MY RESTAURANT ORDER? HERE IT IS…

Well, actually, I’ve not decided exactly what I’m going to eat yet. But I do know what I want – and don’t want – in a restaurant. And it applies whether that restaurant is part of a hotel, or not. It changes a bit – not a lot – according to the time of day, but let’s stick with dinner time.

I’d like to be greeted warmly and courteously when I arrive, and not left standing by the ‘Please Wait to be Seated’ sign for more than a few moments, if that.

I’d like to be shown to my table and have my chair – or, if necessary, the table – pulled out so I can easily seat myself.

I’d like a table that’s far enough away from others for me to have a private conversation, and for staff or customers who have to move between any two, to do so without bumping ny chair or my table.

If I am dining alone – and I often am, in my job – I would not like this to stop me having a window table; nor would I like it to result in my being seated close to the kitchen door or, worse, close to the route to and from the restrooms.

If I’m dining with others, I would like the table to be large enough for us all to have a full place setting – glasses and side plates included, rather than necessitating some items being moved to an nearby table so we can eat in comfort, and not have to keep our elbows tucked tightly to our sides throughout the meal.

I would like appropriate lighting, please, for the time of day and the occasion; it should be sufficient to read a menu and see the food on my plate – not on a par with my dentist’s surgery.

I would like the restaurant, however big, to be designed with intimacy in mind – and achieved. And I would also like the design, and choice of materials therein, to address the issue of accoustics. I want to be able to hear what my dinner companions, and the staff serving me, are saying – but not have to hear what everyone else in the room is talking about. I also do not want to hear clattering cutlery, dishes and glasses because every surface in sight deflects sound, and none absorbs it.

I’d like a clean table cloth and a napkin that isn’t made of paper, please. And I’d like the glassware, china and cutlery I’m given to be spotlessly, sparklingly clean. I’d like plates to be warm if hot food is served on them, and glasses to be chilled, unless they hold red wine, port, brandy, cognac or whisky.

I’d like to be offered water soon after I arrive, please – and to have the option of iced tap water if I wish.

I’d like to be asked which wine I would like after – not before - I’ve decided what I am going to eat. And speaking of wine, I’d like there to be more than one rosé to choose from. Please!

Okay? Now I’d like the menu please…

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ANYTHING LESS THAN SPOTLESS JUST WON’T WASH

Whether you turn a key or use a card to do it, opening the door to your hotel room for the first time should be a moment to savour – and will be, if that room finds favour. And it can do so, or fail to, in the blink of an eye.

Of course, we won’t all like the same colours, design or decor – one woman’s romantic retreat borders on another’s idea of bordello, one man’s minimalist suite makes another want to beat a retreat, one’s soft lighting is another’s gloom, one’s wacky another’s tacky – but we surely all agree that our room must be clean. Stained carpets, dusty headboards and dirty windows spell disaster, as all good hoteliers know. And as for the bathroom, nothing less than spotless will suffice. In fact, the best hotel bathrooms look as if they’ve never been used, and you’ll be the first to do so. Achieving such ideals calls for very good housekeeping and constant vigilance – but guests should expect and accept nothing less.

Keeping up appearances is hard work and costs money, but my money’s on guests being willing to pay a bit more for clean and decent rooms – and voting with their feet when they don’t meet the required standard. Hotels that get it right can expect to take and make money. Those that don’t will only change their fortunes if they spend some. Or shut down. Being spotlessly clean really does matter that much – but even when it’s a given, hotel bedrooms can still fail to please…

I don’t know what gets you down, but my pet hates include these: windows that I can’t open; skimpy curtains that barely meet; low lighting where I need it bright – i.e. near the wardobe and in the bathroom – and bright lights at the bedside, where I want it soft, and also at the right height for reading, please; wardrobes designed with only men in mind (as are a lot of hotel rooms in their entirety, but don’t get me started on that one in this blog!) and fine if you have only shirts or suits to hang, but short on length for skirts or dresses; big-screen TVs that take up almost all available desk/dresser space; sockets I can plug my hotbrush into, placed where I can’t see into a mirror to do my hair with it; and in the bathroom, no shelf or space for my toiletries, and no hook for my robe.

And here’s what I hope to find when I open that door: harmonious decor, whatever the colour scheme or style; a welcome gift, be it flowers, chocolates, wine, whatever – it really is the thought that counts;  a big bed with a firm mattress and plenty of pillows; well-placed and mood-variable lighting; sufficient storage space for clothes, shoes, cosmetics and suitcases; a full-length mirror, and a mirror I can see to do my hair in, with my hotbrush plugged in; a robe and slippers; lots of put-things-down space in the bathroom; big, soft, fluffy towels – and preferably three of them: one for my hair, one for my hands and one for my bath or shower.

