The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: This is what a bad hotel experience feels like
Whenever I write about a hotel or a restaurant that I like, I am prepared for the usual response. “Ah, but they knew who you were so naturally you had a good time!” It is not an unreasonable objection and I nearly always try to take that factor into account.
Sometimes I fall back on the argument offered by Gault Millau, who were famous French food critics in the 1980s. When asked how they could review restaurants when everyone in the business recognised them, they said: “It is always possible to get a bad meal in a good restaurant. In fact, it happens all the time and one must take that into account. But it is never, ever possible to get a good meal in a bad restaurant.”
Gault Millau were right. And it’s as true of hotels as it is of restaurants. Yes, it does make a difference at a hotel if they know you are from the media. There is a warm and effusive greeting from a senior member of the staff when you arrive. You get a large fruit basket. They upgrade you to a better class of room. Some Guest Relations Person calls to check that everything is all right. If there is an occasion or you are there for a celebration, then they will make a special effort.
But what happens when a hotel knows that you are writing about it and does nearly all of the above? And you still have a terrible stay?
Well then, I reckon, it has to be a really badly managed hotel.
Let me give you the example of The Yeatman in Porto where I stayed last week. This is often described as Porto’s best hotel. It is not cheap and is truly beautiful. So I had great expectations of the hotel especially as standards of luxury in Portugal are high. Last year I stayed at the Ritz in Lisbon and the outstanding Penha Longa on the coast and was wowed by both. The Portuguese are among the nicest, most hospitable people in Europe.
I made my booking at The Yeatman through Relais & Chateaux, an organisation of independently managed small hotels which has a reputation for outstanding quality. I have never ever been disappointed by a Relais & Chateaux property.
Relais & Chateau have me down on their computer as a journalist so they passed this on to The Yeatman. And I got a great deal. They upgraded me to deluxe room, threw in airport transfers, placed a huge basket of fruit in my room and ensured that I was warmly greeted by the manager on duty when I arrived. It was my wife’s birthday so when we had dinner at the hotel’s two Michelin star restaurant, they surprised her with a cake.
So far, so good.
But no matter how hard it wants to make an effort, a bad hotel always gives itself away because the attitude of the staff is never right. Rarely is it a single big thing that goes wrong. Usually it is an aggregation of small things that add up till they ruin the experience. It’s never that the hotel wants to be bad to you; it’s just that they can’t help themselves.
I first began to get uneasy when I complained on arrival that the minibar in my room was not working. A man came to look at it and declared that it was fine. I showed him how warm all the bottles in the bar were.
He shrugged. “You can call room service if you want cold drinks”, he said indifferently.”Or get some ice.”
Then, there were the adventures with housekeeping. Every day, the routine would be different. Sometimes, they would draw the blinds during night service. Sometimes they would not. Sometimes they would leave a bottle of water in the room (the hotel only gives guests one free bottle of water a day for two guests; you pay if you want any more). Sometimes they would not bother to leave any water at all. If you had put clothes in the cupboard, they would place a pile of bed linen on top of them so you would be nonplussed trying to work out what happened to the clothes you had put aside.
Room service was as unpredictable. There was no sense in which the staff were trained to work in a luxury hotel. If you ordered eggs for breakfast, they forgot to put salt on the tray. They brought it when you called to complain but by then the eggs had congealed.
Orders were frequently misunderstood. On one occasion I asked for chopped raw onion and lemon (as a caviar garnish; the caviar was my own). They forgot about the lemon and brought me a plate of stewed onion rings.I put it down to language problems though any luxury hotel in India (let alone one of the most expensive hotels in Portugal) will know at least a little about caviar service. And the lemon wedges? They simply forgot.
I don’t want to make too much about the caviar (though if you have a Michelin two star restaurant and your entry level room rate is over Rs 30,000 per day, and rises to several lakhs then you should understand luxury) but worse was to follow. We then went down to dinner and asked room service to clear the dirty plates and glasses .Nobody came. We went to the reception and asked them to remind room service.
We returned to our room to fine the dirty plates untouched. Housekeeping had come and gone and not bothered to clear the tray. Room Service had not turned up either.
If you are in the hotel business, then you will recognise what all these little things add up to: a badly managed property with no service standards for the staff.
You could tell this from the way in which staff interacted with guests in the lobby. They visibly strived to avoid eye-contact, nobody smiled, wished you good morning or even acknowledged guests. There was a curious air of couldn’t-give-a-damn about the staff.
None of this would matter if this was a two star hotel. But at a luxury property at those room rates? Hoteliers will tell you how unforgivable this is at those prices.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by how they handled my departure. I paid the bill the night before and fixed the time for the airport transfer.
Except that when it was time to check out, they took 25 minutes to send a man to collect the bags. By now I was tense because I was scared of missing the flight. We finally got to the lobby and asked about the car for the transfer.
Nobody had a clue.
The two reception desks were dealing with other guests but, in our panic, we interrupted anyway to ask about the car.
Had we booked it? The man at the desk seemed curiously detached.
Yes, last night.
Oh, it must have been somebody else on duty, he said. I wasn’t here.
The American lady, who we had interrupted when she was in the process of checking out, looked at us sympathetically. “Everything is very slow at this hotel,” she said.
Fifteen minutes later, a taxi drove up. “This is your taxi” said the doorman.
“Er, actually no,” I said. We have a hotel transfer.
“No, you take this taxi. The hotel has paid for it.” The doorman said.
Convinced that we were going to miss our flight, we got into the taxi anyway.
We finally reached the airport only 40 minutes before departure. As I struggled to get the bags on the trolley and rush to the counter, the driver said: “What about my payment?”
“Oh, I am sorry” I said. “I thought the hotel has paid you.”
“No,” he said. “Nobody has paid me.”
I paid him, rushed to the counter where – there is a God after all! --- the flight was delayed and we were able to get on.
All this is doubly sad because The Yeatman is a lovely hotel. There is nothing wrong with the hardware. It is the level of service that lets it down. The screwups covered nearly every department (front office, maintenance, housekeeping, room service, etc.) though the Concierge was a happy exception. So it is clear that the problem is with the management itself. This is just an incredibly badly managed hotel.
So, for all those who say that I can’t judge hotels because they know that I am a journo, here is proof that a bad hotel will always reveal itself. There is no way you can you have a good meal in a bad restaurant and no way you can have a good stay in a bad hotel.
We spent two lakhs (including the birthday dinner but excluding other lunches or dinners) over four days at The Yeatman. At no stage did we feel that we were in a luxury property. There were just too many little—and not so little — things that kept adding up.
I don’t suppose most Indians will go to Porto. But if you do, please don’t make the mistake I did.
Choose your hotel wisely.