24 April 2010


Fed up with rip off hotels

A rant at the hotel industry and their standards.

I am fed up being ripped off with crap food, especially crap food that is overpriced and you take all evening to serve me.

Where do I start? Cereal loaded with sugar. Muesli is supposed to be healthy. So why only serve varieties with sugar in? This makes as much sense as automatically putting sugar in everyone's tea or coffee and makes no sense for anyone trying to eat healthily or on a low sugar diet. In 1997 I suggested this to Benedict's of Belfast and they got in muesli with no sugar. I stayed in that hotel in a contract for 7 months and when I returned for a random visit last year they were still serving it. Must have made sense I guess and maybe more people than me liked the sugar free muesli, you can even leave a bowl of sugar beside it for the sugarholics (add to taste).

Bacon. It's supposed to be reasonably crispy. A pile of bacon drowning in its own fat that looks like it has been steamed and has more fat on it than bacon just doesn't do it for me. This isn't just me, the other guests were complaining about it too. Why do you think it's acceptable to put out such inedible crap? Shall I call Gordon Ramsey up to tell it to you straight?

Coffee. It's supposed to be fresh and tasty to wake up guests in the morning. Usually however you have instant chemical coffeesoup in your room with a barely adequate amount of milk unless you are sad enough to be staying by yourself. Alternatively you could venture to the breakfast area where I'm sure it's been stewing since 6am. Why don't you do a deal with one of the semi-reasonable high street coffee chains who I am sure would welcome the expansion opportunity or at least have a cafetière available in the room so I can make it myself.

I also know that £5 bowl of soup probably cost you less than £1 for ingredients and 2 mins to heat up so unless your waiter earns £4 for 2 mins work (£120 an hour) I don't buy the rip off. I also don't get the £10 min for a main course either, nor the £3 for a pint, all of which I frequently decline in preference to an entire meal with food and drink, no hidden service charges AND a proper VAT receipt correctly itemised from a Wetherspoons pub with change from £8 (usually less). They can deliver decent food on a budget, why can't you? They also take 10 mins to serve me usually rather than the best part of an hour unlike hotel restaurants while I get bored waiting and wondering how much the hotel will charge me for the 'service'.

I had completely had it tonight when I thought I would try the restaurant. I had to ask especially for the menu. Clearly a tactic that you use so that when people sit down and ask for a menu, you've already 'got them'. Most normal (not hotel) restaurants have the decency to put a menu on public display so you can make your mind up first. Having thought it overpriced, I was just going to have a starter (the famous £5 soup) but then ventured to the bar to see what they had there only to be told they didn't serve food. Except the nuts I spotted and then had to ask if there were any other edible items they sold also not classified as food, such as crisps etc. I then popped out to the car for 5 mins then returned to the restaurant only to find it closed. No warning when I was there 5 mins earlier, no clearly indicated signs indicating their hours, nothing. However, I could get exactly the same food on the menu delivered as room service to my room. I was going to ask if having then had it delivered to my room I could bring it back to the bar, be sociable and annoy all the other hungry guests being told by barstaff that they didn't serve food.

So tonight as I was hungry and actually needed more to eat than nuts (even if the bar didn't classify them as food) I went to Tesco, bought long life milk, sugar free cereal, plates, cutlery, juice, bread, fresh fruit (not available in your restaurant, why?), coffee, cafetière (so I don't need to drink instant chemical soup) and a bottle opener for less than the price of two meals in your restaurant, thus saving me eating breakfast with you indefinitely and at least the next two evening meals. Saved a fortune and of course I can also eat whenever I like. Result. Healthy eating for a 1/3 the price of overpriced unhealthy food. I have also considered buying a microwave for £30 and putting it in my room so that I can enjoy a Tesco curry and rice for an amazing £1.50 rather than the £15 and long delay with it would take you to serve up pretty much the same thing. After 3 days, I'm already in profit (and I can eat my food in less than 10 minutes).

Look this isn't just a stereotypical stingy Scotsman story. There's a number of points here - one is that when I'm in a hotel I actually want to eat healthily and 'normal' food, not joints covered in unpronouncable incomprehensible French names trying to be pretentious. Nor do I need huge portions, starch, carbohydrates and overcooked vegetables. I actually want food that's reasonably close to what I would eat at home, portion size and with tasty fruit and vegetables. I also don't want to wonder why you charge 3x the price of Wetherspoons, your food is nothing special and by the way your beer is probably crap too. Serving 6 types of lager and no ale isn't much of a choice really. As someone in a hotel on business I also resent my week being whittled away waiting for a table, waiting for my order to be taken and waiting for my food to arrive. Once in a while is OK for a special occasion, but when it becomes a regular nightly event because I travel a lot, it eats in not only my time when I could be catching up on work or getting an early night but also when I might like to go for a walk and enjoy the local sights. Wetherspoons can take my order and serve me in 10 mins, why does a restaurant like to block a table out for over an hour with slow service the main cause?

