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Europe and Asia's luxury hotels no longer live up to their reputations

Regular readers of this column will know that I have spent much of this year on the road.

Quite apart from the trips I have undertaken within India, there has been a fair amount of foreign travel as well. Over the last few months I have been to France, Switzerland, Monaco, Singapore, America, Canada, Thailand, Turkey and several other countries.


   As a consequence I’ve stayed in many hotels, ranging from the famous and the luxurious to the basic and comfortable. My head reels as I try and recall all their names. But here are some: The Four Seasons Bosphorus in Istanbul, The Royal Monceau and The Westin (the wonderful old building that used to be the Intercontinental) in Paris, The Martinez and The Carlton in Cannes, The Hermitage in Monte Carlo, the Sheraton Centre in Montreal, The Pierre in New York, the Dolder Grand and the Sheraton in Zurich, Lebua, The Oriental and The St. Regis in Bangkok, the Regent in Singapore and innumerable others.


   After so many nights in international hotel rooms, I’ve come to some conclusions about hotels in general. In the interests of discretion I will not name the hotels where each of the incidents listed below occurred. These comments are not meant as indictments of specific properties but as observations about the hotel industry in general.


Privacy: In Indian hotels, we take our privacy very seriously. We accept that somebody from housekeeping will have to come in to service the room but we expect that he or she will not examine our personal effects or disturb anything. When it comes to foreign hotels, this is not always a reasonable expectation.


   One instance: at a deluxe hotel somewhere in Europe, I returned to my room to discover that my DVD (the latest season of The Good Wife) had been removed from the DVD player and was now missing. Further, the onscreen controls for the TV had been switched from English to a European language.


   I called housekeeping and reception. Both claimed to know nothing about it. I said to check who had serviced my room. Could it be, I suggested darkly, that the housekeeper had taken out my DVD, had put in one of her own and had settled down to watch a movie in my room when she should have been servicing it? (This would explain why the language had been changed). If so, I said, I did not really care but could they at least return my Good Wife disc?


   After many hours of denial in the face of my impassioned protests, a duty manager came to my door. There had been a misunderstanding, he said. A DVD technician had come – by mistake – to my room to remove the player. When he realized that he had the wrong room, he had left without taking the DVD player with him. Somehow though, he had removed the disc and taken it away. But, said the manager, they had now retrieved the disc from him. And so, I got my Good Wife DVD back.


   The manager was very sweet and I had my disc back so I did not persist in making a fuss. But was his explanation about how the disc had gone missing convincing?


   I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine.


Facilities: At Indian hotels, we take certain things for granted. At European hotels, nothing can necessarily be treated as a given. Take internet access. At a business hotel in Europe, I found I could not access the hotel’s network. I called reception. Oh yes, they said. The hotel had no internet. But, if I liked, I could access the public Wi-Fi service and pay the operator using my credit card. The hotel would not be involved.


"Of all the international hotels I’ve stayed in this year, the two best are The Pierre in New York and The Royal Monceau in Paris."

   At a luxury hotel in Asia, many of the things we expect in India were not available. I asked for a hot water bottle. They did not have one, they said. And though I was there for three days and a rubber hot water bottle is hardly expensive, they made no attempt to procure one. No Indian hotel would have taken that attitude.


   Complaints: Within the hotel industry, there is a concept called service recovery. The idea is that sometimes things will go wrong. But as long as the hotel makes it up to the guest, there is a good chance that there will be no hard feelings. But service recovery counts for less and less in the global hotel industry. So don’t be shy of complaining. Often, it is the only way to get service.


   At a hotel in South East Asia, I found a cockroach in my room. I called reception. They were unconcerned, I called house-keeping. They said the pest control guy came only twice a week so there was nothing they could do. I called reception again.  Okay, they said grudgingly. If I liked, they could shift me to another room in the same category. Still no apology, though.


