Monday, April 06, 2009

Looking For Five Star Treatment In All The Wrong Places

I'll admit it. I haven't done much five star travel. With a few fleeting exceptions, my travel tops out at four stars, maybe 4.5. When I was recently planning a second honeymoon, I saw some wonderful deals on five star resorts. For one, sure, I may have had a celebrity neighbor and enjoyed an expansive private beach... or, should I say, being bored to tears on an expansive private beach... but that's not for me. For the other, the photographs of the resort made it clear that they were targeting a clientele that has a weekly wardrobe budget approximating what I spend in a year, maybe two. So no, even at "bargain prices" I knew those destinations weren't right for me.

In reading about the economic downturn I read how luxury travelers, those who routinely go to five star hotels and resorts, fall into two categories - the phenomenally wealthy whose assets and income are such that nothing ever puts a dent in their travel budgets or plans,1 and those who are feeling the pinch of the decline in the economy. That latter set, it's said, would rather carve a few days off of a vacation than go downscale - or, as the article put it, once they've spent time in the Turks and Caicos, they would rather have a four day vacation there than take a week in the Dominican Republic. You know, facing the horror of 4.5 star treatment. (And I found myself thinking, "You're still talking about the type of vacation that would bore me to tears.")

So at this point, let me skip to the middle of this complaint about how the staff of luxury hotels hate their customers:
And I remembered that the happiest I have been on holidays in recent years is when I stayed in a five-quid-a-night hostel in Jerusalem with a big hole in the wall covered by a rug. Because I actually went out and I saw Jerusalem. When you stay in a luxury hotel, the luxury is the destination. You are essentially visiting a bathroom. You don't see anything except the luxury. And the luxury is the same wherever you go.
If you choose to think of the hotel as the destination, how can you expect to have a great vacation? If you spend thousands of dollars to travel to an exotic location and shutter yourself inside the local Ritz-Carlton, you may have a wonderful hotel experience (or not - we'll get to that part later), but the whole point of staying in that type of hotel is to be separated from the local culture. Once you get past the luxury, it's no different than staying in a good business traveler's chain hotel - the point is the consistency and predictability of your treatment and experience. If you're the type who won't leave your hotel room unless it's a literal flea trap, then stay in a flea trap or enjoy your luxury cocoon, but don't complain to me that you made the wrong choice.
The staff of these hotels are usually educated people from poor countries who spend all day waiting on people who are much stupider - and nastier - than them. As a result, they - entirely naturally - become bitter and are turned into status police. Their job is to assess if you belong there or not.
That will depend upon the location you pick and your choice of hotel. It's usually not too difficult to figure out from a hotel's literature or website whether it's the type of place where you're going to be expected to dress expensively, and it's easy enough to find another hotel where the other guests don't have quite the same sartorial expectations. Or if it's a smaller hotel staffed by people with long connections to the hotel and city, versus a huge commercial enterprise staffed by whomever will work for a salary as close as possible to minimum wage. But make no mistake, even if you feel that it's the staff that notices that you're underdressed, that expectation comes from your fellow five star travelers. When it comes to taking your money, most businesses aren't inclined to impose much of a dress code beyond "No shirt, no shoes, no service" - if that - but if doing otherwise makes other wealthy travelers unhappy they're going to start requiring jackets, ties, and the like. It's business.

I have also seen profound differences in the way my wife and I interact with hotel staff and the interactions of certain other people. We were recently at a small resort, being served our dinner, when another couple interrupted our server to demand his immediate attention - they wanted him to put more wood in the fireplaces near where they were sitting. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they were concerned that they weren't supposed to add wood themselves - something that would have taken all of the time and effort of walking six steps, picking up boards sitting next to the fireplace, and putting them into the fire - but they left no doubt that, in their mind, they were the most important people at the resort, justifying their insistent interruption of our table service.

My guess is that if they were to open their eyes, they would see something similar to what the author of the complaint describes as a consistent attitude of five star hotel staff: "This hate has followed me around the luxury hotels of Europe". Honestly, you can see a change in the eyes of a staff member who is asked to smile and serve an obnoxious guest. But at the same time, it helps you differentiate what happens when you treat the staff with respect and consideration.2

Consider this anecdote about President Obama's recent visit to the U.K.:
As the president stepped up to 10 Downing Street, he leant over, made eye contact, said something courteous, and shook the hand of the police officer standing guard. There’s always a police officer there; he is a tourist logo in his ridiculous helmet. He tells you that this is London, and the late 19th century. No one has ever shaken the hand of the policeman before, and like everyone else who has his palm touched by Barack Obama, he was visibly transported and briefly forgot himself. He offered the hand to Gordon Brown, the prime minister, who was scuttling behind.

It was ignored. He was left empty-handed. It isn’t that Mr. Brown snubbed the police officer; he just didn’t see him. To a British politician, a police officer is as invisible as the railings.
Whatever the price range, you'll probably find a lot less "hate" in the eyes of a hotel staff member if you notice them and treat them like they're human beings. When the "hate" follows you wherever you go, you need to stop and ask yourself a question: If the hotels are different, the cities are different, and the staff members are different, can you perhaps identify one element that remains the same through each encounter? Dare I ask, could that be where the problem lies?

1. What a difference a year can make. The same author on a ludicrously expensive, star-studded resort:
I am in Paradise. I am lying by the sparkling Caribbean Sea in Barbados, in the shadow of a palm tree, drinking fruit punch and reading the Daily Mail.... Of the stars and Masters of the Universe who come here, all will pay at least £40,000 and others, with parents and children in tow, will pay up to £400,000, because a 14-night stay is mandatory over Christmas.
Tell us about the staff?
Entering is thrilling - you pass through bright white gates and a grassy fairyland, studded with gushing fountains and floodlit palm trees and lackeys well practised in appearing overjoyed to see you....

A flunkey brings me a menu to goggle at. A hamburger is $30. A pizza is £25. An olive is £2. But it's cheap at the price, to eat near Michael Winner, film director and restaurant critic, and Philip Green, who sold me the dress I'm wearing, although he doesn't know it.
Although I'm sure she would argue that her choice of words is technically correct, their connotation is something else. How long would it take a normal person to recognize that the people she describes as "lackeys" and "flunkeys" pick up on her attitude?

2. For an interesting glimpse into the human psyche - how quickly somebody can be drawn into a world where she doesn't recognize the existence of an "us" and "them" so as to even be aware of what others are doing to float her luxurious lifestyle, see the PBS series Manor House.

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