Here is a story about a hotel I stayed in last week. I write this in Thailand where I am shooting a new show. As part of the schedule, we went to Koh Chang, one of the most beautiful and relatively undiscovered parts of the country. The production company booked us all into a resort run by a leading Thai chain.
Clearly, the management had been told to accord good treatment to a TV crew that might end up featuring the hotel and, therefore, give it some free publicity. We were tired after an eight-hour journey from the south of Thailand when we checked in and though I was led to what I imagined was one of the hotel’s better suites, I asked if I could have a room instead. The suite was only accessible through a spiral staircase which had got slippery with the rain. No problem, they said. So, I put my bags down in the one-room cottage they shifted me to and we went off to dinner at an open-air buffet restaurant on the property.
The buffet did not look exciting so I asked to see the menu. No problem, they repeated smilingly. But as the steward arrived to take my order, I noticed with mounting horror that a stray cat had jumped on to the buffet table and was going from one serving dish to the other. Obviously, it was more excited by the buffet than I had been.
I drew the manager’s attention to the rapid conversion of his buffet into cat food. He went and shooed the cat away. Then, he declared he was ready to take my order. But what about the plates that the cat had snuck its mouth into? Wasn’t he going to replace the food? Oh no, he said, he was sure the cat hadn’t eaten very much. With mounting unease, I ordered my meal. I got even more uneasy when I noticed that he was refusing to write anything down. “Oh, don’t worry, I remember,” he assured me.
You can guess what happened. He got the order completely wrong. When I pointed this out, he got aggressive. “Yes, you did order it,” he said angrily. I tried remonstrating and explaining that not only had I not ordered some of the things he thought I had, he had also forgotten to bring two dishes that I had actually asked for. Finally, somebody senior from the management came along and stopped him and we ate our meal in peace, keeping a watchful eye for any feline diners who might choose to join us.
I returned to my room and tried the DVD player. After failing to get it to work for 20 minutes, I called for help. The technician spent another 10 minutes and gave up. He went off and returned with a new player. This didn’t work either. So, he wandered off to find a third player. And so on. By then, I was ready to sleep anyway. It must have rained heavily that night because when I woke up I found that the roof had leaked and my handbag, clothes and iPod were all soaked. After I had tried to wipe off the water and set them out to dry, I called room service for a coffee and something to eat. “No sir,” said the lady at the other end. “Our waiters are very busy till 11am. So, we don’t serve anything in the rooms.”
I was already late for a shoot so I threw my wet clothes into a suitcase and checked out. I met two other members of my crew at reception. One of them said that his air-conditioning hadn’t worked and in two rooms, the power had failed for three hours at night. (No generators had kicked in.)
The general manager then arrived, mortified that a TV crew which he had hoped might feature his hotel, was leaving in disgust. What could he do to make up? Would we like a free massage? We made our excuses and left.
So, what is it that you think went so wrong? By the standards of the hotel industry, we were high-profile guests marked out for special attention because it was important to impress us. How could they have screwed up so badly? Perhaps if I had taken the luxury villa they originally offered, the roof may not have leaked. But everything else was just an example of utter incompetence. If this is how they treat high-profile guests booked in by TV companies, what happens to the average punter?
I have a theory, which applies equally to restaurants and hotels. It is possible to have a bad experience at a good hotel. Remember that in the average hotel, 200 different guests have individual experiences every day in rooms and restaurants. The law of averages suggests that at least some of these guests will be the victims of screw ups. In very good hotels, there will be very few screw ups. But nothing in life is absolutely perfect, so yes, some people will be disappointed. The test of a good hotel is how it makes up for its mistakes.
But, you can never ever have a good stay at a bad hotel. No matter whether your name appears on some VIP list or whether the general manager arrives at the porch to open your car door and greet you at check-in, a bad hotel will always screw up. The staff will be poorly trained (like the guy who refused to write down the order, got it wrong, and then got aggressive), hygiene standards will be poor (God alone knows how many guests found cat whiskers in their green curry), maintenance will suck (the leaking roof), nobody will check the room fittings (the faulty DVD players) and staff will be lazy (the general manager assured me that they do actually serve breakfast in rooms – when the staff can be bothered to). No amount of sucking up can mask sheer incompetence.
So, what do guests do? How do we choose hotels to avoid being subjected to screw up after screw up? Some people use the Net and check guest comments. This may work for some of you but in my experience it has never served as a reliable indicator. There has been controversy over the way in which some such advice sites operate but what you need to remember is this: the people to whom these comments should matter the most – hotel managements at up-market properties – don’t worry too much about them. The bulk of their business is corporate and corporate clients rarely go on the Internet to complain about service.
Another method is to trust media reviewers. This makes some sense but is subject to an obvious handicap. When I visit a restaurant or a hotel, I am often conscious of not getting the same experience as other guests because I have been recognised. The same, I imagine, is true of other travel and food writers. On the other hand, if I have a really bad experience despite being recognised, then it does tell you something about the calibre of the establishment.
These days, when I am travelling abroad and do not know individual properties well, I tend to rely on the reputations of the big American chains. Not every Starwood property is perfect but I still pick Starwood hotels because the chances of things going wrong are relatively minimal. In recent years, I have been impressed by Hyatt (this column is being written in the excellent Grand Hyatt in Bangkok) where the service and food are consistent.
The only reliable method, of course, is to ask locals. They always know, better than anyone else, what the best hotels in their cities are. They will tell you if standards have dropped or if a hotel is living off a reputation based on past glories. ITC’s Nakul Anand, the most cerebral hotelier I know, always reviews sales figures at coffee shops at his hotels. His reasoning is that the coffee shop is the hotel’s link with the local community. When coffee shop sales fall, it means that locals are giving up on the hotel. Because Nakul understands numbers better than the rest of us, he has worked out a formula to demonstrate how a drop in coffee shop sales always, but always, leads to a drop in room occupancy with a time lag of a few months.
But of course, there is no surefire prescription. Sometimes you will have wonderful experiences at cheap, out-of-the-way hotels that nobody has ever heard of. And sometimes the world’s greatest hotels will relieve you of your money and then treat you like dirt. Sadly, that is the way of the world.
From HT Brunch, October 6
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