My first experience of `VIP service’ in a luxury hotel probably happened some 20 years ago, when `customization’ didn’t used to be such a thing.
I was checking into the sprawling Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi palace hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when I noticed something very strange. A member of the hotel staff who was hovering in the background had quietly taken my picture with a Polaroid camera.
I was so stunned by the beauty of the hotel at the time (the size of a kingdom and set amidst verdant, green rice fields) that the incident completely slipped my mind. Later on, however, I noticed that every staff member I came across during my stay, from housekeeper to gardener, was not greeting me as `Madam’ but `Miss Dutt’.
That explained why my photo had been quietly taken. Before I could even be escorted to the bungalow assigned to me (with its own private pool, and sauna and massage room — none of which I was paying for), the entire hotel staff had a copy of my picture and had memorized my name on it!
Talk about personalization…
• Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi: Before I could even reach the bungalow assigned to me, the entire hotel staff had a copy of my picture and had memorized my name on it!
Thanks to the prosperity of the 21st Century, there are more luxury hotels in the world now than ever before, and personalization has become more commonplace than 20 years ago.
Given that the basic five-star hotel (say a Sheraton or a Hilton) is more than adequate to fulfill the average guest’s needs, luxury properties have to go above and beyond to justify the huge tariffs they charge for a room on their deluxe premises.
And so they `bespoke’ the whole luxury experience from start to finish.
Research shows that nearly all guests like being recognized, enjoy having their preferences remembered and feel pleased when the staff address them by their names rather than as just ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.
So far, so good. But hotels also believe – quite mistakenly in my opinion — that they must offer some unnecessary extra services if they are to ensure guest loyalty. Many of these attempts at over-personalization are no more than a nuisance, and yet so many deluxe hotels have them down as part of their Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).
Here are some of the bespoke luxury amenities that, over the years, I have really come to hate:
# 1: 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. 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 bathe much in the evening (and the rose-petal bath is an evening ritual).
But the following morning, when the guest does intend to use the bathtub, he is massively inconvenienced. He has to a) drain the bath himself and remove every petal by hand or b) call housekeeping and get someone to clean the bath.
• Rose Petal Bath: Why destroy so many beautiful roses by tearing their petals off when all you achieve is to irritate your guest?
No guest enjoys having to spend precious time each morning cleaning his own bathtub 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?
# 2: THE BUTLER
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 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 personalize the experience.)
• Butler Service: Some luxury hotels like the idea of butlers because they serve as the hotel’s insurance policy
But as hard as I have tried, I’ve found that I can never relax in the constant company of a butler who walks in an out as he pleases, fusses with services I will never use, watches me eat my room service and eavesdrops on my conversations, whether he wants to or not.
# 3: THE FRUIT BASKET
Can there be anything more wasteful in a hotel room than an untouched fruit basket?
All deluxe hotels believe they should welcome regulars with a basket of fruit. But virtually nobody ever eats them.
I suspect that the hotel must know that guests will not eat the fruit. Otherwise, why would they put a large, prickly pineapple in the basket? Or an uncut dragon fruit? These are not fruits 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.
I’m also 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.
# 4: THE WELCOME AMENITIES
The same is true of many other so-called “welcome amenities”. Nobody is thrilled to find a cellophane-wrapped cardboard box of disgustingly stale 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 and (often) oxidized wine that hotels leave in your room as a ‘VIP amenity’.
• Welcome Amenities: Few guests are thrilled to find a decorative platter of stale chocolates made several weeks ago by the hotel company’s flight kitchen in the room
# 5: THE AIRPORT RECEIVER
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 and the luxury experience starts from the time you land.
Unfortunately hotels now think it is also 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, 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 emails 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.
So what would I prefer deluxe hotels to do?
Well, it boils down to two things. One: rethink the pointless VIP rituals from the fruit basket to the flowers-in-the-bathtub. And two: leave guests a little 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 seem to know where that line is.