The disappearing hotel: Where has all the service – and the butter – gone?


What makes a good hotel great is its customer service – human customer service. — MIKHAIL NILOV

After a full two years of idling rooms, dwindling guests, and shrinking services, hotels across Asia are turning on the fairy lights once again. Returning guests gratefully collapsing at the altar of this renewed five-star devotion would do well to examine the miracles of 2022 with a healthily jaundiced eye.

As with the nouvelle cuisine trap, the art of the restart revolves around the promise rather than any proffered tangibles. That one buttered pea rolling around your expensive bone china plate in an orgy of solitary ecstasy and the boast of a brand marquee that excites smartphone shutters, is considered enough to silence any dissenting murmurs.

But we do recall that 500-thread count linen in finest Egyptian cotton, the Bose surround sound, the Carrara marble that moans, “prego” every time you step on it with calloused feet, and the butler service (to turn on your taps): “I know naathing... I’m from Barthelona.”

Well, perhaps we might do the flamenco as someone explains to me why there is no master switch and only pre-set light combinations for “romance” or “welcome” or “mood”? Has long Covid reduced big spenders to morons? And do hotel designers ever try out their creations?

I may be an atypical traveller but I have never had my bath drawn or my shoes spirited away by some mysterious being using a valet box. I will admit some hotel toilets have had me flummoxed but, on the whole, I have managed with dignity and pride, even when at a luxury Singapore hotel, the 14 kinds of “handcrafted” butter from the Netherlands shrank alarmingly to just one foil-sealed Anchor butter pack with the morning eggs. Did the milkmaids’ hands just fall off with overwork?

I almost felt guilty for a moment but, for me, freshly baked bread without a giant slab of butter atop is just breakfast blasphemy of the worst sort.

I always loved the boldly advertised “handmade” burgers and wondered if there was any other way to get the job done without running over a moose repeatedly with a truck.

If you believe the world is just an illusion, I’d suggest starting your research at the closest luxury bolthole. Stuff has been disappearing from hotel menus, services, rooms, mini-bars, and tables faster than you could say “Gullible’s Travels”.

The pandemic has simply accelerated an ongoing trend.

After a few years of firing staff and eliminating service (as in quarantine hotels where guests wail and bang on doors attempting to escape clogged drains, armies of marching bed bugs, and hair balls that threaten to strike up a conversation), many hotels appear to have forgotten the basics.

My friends in Hong Kong despatched care parcels for isolated loved ones that included vacuum cleaners. This is “DIY-and-Pay” on an industrial scale.

Algorithms have overtaken human experience. Think cluster managers rather than dedicated managers (victims of the Experience equals Expense School of Management), and labyrinthine robocall menus (far more challenging than Sudoku) rather than humans on the help line.

Zero Covid-19 arrived with its grinning sidekick, Zero Service. This was manna from heaven for mega hotel corporations bloated and burdened with the massive mergers and acquisitions of the past few years. That’s a mountain of debt. It has resulted, not in the pursuit of excellence to win more customers, but in getting rid of happy employees (who smile), general managers (who know their guests’ favourite Scotch and preferred room), and bed turndowns.

Brands have been built on the simple human relationship between hotels and their customers. Take this away and all that’s left is the disappearing hardware and the ersatz decor.

New hotel economics is a bit like the health spa model that charges for not feeding you and then offers colonic irrigation with cheap coffee grinds rather than a decent cup of Joe, before seating you in 35°C weather at a fan-cooled restaurant where the humidity is so high you have to swim to your table. Then that perfect calorie-calibrated dinner of a single organic lettuce. I marvel at all the thought that has gone into this. No wonder it costs the Earth. I appreciate a level of care that slims both waists and wallets, expeditiously. Perhaps it’s true that less is more.

I, for one, dare not venture into a posh hotel lobby with Uniqlo deciding in 2022 to stock Hong Kong with trousers of a maximum length of just 76cm, a full 9cm too short for me. This perhaps reflects the exodus of exasperated foreigners from Hong Kong or is simply meant to mollify gangs of menacing midgets. Is this what is meant by a shrinking population?

So I resort to the Internet like some flushed peeping traveller. Nothing there. Hotel websites have gone minimal with boiler-plate descriptions. As one mega-brand explains, “It orchestrates an expe-rience that is expertly edited to leave only what is truly desired.” Make of that what you will.

Stuff is disappearing because some nitwit in an expensive Balenciaga outfit has arrived to “curate” your experience.

There is, however, the allure of Asian diversity. As one hotel in Manila, the Philippines puts it: “Enjoy a restorative night of sleep on your plush pillowtop bed.”

Its sister hotel in Taipei, Taiwan takes a different tack: “Sleep peacefully... thanks to a plush pillowtop mattress.” Shanghai, meanwhile, buzzes: “Slumber peacefully upon cosy pillowtop bedding.” We get the drift.

None mentions what kind of electric socket the bedroom uses nor the voltage nor the number of outlets nor whether the USB sockets are to be found bedside, nor the size of the safe, nor the price of a minibar beer. The sort of minutiae – that guests constantly ask puzzled desk clerks – simply does not fit into the grander Cecil B. DeMille brand illusion.

This infernal travel-clotting plague has been a midlife wake-up call for the hospitality industry. It is a klaxon they may disregard at their own peril. Just as there’s a fine line between genius and madness, there’s a razor margin separating brands and blah. Now as hotels stir to welcome guests again, many have apparently forgotten their old playbook. Indeed, fired staff are hard to reacquire with many having moved into other less volatile sectors.

One hotel with a solid staycation takeaway is the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. General manager Richard Greaves has worked with a trim team, mixing and matching people, often in an unlikely manner but with interesting results.

“Finance people are helping out at restaurants, in the pastry kitchen and with pool logistics,” he says. Marketing whizzes, bespectacled finance people, and CV-chasing HR folks have all pitched in to learn about what drives chefs wild with passion. Working out of the box has sparked a collective epiphany of sorts.

“This is not about procedure, it’s about getting products right,” Greaves told Smart Travel Asia. “It has fostered teamwork.”

Some good can come out of the Covid-19 slowdown then if hotels are listening to staff and guests. It is time to square with reality. Guests who became pariah in Covid-19 times (viewed as potential super spreaders rather than harbingers of dollars) need to be re-cultivated and staff need to be retrained for changing times.

Travellers must be held innocent until proven guilty. And general managers must be hired, empowered, and returned to the lobby to welcome the new faces. It’s called hospitality.

Vijay Verghese is a Hong Kong-based journalist, newspaper columnist and the editor of AsianConversations.com and SmartTravelAsia.com.

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