Dear Hotel Owner,
This article was first published in Harpers & Queen in 1989.
Ever since becoming Travel Editor of Harpers & Queen, I have felt increasingly sorry for the rich. During my earlier impecunious travels, I had fantasised about celebrated hotels, imagining that a healthy bank-balance would buy entry into a world of glamour, luxury, and romance. But now that I have access to these hotels, I have discovered that they are almost never glamorous or romantic, and that they rarely offer any genuine luxury.
So I am writing a letter to explain my disappointment. Many hotels won’t be interested because they often make their money from undemanding group tours. But here are some recommendations for any hotel owners or managers who are still interested in individual travellers.
Let’s start with a most important feature: the bedroom. Although it may be difficult, you must somehow avoid the usual impression that your hotel is little more than a collection of sleeping-units. The first quality one notices is space. So many bedrooms, especially in chain hotels (including the grandest) are cramped, because their size has been dictated by an accountant’s defence of profit margins.
There should be space for an armchair, (in fact ideally two, with a small round table in between) so that guests can read in their own room. There should be space for enough hangers and drawers (astonishing that this needs mentioning, but frequently there isn’t). There should also be space to walk a few steps, and space, for a desk accompanied a chair that actually fits it.
And while I have this opportunity to carp, let me mention one very small detail. I would be happier if the top of this desk and every other surface wasn’t covered with pop-up advertisements for the Alpine Evening in the Rotisserie. All this information, along with far more useful items (often missing) such as the local telephone book, can be kept next to the telephone.
The telephone’s usual place is by the bed, but this is not sufficient: there should also be one on the desk. When making a call, travellers often need to lay out papers or make notes; this is impossible when uncomfortably perched on the edge of a bed.
A double bed should be a double bed – definitely not, as my honeymooning friends usually encounter, two beds pushed together.
The sheets must, must be made of pure cotton or linen. When touring the West Indies, I found that not one of my hotels (some of them costing several hundred pounds a night) possessed pure cotton sheets. Most were the usual mixture of cotton and polyester, which feels all very fine when you first get into bed, but you end up with the sensation of sleeping in a plastic bag.
Why don’t any of the colleges or textbooks for hotel managers point out one of the simplest needs of their customers – that bedroom lights should be strong enough to read by, and high enough not to cause shadows?
A spreading bad habit is the use of artificial stuffing in pillows. This is almost universal in the Third World, even in the most expensive hotels. The only really comfortable stuffing is pure down or down and feather (though I accept that artificial stuffing should be available for those who need it for health reasons).
Another increasing problem is the deliberately sealed window. Because I was unable to open my window in the Nairobi Hilton, I was obliged to use the air-conditioning, even though the outside climate was perfect. The hiss from the air-conditioning kept me awake all night. When conditioners break down, as sometimes happens, then a sealed room turns into an oxygenless prison.
Complete peace is an essential feature of an acceptable bedroom; yet it is surprisingly rare in large, luxury hotels. As well as being blighted by the dreaded hum of air-conditioning and often the construction of a new wing (if you haven’t been warned, demand a price reduction) one’s room always seems to be above the kitchen, extractor, delivery yard, boiler, or discotheque.
While on the subject of silence, let me mention so many travellers pet hate: background music. This menace is on the increase, and there is almost no escape. Before you protest on behalf of those who like background music, let me explain that comparatively few of them positively like it: their pleasure is passive. But for those who dislike it, the pain is positively excruciating. You should therefore conduct a straw-poll of your customers, and if more than a third dislikes the music, then you should ban it.
Let me stress that classical music is not more acceptable. In many ways, it is worse. Those who love classical music are tormented by hearing it played at the wrong volume, and at a time they have not chosen.
In the right place, and at the right time, live music is sometimes welcome – perhaps in a cocktail bar before dinner. It is always less depressing than recorded music. Please don’t though, allow any type of music into the dining room. Above all, not at breakfast.
I have noticed that in direct proportion to the cutting down of amenities that we really want, your hotels are increasing their gimmicks. On being offered a choice, I would rather have a pillow that was soft, instead of a ribbon of paper around the lavatory seat proclaiming it to have been ‘sanitised’ for my convenience. I would prefer to have a telephone at the desk, instead of an impossible-to-eat pineapple wrapped in yellow cellophane. I would prefer to have fast room-service, instead of a chocolate on my pillow – though some say that the chocolate is there to maintain your strength, while waiting for the room service.
And this service is the greatest disappointment. Most of us have perfectly nice bedrooms at home, far more adapted to our needs than anything in a hotel; but we do not have the luxury of room service. That’s one reason for going away.
In any hotel of pretensions, room service should be available all round the clock. For it is at unsocial hours that we are most likely to need it. If, for instance, one wants a snack during the daytime, this can usually be bought in the local town, but at night this is usually impossible.
A friend whose flight had been delayed arrived ravenous at the celebrated Gritti Hotel in Venice. But her request for a cup of soup in her suite was refused, because no hot food could be served after 11 pm. The hotel was charging her £650 a night, excluding breakfast.
