I am a very patient woman. I can forgive most of the common mistakes I encounter around the country in my role as Channel Five’s Hotel Inspector, but the one I can’t abide is the inexplicable disconnection between how some hotels perceive themselves and the service they provide and how the ordinary customer sees them.
If there is one thing I have learnt from my family – from Rocco, my mother (Olga) and my grandfather (Lord Forte), it is that you are only ever as good as your customers think you are. And the only way to improve is to listen to what they say, take on board their complaints and try to learn from your mistakes. For it is often attention to the little things that can turn a disgruntled customer into a loyal visitor.
Here are my 10 biggest bugbears:
First impressions are never eradicated: exteriors of hotels should be immaculate, windows polished, pavements swept clean of cigarette butts, blown light bulbs immediately replaced, plants watered and looking healthy.
There is nothing that deflates a holidaymaker’s excitement more than a tatty frontage, but you would be amazed how often I’m confronted by this in my line of work. And often a tatty exterior can be doing a disservice to what’s inside.
Take my recent visit to the Godolphi n Arms in Newquay. My first impression could not have been worse: a squat ugly building on a main road, draped in tatty Sky Sports advertising, it didn’t seem to have a single redeeming feature. I knew that it was one of those hotels aimed at coach companies, and that the owner provided dinner, bed, breakfast and evening entertainment for the princely sum of £14 per person, per night.
The admittedly tiny but immaculate rooms and bathrooms were the first surprise; the three courses of proper food made in- house from real ingredients were the next. It was lovely to be reminded that in unpromising surroundings you can find value for money and a hotel owner who cares passionately about her guests. Still, those qualities are even more reason to tidy up the exterior.
I am never without a novel when I am travelling, and I am often astonished at how many hotel bedrooms are bare of any alternative light source to the main ceiling light, at least in the kinds of places I stay in.
I have encountered fluorescent strip lighting at the Mansion Lions in Eastbourne, and the single-switch option of the Oakland Hotel in Essex, which forced me, after I had turned it off at the door, into a rather tentative stagger to bed, hands outstretched in the darkness. I’m equally irriated by the well-meaning but ineffective use of lots of low-wattage bulbs, which may well be saving the planet, but at the cost of my eyesight.
To tip or not to tip? There is no simple answer. I was once stopped at the door of a restaurant in New York because I had left only 12.5 per cent, not the expected 15 per cent. Though some claim American service is the best in the world, that constant hounding for tips is something I have never got used to and dislike intensely.
Britain is still not, thank goodness, like the US in this regard, but it is difficult when there is already a service charge added to your bill to know whether to leave a cash tip on top. I never do unless I have experienced truly exemplary service.
Porters are paid to bring bags up to rooms, waiters to serve food, concierges to answer questions. As housekeepers tend not to get tips, rather like gardeners and reception staff, I usually ask how tips are shared out and, if the answer is to my liking, I will leave an amount to go into the pot. But not as a matter of course, and all the hovering in the world is more likely to make me dig my heels in rather than put my hand in my pocket.
When I was doing my food-and-beverage training at the Mandarin Oriental, it was drummed into me that you should do your utmost to ensure that your service does nothing to interrupt the flow of conversation at a table. Not only should plates be put down and removed with the minimum disruption, but also glasses filled without the customer ever having to engage with the waiter.
Glasses should be filled without the customer engaging with the waiter
I often think of my mentor, Wolfgang Krueger (who has more than two decades of experience with Shangri-La and Hilton), when I am eating somewhere and I am asked several times whether I am enjoying my meal. The only proper time to ask is at the very end of a meal, preferably when presenting the bill, so giving the customer the chance to express warm words of appreciation.
In my experience, if diners have something to complain about they probably will, and if plates are scraped clean there is no need to ask. It is usually the fear of supplying bad food or bad service that fuels a need for constant reassurance.
I indulge myself in all the common vices, but coffee drinking is my most habitual crutch. I use many shots of espresso during the long, slow days of filming.
After the first four series of Hotel Inspector, my production team brought me a Nespresso coffee maker, which is what I now lug about from hotel to hotel in my red leather bag. The team had become bored of my perennial lamentations about the quality of coffee I was offered in hotels that we featured. In an era that has seen even the most inveterate tea-drinking Britons casually ordering lattes, cappuccinos and flat whites; when we have several global brands of coffee house on every high street and a resurgence, too, of small, independent coffee outlets; when the provenance of coffee beans, the grinding criteria applied and the barista’s performance are matters of pride, why is it that so many British hotels still offer an uninspiring weak concoction, commonly called filter?
No one has ever been able to explain to me coherently why so many hotels insist on displaying towels on a bed rather than hanging them in a bathroom, which is where, after all, they are most likely to be needed. Even worse than simply folded towels are those that I come across that have been tortured into amusing shapes – fans, swans, isosceles triangles. Time after time I ask hoteliers what they think they are achieving with this irritating tic. Who thought of it first? And why is it so slavishly copied up and down the land? The slack-jawed owner usually shrugs his shoulders, bemused by my question and clearly considering “towel art” the height of chic…
Mattress protector and pillow protectors are now considered standard, right? After all, we do know, even if we would rather not think about it too hard, what occurs on a hotel bed before we have the privilege of occupying it. One resilient hotelier I know has resorted to providing a price list to incoming stag parties, to avoid any arguments about the costs he adds to a bill when a mattress is rendered unusable. Apparently, offenders pay up happily, relieved of any shame by the straightforward nature of the transaction.
Should the hotel you are staying in not take stag parties, consider for a moment the drool that even the most upright of us occasionally exude, and check that your bed is supplied with mattress and pillow protectors.
There is something ridiculous about the idea of a “bath butler”. I cannot think of anything less conducive to relaxation than, while you wait in a towelling robe, having a stranger hanging about and asking what temperature you like the water (“Er, I don’t know, actually. Usually I just stick my hand in and see if it feels about right.”), and whether, on reflection, you might not prefer the bubble bath to the bath salts.
I am probably horribly old-fashioned for even suggesting this, but surely a hotel that needs to enhance its guest experience by offering this service cannot be sufficiently honed in the skills I have always considered the hallmarks of a good or even great hotel: prompt and efficient service, comfortable, clean and well-designed rooms, wonderful food and every attention offered to ensure your stay is just as you had hoped it would be.
Deficiencies in any of these can never be compensated for by the offer of someone paid to turn on my taps.
Have you ever stayed at a hotel with a sheet or pillow menu? Exhausted by the myriad demands our complicated lives force upon us, must we now decide too whether we want to sleep on Egyptian cotton or linen or silk, and rest our heads upon Siberian goose down or duck down and feather? Has the hospitality industry fallen upon such parched times that it has to fall back on such gimmicks? Or are we really so extraordinarily spoilt that our bruised egos require these false panaceas?
I want to stay in places where the hotelier has removed from me the diurnal cares of life, and decided upon my bed linen for me.
Why do hotels assume that all children eat only breaded protein, chips, pizza and pasta with tomato sauce? Open as I am to all accusations of being a smug, middle-class mother, surely mine is not the only child who eats normal food? I mean fish – beyond goujons of sole – rice, green vegetables, lamb, beef, something resembling the food we adults eat. I dread facing a “kids’” menu.