The use of the term ‘hospitality’ is on the rise again as the hotel and restaurant industry seeks to change its image by putting the focus back on human connection in the overall guest experience. Beyond the array of imagery it evokes, the issue is about understanding how the concept has evolved and what it really means today, in connection with the field of tourism and leisure.

From the original concept…

Hospitality appears to be an anthropological practice that, since antiquity, has been inspired by the sacredness of the host to express a certain philosophy of welcoming others (Bieltot, 2019).

The guest embodies the person who is from another place, the bearer of difference capable of mediating between two worlds: his or her world of origin and the world of the host. In the Odyssey, the songs of Homer’s epic describe welcoming ceremonies in which every guest is welcomed a priori and anonymously. Rituals of giving unconditionally and freely (care, food, pleasure) precede the presentation of identity and the suspicion that may follow. The ethics of hospitality are then based on the commitment to voluntary action and benevolence without immediate return, towards a stranger (the distant, different, unsettling, allegorised figure of the divine or of absolute otherness), not limited by the respect of other pre-codified rules (Scherer, 1993). The question of returning can be considered on any level other than that of the here and now, such as the existence of symbolic counterparts, as may underlie the logic of the Maussian gift-exchange process (Mauss, 1950). Another revealing ambiguity is the question of who gives to whom between the host (the one who provides hospitality) and the guest (the one to whom hospitality is provided), when giving is receiving, in such a way as to invert the symbolic payment and thereby euphemise the debt.

This practice, which has become an institution, is a moral duty inspired by an unspoken law (Bieltot, 2019), halfway between a human and divine calling of hospitality, offers the advantage of transforming the distant and even the enemy (ostis) into guest (hospes), who has become near (the neighbour) and dear. Through archaic praxis, rites and unaccountable pacts, the hospitable process of converting the distant into the near is reflected in the French word hôte, which has a double connotation. It can refer to both the host and the guest, and the equality of status, translated by the Latin verb hostire meaning to reciprocate, to put two equal individuals on the same level, brought together by the meeting of the external universe of one with the internal universe of the other, for a common space, that of the open encounter towards possible friendship (Bieltot, 2019). By replacing fears of the stranger with the joys of welcoming him or her, hospitality appeared to be above all a joyous way of existing (Scherer, 1993). In the modern era, the rules of hospitality changed with the rise of the commodification of the economy, in connection with greater mobility and the frequency of fairs.

Domestic reception is reaching its limits in the face of a flow that is now too abundant.

Moreover, although hospitality seems to be an elementary gesture of sociability, it requires a demanding ethical stance when providing hospitality amounts to showing trust in a stranger, i.e. the unknown. This position risks depriving oneself of security and experiencing breaches of intimacy which are not often, or systematically, exposed (Sarthou-Lajus, 2008; Gotman, 2001).

These constraints explain why time limits for stays are de rigueur. The three-day rule is common in many cultures with the saying: ‘Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days’. Etiquette certainly requires one to say ‘make yourself at home’ which, while it puts the host in a lower position to better honour the guest, is also a reminder that the visitor is not at home.

Three symbolic days therefore define the golden rules to avoid any abuse — including a time to welcome, a time to stay and a time to leave (Montandon, 2002, 2008).

To overcome the limits of volume and time, inns, and later post houses, taverns and cabarets, and eventually hotels, introduced new ways of understanding hospitality. Hospitality became commercial and organised outside the private sphere, in places temporarily taken as ‘one’s own’.

Based on commercial transaction, hospitality in the original sense was lost through the disappearance of its moral intention. Instant generosity dissipated, in the most sophisticated and elite establishments, for a courteous and gratifying form of reception removed from the very foundation of hospitality — welcoming the other — in an exclusive location which cultivated the idea of being amongst one’s own kind (the luxury hotel). In terms of ‘care’, hospitals, asylums and hospices would take over in providing for the public, supported through social welfare. Efficient, egalitarian, inclusive but cold, this other form of dehumanised hospitality came about at the cost of anonymising and standardising social relationships, which were nonetheless fundamental, removing the idea of giving and compassion (Bieltot, 2019).

Ill. 1. L’Hospitalité, by Charlet, Nicolas-Toussaint, engraving, 1830 (CCØ Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris.)

…to its reinterpretation

The idea of accommodations built for the sole purpose of hosting guests did not exist in Europe until the 18th century, when technological advances and the introduction of faster and more reliable modes of transport made long-distance travel accessible to a wider public, which was soon converted to tourism with the advent of recreational travel (Seydoux, 1984). With the influx of many foreigners and migrants in major cities in the West, the need for accommodation led to the first hotels in the modern sense of the term (e.g., grand hotel, luxury hotel, transit hotel), while the grand resort hotel was invented in holiday resort locations.

Since then, the hotel industry has experienced almost uninterrupted growth and international expansion, making its mark on a wider ecosystem and bringing together complementary and dependent stakeholders, all of whom are uniquely able to provide an increasingly personalised ‘experiential’ commercial service, designed to reduce physical (bringing people together, enabling them to live in a given place), social (interacting) and cultural (educating) distance.

The notion of bringing together the near and the far, the familiar and the foreign, the individual and otherness, reconnects with the essence of hospitality, when it comes to offering concepts of living spaces known for ‘mixing’ and conviviality, where locals and visitors can come into contact.

From digression to transgression, the ecosystem in question has become, through metonymic effect from American academia (Cornell essentially), self-proclaimed ‘hospitality’, specifically bringing together the hotel, restaurant, event and theme park markets.

This term, which fundamentally connotes the welcoming of active and fervent otherness, makes it possible to ennoble and elevate sub-industries that are often tarnished by the notion of servitude (Barnu and Hamouche, 2014) applied to those who work there. It also evokes the centrality of the human being, within an industry that had to detach itself from aseptic standardisation and forget the dehumanisation partially brought on by digitalisation. Finally, the ideas strongly associated with it create a break with the conservatism fought against in the hotel and restaurant industry (which had little appeal for younger generations) in reviving its original values, and even surpassing them. The emphasis on benevolence, shared experience, a ‘warm’ welcome and service, conviviality, interest in the other, and care go along with the leitmotiv, ‘merchants of happiness’, with the challenge, no doubt, of always keeping one’s promise and sincerely and authentically embodying the role (Illouz, 2019).

‘The hospitable organization must extend hospitality not only to its guests, but also to its employees, understanding their wants and needs and delivering them in a safe environment, with dignity.’

King, 1995, What is hospitality? p. 232

In France the term hospitalité was adopted, modelled on the Anglo-Saxon definition, to define the boundaries, principles and meaning of a whole ecosystem in search of an enhanced and rewarding societal identity.

Gwenaëlle Grefe and Dominique Peyrat-Guillard


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