Lords of Strangers

Hotels have been on my mind lately – mostly due to their proliferation in Savannah. The city is in the unique position of having a historic downtown that is a tourist destination. To satiate the demand of these visitors, over 4,000 hotel rooms have been built within close proximity to the Historic Landmark District.

I began thinking about the word “host” as it has a variety of interpretations. From what I can tell as an amateur etymologist, the Latin word hospitem which means “lord of strangers.” Hospitem was the root for both “host” and “hospitality”.

How can one be a master of strangers? The stranger is one who is not related through family or social connections. This lack of knowledge, ambiguity, and formlessness define my mental image of strangers. Indeed, further reading on the origin for the word “guest” reveals this:

the root sense, according to Watkins, probably is “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality,” representing “a mutual exchange relationship highly important to ancient Indo-European society.” But as strangers are potential enemies as well as guests, the word has a forked path.

Savannah’s history of accommodating visitors goes back to the earliest days of its settlement. One of the original buildings on Johnson square was a “house for strangers.” As a port city, these strangers have continued to come and go for over 280 years.

What I find most fascinating about the modern hotel business is the diversity of types of lodging available. The 4,000 rooms in Savannah’s core are spread over thirty separate properties. In addition, there are dozens of inns, vacation rentals, and room-sharing options available. An attempt to fully catalog the full array of options available to a visitor would be a serious challenge.

This is at least partly because of the deep roots of the meaning of hospitality. In a high demand location, like Savannah, hosts can tailor the amenities of their properties to reflect the desires and tastes of potential guests. In this way, the hospitality sector acts like a cultural mirror of the guests.

Some of the variety in lodging options can be explained by purely capitalistic reasons (price and market segmentation). However, when the potential visitor faces such a huge variety of options, her final decision will undoubtedly be influenced by unspoken expectations and intuition. Embedded in this decision are thoughts about safety, comfort, and compatibility. I believe that the host’s ability to connect on this psychological level is critical to the success of the property.