Oh, and a view. I’ve left it until last but have to confess I head for the window first – don’t you? I don’t expect a picture-postcard vista every time, nor do I get one. All I ask is that whatever I look out on is clean, tidy and prettied-up if possible – not a forgotten corner that hasn’t seen a stiff broom or a bucket of soapy water since the millennium, or a container that’s been placed in plain sight, planted up, then neglected ever since.  Only the best hoteliers know that good housekeeping doesn’t end at the front or back door…

PAT RICHARDSON Founder, HotelsThatWereNot.com

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WELCOME IS NOT JUST A WORD – IT’S AN ATTITUDE

When it comes to what we, as guests, want from a hotel, the list is long, and our expectations are, and should be, high. (Call me hard to please and I’m happy: because if I weren’t, I wouldn’t be doing a good job.) On that long list, what matters most is what comes first – long before we get into beds or bathrobes or breakfasts. It’s the welcome we get. With it, hotel hosts make their first impression – something no one  ever gets a second chance to do. So it’s important that the welcome really does make us feel welcome. Saying the word is easy – but those who say it have to mean it, and that has to show.

“Welcome!” must be a genuine greeting, one that uses your name as soon as it’s known (and with a little effort that could be before – or as soon as – you arrive). It should include eye-contact, and a smile that’s sincere and sustained. And with it must come seamless service, which shows that your needs have been anticipated. Hotel staff who don’t readily deliver this whole package, every time – and any who resent being expected to – should not be on the front line in the hospitality business. Ideally, guests arriving by car or taxi will have had their first warm greeting, smile and offer of service (valet parking, and/or help with luggage) long before they even reach the reception desk – in which case, the front line begins at, or even outside, the front door.

At reception, if time allows, nothing is more agreeable than being given a key and a check-in form to fill out and return at your leisure. Better still: an invitation to fill it in at a quiet table over a welcome drink – anything from fresh lemonade, to a properly made cup of tea. Hospitality that puts your needs first – what a winner! Key service questions (wake-up call? newspaper? dinner reservation?) need to be covered, too – in a tone of invitation, not interrogation. Validate your credit card, and you’re good to go.

Personally, I am happy to be directed to my room and find my own way there – and find my luggage waiting for me – but if someone accompanies me, I really don’t need a lengthy show-and-tell session. Indeed, does anyone? How hard can it be to work out which door is the wardrobe, which the bathroom and where the hairdryer’s hidden? I can also figure out how to switch the TV on and off, or switch channels, and what’s ‘up’ and what’s ‘down’ on the heating and air-con control panel – can’t you? What I’d rather be told – and surely it’s far more important? – is the fastest route to the nearest fire exit. Frankly, I’m amazed that hotel staff don’t do this as a matter of routine, when escorting guests to their room.

So – I’m in my room, my bags are, too. The next question is: Is the room welcoming? That’s going to be the subject of my next blog. Watch this space!

PAT RICHARDSON Founder, HotelsThatWereNot.com

 

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COFFEE, MADAM? YES, PLEASE. COULD I HAVE A… …LOT MORE CHOICE, IF YOU DON’T MIND!

When it comes to coffee, I’m a purist: I take it black. No sugar, no milk, no shots of steam or flavoured syrups. As with tea – and, for that matter, malt whisky – I like to savour the flavour of a single-origin, star performer. Safely blended, blandly neutral and – perish the term – ‘easy-drinking’ versions just don’t bake my biscuit. Sadly, when it comes to coffee, even in a lot of first-rate restaurants, they’re often all that’s on offer. Why is this?

For those who don’t want it black, corner coffee shops everywhere now have more variations on the basic combination of coffee beans, water, milk and sugar than they can chalk onto a blackboard. I used to have problems getting a cup of my favourite, Earl Grey tea anywhere bar my own kitchen; now, happily, it pops up – or should that be brews up? – everywhere, along with teas made from almost every herb or fruit you’ve heard of, and some surprising flowers, too. And haven’t wine lists come a wonderfully long way? Even the smallest establishment can produce one that runs to several pages.

So why, when you order coffee, is it so rare to be asked which beans, which estate or even which country of origin would you prefer? ‘ They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil,’ sang Sinatra, back in the Forties. Well, they’ve got it in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, too, and in Jamaica, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Indonesia, and at least as many more countries again – but ask for an Unwashed Ethiopian or a Monsooned Malabar or a Pico Duarte after dinner, and  you’re most likely to get a blank look. Just as you probably also will if you ask for the pedigree of the one-and-only coffee on offer. Yet, like grapes, coffee beans carry the flavour characteristics of their birthplace – so ‘Where’s it from?’ is as relevant a question to ask as it is of a wine or a cheese.