   Enraged, I tweeted about the incident. By the evening, the General Manager had called to personally apologize and to offer to move me to a suite. (I said no to the suite but thanked him for the effort). Would anyone have cared if I had not tweeted? I doubt it.


Service: Hoteliers used to say that you got the best service in Asia and in Switzerland. I won’t mention specific  hotels but take my word for it: this is no longer true. The service in Singapore and Switzerland sucks and even Thailand is not what it used to be.


   One problem in Europe is the reluctance of locals to join the service industry. So hotels are run by immigrants (often illegal ones) and recently-arrived foreigners willing to work for rock-bottom wages. The general rule is that brown and black people are put in the back of the house and white people in the front. Many, if not most, of these white people are Eastern Europeans who speak poor English or French and have little hotel industry experience. In Singapore, the Indians and the Malays are hidden in the back of the house (or perform menial tasks)  and the Chinese who meet the guests are too arrogant to bother with service.


   Two instances: I am paranoid about hotels losing bookings or forgetting to send cars to the airport so I always call before I board my flight to reconfirm. At one of Europe’s most famous hotels, it took them 20 minutes to trace my booking and they kept me on hold (on an international call from India) till somebody senior finally came on the line and found the reservation within seconds.


   At another European hotel, the girl at reception greeted me warmly when I went to check out and said “I have printed out your bill, sir and already charged it to your credit card.” She handed me the bill in an envelope and directed me to the porch where my taxi was waiting. I was a little surprised: normally you are supposed to give the guest an opportunity to review his bill but as the taxi was already there, I took the envelope and departed.


   It was only when I got into the cab that it struck me: I had not given a credit card impression when I checked in. So how could they have charged it to my card? I tore open the bill. It was for somebody else in a completely different room – an American woman, in fact. I stopped the cab and rushed back to the reception desk. Oh right, said the girl, I may have made a mistake...


Food: Many of the hotels I’ve stayed at have had Michelin-starred restaurants (Hermitage, Royal Monceau, Dolder Grand, Martinez etc.) and naturally the food at these restaurants has been exceptional. But outside of these restaurants, hotel food in Europe is almost uniformly poor. Even if a hotel has a gourmet restaurant, all the other food -- except for the cuisine at that restaurant -- may well be terrible.


   Indian hotels will tell you that the one meal that every hotel must get right is breakfast. Guests can eat lunch or dinner anywhere but they will all eat breakfast in the hotel. But, to my surprise, at the vast majority of European hotels, breakfast in the dining room was always disgusting, usually cooked by a dishwasher while the chef slept late. (I will take one name: for such a grand hotel, the Dolder should be ashamed of its breakfast.)


   If you do what I tend to and order a basic breakfast from room service then be prepared to pay very high prices for really bad food: leathery waffles, cardboardy bread, congealed eggs etc. And no matter whether you order two coffees or one, you’ll get the same single pot even though you will be charged for two coffees.


   Finally: Don’t get me started  on laundry and the rest -- or room lighting, for that matter, especially in newer hotels --- because I could write three more pieces on this subject. But two final conclusions. One, we should value our own hotels more; they really are among the best in the world. And two, of all the international hotels I’ve stayed in this year, the two best are The Pierre in New York and The Royal Monceau in Paris. Many of the others are not just horrifically expensive: they are plain horrific.




  • HudsonSmith 31 Mar 2014

    Thank you for another essential article. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a complete way of writing?

  • Rajendra Biswas 28 Jul 2013

    I just wanted to add that the good and ethical sons and daughter are becoming less and less in hospitable business and even catering which was very strong in 90s with decent we are seeing a different breed of people who are coming in this industry but no more with the Hospitality charm...unless of course its a very ultra rich hotel you go to

  • Rajendra biswas 28 Jul 2013

    Thats true for everywhere on planet earth...but everybody has there own experiences but I am glad you mentioned some decent luxury hotels to stay in...and Paris cat go wrong

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