Luxury hotels are losing their sense of privacy.(Shutterstock)
There are now more luxury hotels in the world than ever before. Part of the reason for the growth in the deluxe hotel sector is the prosperity of the 21st Century. But I still think that global demand for luxury hotel rooms is slightly below the supply. So the battle for guests can be cut-throat. Moreover luxury hotels are faced with the big problem that worries all hoteliers. Given that the basic five star hotel (say a Sheraton or a Hilton) is more than adequate to fulfil the average guest’s needs, how do you get him (or her) to spend up to 80% more for a room at a deluxe property?
Some answers are self-evident. Guests will pay more for location, spectacular views, high staff-to-guest ratios, history, branding, heritage, and larger room sizes.
But that’s not enough. So hotels have targeted frequent travellers whose custom they want to retain. These guests can be expected to become regulars and guarantee a certain level of business and prestige for the hotel.
But how do you retain these guests? One answer is personalisation. Research shows that nearly all guests like being recognised, enjoy having their preferences remembered and feel pleased when staff address them by their names rather than as just ‘sir’ or ‘madam’.
So far, so good. But hotels also believe – foolishly — that they must offer unnecessary extra services and pointless gestures if they are to please important guests and win their loyalty. In my view, many of these so-called extra services and rituals are no more than a nuisance and yet so many hotels continue to offer them blindly and unthinkingly.
Here is my list of useless so-called VIP services.
* The rose-petal bath: At many hotels, housekeeping staff will be instructed to fill the bath every evening with cold water and perfumed bath salts or bubbly foam. Then they will scatter numerous rose petals on top of the water.
I have never understood why this is regarded as a VIP privilege. The average guest does not go to the bathroom much in the evening (and the rose-petal bath is an evening ritual) .So the guest only barely registers that there are flowers in his or her bath.
But the following morning, if the guest intends to use the bath-tub, he or she is massively inconvenienced. He or she has to a) drain the bath and remove every petal by hand or b) call housekeeping and get someone to clean the bath.
No guest enjoys having to spend precious time each morning cleaning his or her own bath-tub or crouching in front of it to remove every last petal. And nobody has the time to phone housekeeping, and wait for somebody to come and clean the tub — a process that usually takes half an hour from the time you call the housekeeping department.
Why destroy so many beautiful roses by tearing their petals off when all you achieve is to irritate your guest?
* The ritual welcome: It is true that the welcome is the most important part of the guest experience. If you feel ignored when you arrive at a hotel or if the check-in process is impersonal or takes too long then the chances are that you will be predisposed to hate the hotel. So hotels should expend a lot of effort getting the welcome right.
Unfortunately — especially in India — we often go to the other extreme. A foreigner visiting an Indian hotel for the first time may be pleased to be greeted with a garland of flowers, an aarti and a teeka placed on his forehead. And at certain hotels – say the palace hotels of Rajasthan — the arrival experience (dancers, petals showered on you from the roof, musicians etc.) is an important component of the stay.
But at most city hotels, guests just want to be recognised, welcomed and then led to their rooms with a minimum of fuss. They do not want to be garlanded and greeted with a load of touristy mumbo-jumbo. They certainly don’t want teekas, bouquets of flowers, shawls and garlands. They have to wash the teeka off before they go for their meetings and the bouquet is usually chucked aside. (If you want to give flowers to your guest, put them in a vase in the room.)
Yet so many deluxe hotels have these pointless rituals down as part of their Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).
* Can there be anything sillier and more wasteful than the fruit basket? All five star hotels believe they should welcome regulars with a basket of fruit. Hardly anyone ever eats this fruit. And the hotel must know that guests will not eat it. Otherwise why would they put a pineapple in the basket? Or a dragon fruit? These are not fruits (like say, an apple) that you can bite into or slice quickly yourself. They are included in fruit baskets only because they make the basket seem more lavish or impressive.
Every single hotel regular I know has stopped noticing the fruit basket. Guests regard it as part of the furniture, never bother to pick anything from it and are mildly annoyed when the bell rings each day and a staff member says he is there to replace the basket. There is nothing more pointless than somebody taking away an untouched fruit basket each day and replacing it with a new fruit basket which will also remain untouched.
The same is true of many other so-called “welcome amenities”. Nobody is thrilled to find a cellophane-wrapped cardboard box of dirty, disgusting chocolates made several weeks ago by the hotel company’s flight kitchen in the room. And you would have to be very desperate to drink the cheap and nasty (but ‘imported’) and (often) oxidised wine that hotels leave in your room as a ‘VIP amenity.’
Speaking for myself, I judge hotels by how well the amenities have been thought out. A mindless fruit basket, a box of flight kitchen chocolates and an old bottle of Oxford Landing or its equivalent, suggest that nobody in the hotel is thinking very much about meeting guest expectations.
* Most luxury hotels now have airport reps to greet you on arrival. Some of them are very good and on the whole, airport reps are a good idea because they ease your way through the airport (especially if they can get inside the domestic arrivals section and help with luggage) and the luxury experience starts from the time you land.
Unfortunately hotels now think it is a good idea to send staff members to the airport to receive guests. These staff members then drive into the city with you. For both, guests and staff members, this is sheer torture because they have to make strained conversation with each other and after ten minutes, both parties run out of things to say.
Moreover, most guests at luxury hotels are busy people who, when they get off flights, need to reply to mails and make urgent phone calls. The drive to the hotel should give them the opportunity to do that in peace. Instead they are stuck trying to make conversation with a stranger and are awkward about making calls and having sensitive conversations on the phone when there is a staff member in the front seat trying to entertain them.
* Butlers: Some luxury hotels like the idea of butlers because they serve as the hotel’s insurance policy. A butler becomes the guest’s sole point of contact with the rest of the hotel. There is no danger of the guest calling laundry and having to wait half an hour for somebody to come to collect his or her clothes. The guest never has to phone room service or to worry if they will get the order wrong. The butler handles all that. (Some luxury chains, on the other hand – the Four Seasons, for example — are not keen on butlers, arguing that in a deluxe hotel, every department should personalise the experience.)
Indian guests are better at coping with butlers than foreigners because we are used to having domestic staff around at home. But at too many Indian hotels, butlers have become so intrusive that guests lose all sense of privacy. A good hotel will train a butler to serve a room service meal and then leave. But at Indian hotels, butlers hang around while guests eat, eavesdrop on conversations, and make everyone feel awkward.
At one hotel last month, I was having a private conversation with my guest over a room service dinner when the butler, who had been lurking near the door, jumped in and took it upon himself to offer his own opinions on the subject. I respect his opinions but I think guests should be allowed to have their own conversations without interruption .Or eavesdropping, for that matter.
Many foreign guests find butlers at Indian hotels intrusive to the extent that Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s communications boss, wrote in his diary (later published) that he believed that his butler (at a Delhi hotel where the British PM’s entourage stayed), was an informant for India’s Intelligence Bureau. Why else, asked Campbell, was he always hanging around?
Any Indian guest knows the answer. The butler was no spy. He was just providing what the hotel regarded as super-efficient service for VIP guests.
Hotels find it difficult to train butlers because few of them stick around for long. No hotel employee wants to die a butler and most hotels do not have promotion policies for butler-level staff.So they all jump ship, and the hotel has to train a new lot all over again.Consequently many butlers are inexperienced or insufficiently trained.
So what would I prefer deluxe hotels to do? Well, it boils down to two things. One: rethink those idiotic VIP rituals from the fruit basket to the flowers-in-the-bathtub. And two: leave guests more on their own. There is a thin line between pampering a guest and infringing on his privacy and annoying him.
And all too often, hotels do not know where that line is.