The good news is that these days supermarkets, grocers and coffee merchants sell a wide range of coffees for us to enjoy at home, so I’m not altogether missing out on Blue Mandheling or my favourite, Mocha Sidamo – but a lot of good restaurants are missing a trick.

Do, please, wake up and smell the coffee!

PAT RICHARDSON Founder, HotelsThatWereNot.com

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GETTING THE GOODNIGHT JUST RIGHT

For now, let’s leave aside reception desks and restaurants, bars and spas, bedrooms and bathrooms, cleanliness and concierges, and concentrate on what every hotel guest wants at the end of the day -and that’s not a cliché –  a good night’s sleep.

For me, the formula for success starts with a T – turndown service. A little spoiling goes down well, doesn’t it? And don’t you just love that when you go back to your room to turn in for the night, it looks as if it’s expecting you?  I like that feeling so much that I do it at home – not just for guests, but also for myself. Every night, I draw the curtains, turn back the covers and switch on the bedside light: three simple steps that spell ‘welcome’.

Wise hoteliers, knowing that the personal touch is always a winner, do more.  Towels in the bathroom refreshed, a robe on the bed and slippers beside it, a chocolate on the pillow – and a pillow that’s to the guest’s liking. Are pillow menus pretentious? No: good hosts are sensitive to guests’ needs, and some guests are sensitive to feathers. (And would I ever have discovered the bliss of a buckwheat pillow had I not had the opportunity to give one a whirl one five-starry night?)

Putting a message on the pillow is another nice touch.  Lala Salama – Swahili for ‘sleep well’ – often appears in Kenya. A beribboned bookmark bearing a quote from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon comes courtesy of the superb Shangri-La chain – which, in my book, writes the book on hotel hospitality. Elsewhere, you could find a poem or an inspiring quotation waiting. Top marks, however, go to those thoughtful enough to leave a weather forecast for the morrow. A little card with rain, cloud or sun glyph circled and a note of expected temperature highs and lows will suffice.

And so to bed…

Good night? It will be for me.

PAT RICHARDSON Founder, HotelsThatWereNot.com

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I’M HAPPY TO PAY – BUT DON’T KEEP CHARGING ME!

Ever found yourself forking out for something you think should be free? Or, at least, should be included in the price of your holiday, your hotel or your cruise? Me too!

Of course, we all know that little else but fresh air is free, and that whoever gives us a bottle of water, or allows us to access their Internet connection, has had to pay for it, and therefore so will we – which is fine, because paying for it isn’t what I object to. I just think it should be rolled up into the overall cost, and not charged separately.

I think this matters – you may not agree, but I think it really matters.  Wise holiday companies, hoteliers and cruise lines know it does, and know that even though we are paying, the best way to get on our good side is to treat us as guests. A complimentary drink when we check in to our hotel, or join our ship; a supply of bottled water, replaced daily, in our room or cabin; a cool, moist cloth held out when we return from an excursion on a hot day – all make us feel special. Being asked to cough up for Internet access, sometimes with a minimum 24-hour charge, when all we need is 15 minutes, doesn’t – it just annoys us.

I did a two-week, small-group tour of Namibia, in hot, dry weather. Our tour bus carried a chiller full of bottled water, and ice lollies – all free, help yourselves, whenever. Result: 16 happy passengers, every day. ‘Just what I need’, ‘Perfect’, ‘How wonderful’ and ‘So thoughtful’ we told our driver and our guide, every day. We also told our friends what a great tour operator we’d chosen.

I did a seven-night Mediterranean cruise on a very large ship, in the height of a very hot summer. With a wide – and excellent – choice of excursions every day, getting 2,500 passengers on their way was a huge undertaking. Giving them each a bottle of chilled water could have been simple, though. It wasn’t, because we each had to pay; and each transaction had to be billed, by hand and in duplicate – with a copy for the passenger, to check against their final bill. Result: queues, frustrated passengers, fractious children.  Was it really worth giving crew members such a time-consuming task? Or giving the accounts department so many more transactions to process? Is it ever worth irritating your customers to the extent that this did?

Don’t even get me started on airlines that tell us it’s cheap to fly and then charge sky-high for such basics as having a suitcase or wanting to sit with the person you’re travelling with, and not a complete stranger.  Making passengers feel special, and treating them like guests, is a long way down the list with some carriers. Too far down, if you ask me.

I know times are tough, budgets are tight. I know nothing’s free and everything costs money. And I am happy to pay – but please, work out the cost, take it up-front, and don’t keep charging me more.