Anyone else think the hotel industry needs a good kicking? As a starting point, if you want the lowest prices for a bed, try this remarkable Hotel search engine which I use very regularly and which makes finding hotels a lot easier.

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01 April 2008


Why I don't tip in restaurants

I haven't written a long blog in a while so I thought it was time to post this missive now that I've been living in London for 7 weeks.

I last tipped in a restaurant in December and I eat out 4 nights a week. So strictly speaking I do tip, when there's exceptional service and I want to say thanks (the last time was at Benedicts of Belfast) but so far I've been pretty unimpressed with London. Yet, some restaurants demand a 10% tip, there's no way to remove it from the bill and the service is pretty average.

I don't expect London to be cheap, but working in Whitehall, I can pop up the road from Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster and eat near the corner of Whitehall and Trafalgar Square at the Wetherspoons "Lord Moon of the Mall" for about a tenner including a drink. That's about as central as you can get, a stone's throw from where all the distances to London are measured and a few minutes walk from both the centre of government, theatreland, The Mall and The Strand. A decent (if somewhat basic) meal, a pint of beer and about a tenner. You pay at the bar so there's no tip added to the bill either.

Yet eat at a restaurant, even in more outlying areas such as Aldgate, Pimlico, Bayswater and so on and you'll usually pay over £20 for a meal for one in a restaurant for much the same meal. Eat in a pub, even a good one with "5 pints" on the website fancyapint.com and you get decent food, a drink and it's still around £10-£12. There's clearly a rip off market amongst restaurants who seem to think it's par for the course to whack on at least a 50% premium then look surprised when I don't want to pay the mandatory 10% surcharge on on top of that just because someone has carried a few plates 6 feet from the service hatch to my table then asked me if the meal was OK, cue reference to the "Maharaja Indian Restaurant", Queensway London which indulges in this nefarious practice.

Then you get the bill and have to ask for a VAT receipt. Usually this is some sort of semi-scribbled effort that if you're lucky has the total and the VAT number. Sorry, not good enough. Because goods are rated at different levels, in order to accurately know what the VAT amount is, you can't just guess that 17.5% was added on to the net amount. The receipt actually has to show the amount of VAT paid, just like the receipts I get when I shop in major supermarkets. So even if I was thinking of giving a tip for outstanding plate carrying to my table, the amount of tip I was going to leave has more than been eroded by the fact that the said restaurant is incapable of producing a proper VAT receipt with their VAT number on it, the total VAT paid and the total of the bill. There goes their "tip" - off to the VATman because of incompetency.

So if I get a square meal like I do in Benedicts of Belfast (the sort of food where people come from miles around to eat there) or even basic food such as Wetherspoons and pay £12 then I figure for a restaurant in an expensive area it's going to be around £15 including VAT, assuming I get a correct VAT receipt. I know it's economic to run a restaurant on that basis, the Lord Moon of the Mall in Whitehall shows it can be done for much less.

Any restaurant wanting £20 for the same and especially those with no VAT receipt have just used up my budget and gone over by a fiver. The tip has already been spent on overpriced food.

So that's what I don't tip (in London at least). It's so completely different in the US, where eating in restaurants is much cheaper, the portions are much bigger, the service better and you actually feel tipping is worthwhile and the server deserves it rather than in London where it's a surcharge on top of a rip off.


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05 January 2008


Hotels of quality and distinction

I blogged last year about problems with hotels and after a year of staying in them, I've got a good bit of first hand experience of what really works especially for someone staying for more than a few nights. In the same spirit of my gold standard for contact centres, I propose a similar standard for hotels.

1. Provide Wi-Fi, make it free and unrestricted. Anything password based via a webpage is a major irritation when all you want to do is use an email client, and it is time consuming and not guaranteed to work on a PDA. Wired internet in the bedroom is even better and almost makes it usable to webchat with the family back home.

2. Even if I prefer having a shower to taking a bath, having a room without a bath is cheap. It's a sign you are trying to cram as many guests as possible into a small a space as possible.