The litmus test of a superior hotel is the speed of its room service – usually, alas, too slow. There is little joy in toast that has gone stale, or a Bloody Mary when all the ice has melted.
The decline in the standards of service is at its most marked in the case of laundry. Until recently, especially in the Third World, you could get your clothes back on the same day, and if not, on the next; and women could always get a dress quickly pressed. But now, even in the poorer countries, where thousands are waiting for any employment, the laundry often takes several days. A friend who made a snorkelling tour of the West Indies was unable to get his laundry done even once, because he never stayed longer than three days in one place. In the New Stanley in Nairobi (much used by tourists in brief transit from a safari trip), the hotel was unable to complete my laundry within two days.
The manager of the Four Seasons outside Hamburg bothered to visit the Far Eastern hotels to discover why they were always rated so highly in polls of favourite hotels. On his return he immediately instituted round-the-clock availability of laundry and pressing, and a dry-cleaning service that returned the clothes within twelve hours.
The bathroom. Remember that many of your customers are Americans, who usually prefer showers to baths. Many Europeans also prefer them in hot climates. It is a pity, then, that so many of your shower arrangements are amateur. Why aren’t the shower-heads large enough to produce a satisfying volume of water? Why don’t your staff ever unscrew these shower-heads in order to clear the limescale, so that the bather could wash in more than just a few, thin jets of scalding water?
If you are building a hotel consisting of individual cottages (often the nicest type in the tropics), then you have a room to build large showers of the walk-down variety. These are more satisfying, and obviate the need for irritating shower curtains.
Frequently, when a woman turns on the taps for a bath, her immaculate hair-do receives an unexpected drenching from above: the chambermaid has left the bath’s lever in the shower position. In old-fashioned bathrooms this was impossible, because after use of the shower, the lever automatically reverted.
And please tell me what is wrong with the traditional plug and chain. These have been universally replaced by complicated (and presumably expensive) contraptions of metal pulleys and levers. These often don’t work efficiently. As any woman who has tried to wash underclothes in a basin knows, the metal plugs often don’t fulfil even their prime task of retaining water. And often they either jam in the upright position (numberless contact lenses getting washed underneath) or in the closed position, in which case women break their fingernails trying to loosen the plug, after which their husbands attempt to prise it open with a Swiss Army knife.
The ceremony of breakfast is an excellent yardstick by which to judge the character of a hotel. And, because food in a hotel is often dull or expensive, breakfast may be the only meal of the day one takes there.
When staying in one of the world’s most celebrated hotels in India, I looked forward to a stately breakfast in a magnificent Gothic-vaulted dining room. I imagined white damask tablecloths, and soft-footed waiters in red turbans. Instead, breakfast was served only in the coffee shop. This ordinary little room, which might just as well have been in Frankfurt, was filled with cheesy music and plastic tables, built at an especially uncomfortable height for eating. You may remind me that I could have ordered breakfast in my room. But many of us prefer to get up when we feel like it, leave the squalor of our bedroom, and descend immediately to a dining room.
When from my breakfast table I can see orange trees sagging under the weight of their fruit, it is especially irritating to be served juice out of a tin. This irritation is doubled when, as so often, the menu describes the juice as fresh. Remember, also, that as juice tends to ferment, it does not taste properly fresh when it has been squeezed the day before. And why is it always orange juice? Many of us find grapefruit juice, or some of the other fruit juices, more refreshing in the morning? Whichever it is, please let it be served in a glass, not the usual thimble.
As for the rest of breakfast, a truly stylish hotel would never serve its butter wrapped in foil, nor the sugar in paper, nor the marmalade in plastic. Often at the breakfast table one has to unwrap all three. And napkins should always be cloth, even at breakfast, not flimsy bits of paper that flutter off in the slightest breeze.
While making optimistic demands, I might add that it would be most impressive to be served a pot of tea made from tea leaves – not from the dregs and dust that are wrapped up in teabags.
You have a difficult task as a hotel-owner. For it is not enough for your hotel to be efficient. Individual, non-business travellers look for something more than competence – they want some degree of character or charm. The rarity of these qualities has much to do with modern economic forces. Apart from the great city hotels, most of those celebrated for their charm have been small, rarely having more than about 30 bedrooms. This is now a difficult size to run economically. And whenever a small hotel does succeed, its subsequent fame sooner or later tempts the owner to add a massive new wing.
When I was sixteen, my mother on one of her honeymoons sent me a postcard of the Moorish courtyard in the Vizier’s Palace at Fez. It has been converted into the most romantic-looking hotel, and I determined one day to go there. Two decades later I succeeded. Imagine, though, my disappointment when I was confronted by the vast slab of a new wing, many times the size of the original building. The entry hall was filled with a reception counter dozens of feet long (which reminded me that in hotels of character these counters are often discreetly hidden). The hotel was exceptionally well-managed, with impeccable bedrooms, and a most up-to-date discotheque in the basement. But not a whiff of romance remained. All over the world, unsympathetic additions are obliterating the character of traditional hotels.