PAT RICHARDSON Founder, HotelsThatWereNot.com

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SAT-NAV? I PREFER PAT-NAV!

Picture this: a crossword puzzle with, instead of clues to 1 Across, 5 Across, 1 Down, 2 Down, and so on, answers. That’s right – nothing at all for you to work out. All thinking’s been done for you, so you can simply do as directed. No challenge there – and no sense of achievement to reward you.

Exactly like Sat-Nav. And exactly why I don’t want it.

I certainly want to know where I am going – but that’s what maps are for. And how to get there. Maps cover that, too. More to the point, I also want to use my brain. ‘Use it or lose it’, they say, and I believe them.

These days, with lengthy security checks and frequent flight delays, late-running trains and bumper-to-bumper traffic, getting there isn’t always half the fun – or any fun at all. Nevertheless, I still get a kick out of opening the road atlas, and planning a journey by car. If it’s somewhere I’ve been before, I might look for a different route this time: it might or might not be shorter or faster, but there’ll be see new sights to see, new places to be and fresh views to enjoy.

So beat a retreat, TomTom & co! For some of us, planning a trip is almost as life-affirming as making it. Long, short, complex or uncomplicated – and even if we do get lost – we welcome the challenge, so we won’t be handing over the reins anytime soon!

PAT RICHARDSON Founder, HotelsThatWereNot.com

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YOUR HOTEL WAKE-UP CALL… IS THE DEPARTING GUEST IN THE ROOM NEXT DOOR!

Ever noticed how very noisy hotel coat-hangers are when they hit the back wall of the wardrobe?

I have – and always at some ungodly hour of darkness, when my next-room neighbour needs to beat a hasty retreat to catch an early plane or train. Whack, wham, bang, slam! The dawn chorus was never meant to sound like this.  And it doesn’t need to.

Having hangers that are in two parts – one metal, that stays on the rail, and one wooden which can, with patience, persistence and precision, be lifted out – doesn’t help to keep the noise down. But hoteliers have good reason to use them, as a million or more hangers would otherwise go AWOL every year.

However, this annoying noise is easily avoided, with carpet. Yes, carpet!

I take no credit for this solution; it’s something I’ve come across in a few – but all too few – hotels that are on the ball, and have put carpet on the wall.  Are you with me?  It goes in the wardrobe, not just on the floor but at the back, too, running up the wall. And it totally  muffles the sound of ‘hanger rebound’ when guests in a hurry make a grab-and-run raid.

Job done!

The best hoteliers are those who’ve thought of everything. I just wish that more would think of this.

PAT RICHARDSON Founder, HotelsThatWereNot.com

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CAN I TAKE THE TOILETRIES?

Having spent the last 20-odd years as a travel writer and editor, and stayed in more hotels than I can count, I’m still a devoted fan. I even indulged a personal passion for them by  launching this website, to showcase a selection which started life as something other than hotels. So, one way and another, I can answer a lot of questions about hotels. Ask me Which one where? When best to go? Which room to choose? View? Pool? Spa? I’m at your service.

And what’s the question I’m most often asked? This one: “Is it okay to take the toiletries?”

Funny, isn’t it, how little appeal even a really big bottle of shampoo or shower gel has at home, and how much appeal a teeny-weeny one has when it’s in a hotel bathroom? The same goes for bars of soap. At home, don’t  we all use liquid handwash anyway? Yet how sweet in your en-suite to find, wrapped in delicately pleated tissue, a pretty little disc of… well, soap.  Essentially unisex and inoffensive – for which read super-subtle scent, if any – it’s really nothing to get into a lather about. And neither is the issue of whether or not you’re ‘allowed’ to take the toiletries when you leave. Yes. You are.  “Are they free, or will I be charged?” No, they’re not free; hotels have to buy them; but you’re paying for the room, so you’ve been charged already. Whether you take them or not.

There are some ground rules, though.  It’s not the done thing to swipe every miniature in sight on the first night and stow them in your luggage, so they get replaced the next day and you get to take two home. Shame on you.  Nicking the razor and shaving soap when you’ve brought, and used, your own is not on either.

If you’ve got a question for me now, I think I know what it is: Do I take the toiletries? Actually, no, not usually. Over the years I’ve realised that unfamiliar shampoo and conditioner can mean Bad Hair Days. And because I’m so often away from home, I find the familiar smell of my favourite shower gel rather comforting, so I carry it with me. But I’m no more immune to the lure of prettily presented and effectively performing products than the next woman, and one brand inevitably finds its way into my bag. Take a bow, Molton Brown!

PAT RICHARDSON Founder, HotelsThatWereNot.com

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