3. Provide FreeView, after all it's free.

4. Double beds (4ft 6" wide) are a bit of a joke in a hotel claiming to be quality. King, or ideally superking size is more like it.

5. Have showers that work and have constant decent pressure and temperature. Bit of a basic, but many fall at this hurdle. A glass partition next to the bath is far more preferable to a shower curtain that attacks you.

6. People have laminate flooring in their homes because it is easy to keep clean. Hotels with wooden bedroom floors get the same advantage. Carpets in bedrooms are fine but given the use they get in hotels with people wearing outdoor shoes, they get to look fairly shabby before too long.

7. Good quality pillows only cost a small amount extra and can make a huge difference to the comfort in the bed. The same applies to the duvet. Please provide a sheet under the duvet (comforter for those of you in the US).

8. The sports complexes at Village Hotels in the UK are fantastic and exceed even those I have seen in specialist keep fit centres. Something for other hotels to consider.

9. Friendly, helpful staff really make the hotel. Staff that are willing to engage in conversation rather than just act like robots make a huge difference.

10. Hotels that have bars that locals want to drink in are a huge plus. Not only is this a sign of quality that people choose to drink there because they want to rather than just because it's convenient and they are staying that night but with locals in there as well there is likely to be a decent atmosphere. Most hotel bars have about as much atmosphere as an airport departure lounge.

11. Providing the noise isn't a problem for guests, having a bar with decent live music is a major plus since this certainly relieves the boredom if you are travelling along and unless you are very sad you probably want to do more with your long term stay than just be cooped up in your room watching TV every night.

12. Provide healthy cereals for breakfast. Muesli for instance is supposed to be healthy, so why not supply it in a sugar-free variety but leave a bowl of sugar so that those who like sugar can add it if they want to.

13. The card that opens the door is usually also used to activate the room lights. However, the room light panel is not tied to a specific card, anyone will do. It pays to have a handy card handy (e.g. a gym pass or expired bank card with VOID written on it) so that if you want to go out and leave the laptop charging, you can do so by leaving said card in the light panel thus ensuring the electricity to the room doesn't cut out when you pop out for a few hours. It's handy when you can force the electricity to stay on in the room even when you're out.

14. Just because you provide a quality service there's no need to rip off customers. It's perfectly possible to charge only £10-£20 a night more than the absolutely most basic of hotels and provide outstanding quality and service. I know, I have stayed in such places and not surprisingly they were almost permanently fully booked.

15. Try and make the decor and room layout distinctive. I get a bit tired of the rectangular bedroom with the square bathroom in the corner just next to the door, the beige decor and the dull design. I've stayed in rooms with the bathrooms had windows (nice) and the room was triangular. Makes a nice change.

16. In 2008, there isn't really much excuse for a hotel still having 4:3 ratio CRT TVs. Widescreen TFT should be the norm.

17. Hotels provide TVs for people to watch, including films in the evening. Yet what are we supposed to sit on for 2 hours watching the film? The bed? No thanks, I stopped doing that as a student and the alternative is those uncomfortable hardback chairs. Any hotel that provides a chair on a par with what you might find in a living room (ie soft and comfortable) actually provides something you might want to watch that film in.

18. When I am booking online, give me the option of specifying whether it is a smoking room or not. Surprisingly many hotels still don't do this.

19. Have a help-yourself buffet for breakfast. Saying I can have a yoghurt or cereal for breakfast but not both is penny pinching.

20. Don't hardwire the TV to the aerial socket. I want to be able to unplug the aerial and plug it into my laptop so that I can record TV onto my laptop via the TV card.

21. If you run a busy pub as part of the hotel, you'll want to provide more female toilet capacity than male, otherwise there's a good chance that women will have to queue and the men won't. This is unfair.

22. Friendly, helpful staff really make a huge difference. I want to feel at home, not just that I'm stuck there for the night because I have no other choice. So important I said it twice.

It's also worth mentioning here that the best hotel I've ever stayed in is Benedicts of Belfast. So good, I lived there for 7 months. Everything they do is of the highest standard and it's the sort of place that other hoteliers aspiring to be distinctive, quality hotels with a friendly welcome should visit to learn how it's really done. It's no surprise it's consistently near the top of the trip advisor recommended hotels list, currently it's #2 although #1 doesn't have a bar.

That's all for the moment.

The author worked for the Scottish Tourist Board/VisitScotland from 2000-2006 although is writing in a private capacity here.

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