felt his face would be too recognizable to his employees, may of whom walk past or work under his framed picture every day. He lays the blame for bullying him onto the show at the feet of DRI's C.F.O. David Palmer, who seems eager to take credit.

"I felt like the snapshots he was getting during the surprise visits were still varnished," Palmer said at the debut, referencing the Cloobeck's habit of showing up unannounced at his properties, where he checks in under various credit cards and steals toasters to find out if he'll get charged. Palmer added that he felt some of Cloobeck's expectations about customer service are unrealistic given the size of his company.

The highlight of the episode turns out to be a moment in which a sweet young agent at a call center fails to live up to the boss's exacting standards. After getting angry about the young woman's failure to abide by the corporate motto, "The Meaning of Yes," Cloobeck confronts the woman's boss and gives a brief sermon on the need for more thorough training.

The lesson taken away from this incident -- training is important -- is very much in line with the show's morality, which replaces the concept of good with the concept of good corporate governance. But what call center has ever produced a genuinely satisfactory or personal customer experience? Call centers provide companies with economies of scale and customers with either an efficient albeit impersonal way to make a reservation or a Kafka-esque journey through the bugs of a company's booking software. The medium is the message and the message is: We hope you find this satisfactory enough to keep paying us money.

Cloobeck, it should be noted, is the Chairman of Brand USA, the organization tapped by Congress to promote the United States as a destination for international tourists. He describes this position as "like being the Tourism Minister" and speaks passionately about the work he does on America's behalf, including a campaign he's launching to make our borders friendlier.

"There is no reason our customs agents can't do what they have to do to protect our borders and smile at the same time," says Cloobeck, who wants the agents to say "Welcome to the US" to all international arrivals.

Like call centers, check points do not exist for the good of those using them, but for the good of the organization that pays their employees wages (in this case the US government). Conflating what is good for the consumer with what is good for the service provider is not only symptomatic of the non-luxury segment of the hospitality industry's move towards schematic thinking but also unlikely to create a more satisfying travel experience. It also distracts from those things that do make a difference.

During one segment of his "Undercover Boss" episode, Cloobeck joins a handyman working at his property in Williamsburg, Virginia. The man, a polite southerner, is overburdened with chores. A ceiling needs to be resurfaced, a water leak needs to be addressed. The C.E.O. scrubs and paints dutifully, but quickly bores and begins discussing the potential efficiency that could be achieved using better equipment. The C.E.O.'s new supervisor nods in agreement but seems loathe to pursue the issue.

He knows something the show doesn't. Neither good corporate governance nor friendliness is going to sand the ceiling.

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