Another disadvantage of these massively expanded hotels is that they are less likely to offer good food than smaller ones. Take, for example, a Caribbean hotel that is far from any large market-place. If the hotel is small enough to house only a few customers, then it can choose the best of the fish that has just arrived at the harbour, select the best cuts from the recently slaughtered bullocks, and grow its own vegetables. A larger hotel cannot rely on local produce: it has to rely on guaranteed and specific supplies, so the produce is flown in, usually frozen or packaged. The resulting food is as characterless as the hotel.
The great city hotels may not have the intimate charm of small country ones, but they should be able to compensate with impeccable 24-hour service, facilities suitable for a city (comprehensive business services come to mind), and grand cosmopolitan cooking. I had once thought that London was the home of many of the greatest hotels, but recent experience has been disillusioning.
Take one incident at the Berkeley. Following an invitation to the last Royal Wedding, some foreign friends stayed there. They asked several fellow invitees to join them for coffee before leaving for the Abbey. On gathering in a reception room, they were told (rather abruptly, considering they were so obviously foreign guests dressed for the national event) that coffee couldn’t be served downstairs, and that they would have to drink it in their bedroom. After protesting that they didn’t want the coffee served to their friends beside unmade beds, it was grudgingly conceded that they could drink it downstairs. But even then they were kept waiting for so long that, in danger of missing the wedding, they were obliged to keep nagging a truculent waiter. Couldn’t the Berkeley have made an exception to their rule, just on this one day? And why wasn’t the staff trained to realise that the essence of a great hotel lies in its service?
I had always imagined that Claridges (generally a first-rate hotel, with plenty of character), would be faultless in this respect, but friends who recently stayed there were disappointed when room-service took more than 40 minutes to deliver only a snack. And on an occasion when I was invited there for tea, I was surprised to be told by the waiter that they were unable to serve hot buttered toast.
Another friend’s complaint about an incident at the Savoy is only a very minor one, but it concerns the type of attention to detail that distinguishes a ‘great’ hotel from an adequate one. On seeing partridge on the menu, he asked the waiter whether the partridge was English or French. The waiter didn’t know, so my friend interrogated the head waiter. He didn’t know either but after further investigations in the kitchen, they discovered the red legs which proclaimed the partridge to be French. The English partridge is the accepted variety of choice, and should therefore be the only one served by a truly great hotel.
Quite soon after this, I was invited to lunch at the Connaught. I rang up the restaurant in advance to ask them to serve me English and a French partridge side by side, so that I could test the difference. The voice at the end of the telephone replied with confidence that normally they served only the English partridge (full marks to the Connaught) but that they would be delighted to indulge my whim. When the partridges arrived, each was decorated with a miniature national flag.
After the partridge course (the English partridge proved to be best), the waiter rolled out a fresh white table-cloth. This was a typical piece of attention to detail, which made the perfect lunch so memorable. But even the wonderful Connaught wasn’t irreproachable: they refused to accept either an American Express or a Diners Club card. What an inconvenience for their foreign guests!
Although these celebrated London hotels may have a few faults, I still hope they aren’t absorbed by the Trust House Forte group, who want to take them over. A ‘great’ hotel can no more be run by a group than can a great restaurant. The character goes, the charm vanishes, and the accountants get to work. They would certainly take a very dim view of that extravagant second table-cloth at the Connaught. And it is a bad omen that Trust House Forte are making a bad job of the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, which should be a flagship for their group; being right in the centre of England and much used by foreign tourists. A friend, who spent a long time there last year, found that although the staff were friendly, the hotel was incompetent. Instead of the dining room specialising in good British cooking, the food was pretentious and second-rate. Although the mini-bar in her bedroom was checked with great frequency, this must have exhausted the staff’s energy: for the bed was rarely made until late afternoon, trays weren’t removed from outside the door, and the bathroom was hardly cleaned.
All this criticising may imply that I’m difficult to please. This is not the case. I have stayed in Afghan hotels for under ten pence a night, and never complained. I can plead, without pretentiousness, that my favourite hotel of all time (outside Ubud in Bali) cost about a dollar a night. Most hotels where I have stayed were unassuming, and gave value for money; therefore one didn’t expect too much. But when staying in hotels that are famous and expensive, naturally one’s expectations increase.
Even these expectations are not unreasonable. I desire little more than good service, cotton sheets, soft pillows, tranquillity, a decent breakfast, and some element of charm. If, dear hotel-owner, you can provide all these features, the rare news will spread with the speed of a thrilling scandal, and your hotel will become booked for months in advance. Then I beg you to resist the temptation of adding a massive new wing.
Anyone writing an article in a daily newspaper is likely to get letters from readers. But very few people write to monthly magazines, and my only letters were from suborning PR companies. However this article hit a nerve, and I got a stack of mail, all of it in support.
I started this article by saying that I felt increasingly sorry for the rich. I was not being pretentious: this was genuine. Since then, having sold cheapfights.com, I can afford expensive hotels, but now feel even sorrier for the rich. I find there are still almost no hotels that combine charm and true-comfort. And that increasingly the smaller hotels that I like are vanishing or being modernized in an inappropriate way. Although I’m no longer impecunious , I shudder at the grotesque cost of many swankier hotels.
I have been keeping a list of further recommendations for hoteliers, and I will eventually add them to this website.