12th September 2017

It’s the little things

It’s the tiny details and the nuances of service, which influence our judgement and form our abiding memory of a place. In the influential American musical Company, Stephen Sondheim reckons it’s the ‘little things’ (or more specifically, ‘the little, little, little, little, little things…) that make perfect relationships.

He may have been talking about marriage, but the same applies to the relationship between guests and hotels. We may be superficially impressed by the splendour of the building or its grounds, its setting, its location, its décor. But, ultimately, it’s the tiny details, the nuances of service, comfort and presentation, which influence our judgement and form our abiding memory of a place.

So here, as an aide-memoir to general managers everywhere, is a checklist of the things that matter…

Housekeeping

In order to create her photographic installation The Hotel (1983), the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle got a job as a chambermaid at a pensione in Venice. The work features each of the 12 rooms she was assigned to clean: in the guests’ absence, she photographed their open luggage, their laundry, the contents of their bathrooms and wastepaper baskets… Then she mounted the images on a grid with an accompanying text explaining her impressions of the individuals. It is an intriguing, yet voyeuristic and disquieting work. And it is definitely not how we think chambermaids should behave (even if they are struggling artists earning a crust to support themselves).

Yet it does raise some rather interesting points about what we expect of the people who tidy and clean our rooms. For a start it irks us when they rearrange things. Tidy up by all means, but if we want the contents of our wash-bags arranged in serried ranks on a folded face flannel, we will do it ourselves, thank you. If we’ve left things packed, we’ve done so for a reason; we don’t want you rifling through our luggage. Or not unless we’ve asked you to unpack.

It would also be nice if the staff could acknowledge it when we’ve made it clear how we want to use the room; not in an extreme moving-the-furniture sense, of course (though most general managers of top-rated hotels are founts of stories of celebrities’ extreme demands), but if we’ve indicated the side of the bed we prefer to sleep on by putting a book, or clock, on the bedside table, why do staff insist on turning down the other side, and arranging the mat and slippers where you’re not going to want to step on them. It seems to be company policy (at least at the Plaza Athénée, the Muscat Chedi and legions of others) to turn down only the left side of the bed (if you are looking from the foot). Well, some of us favour the right.

There there are the complications regarding curtain arrangements. Obviously the staff will have been instructed to close the shutters as well as the drapes. But why do they do this when you’ve left them a note asking them to leave the shutters open? Or persist in closing them on subsequent nights even after you’ve had a word with housekeeping? Some of us like to wake with a degree of natural light in the room, not in pitch-blackness. The idea of the windowless rooms at the Four Seasons Mexico City, apparently a popular choice with travellers trying to combat jet lag or who, like Michael Jackson, opt to stay in their own time zones when travelling irrespective of the country they are in, is anathema to us.

But we applaud their existence; its proof the hotel – which will provide black-out blinds, hang guests’ own paintings and has even been known to accommodate personal chefs in its kitchens – is trying to please all its guests, however outré their requirements.

Not that our requests are ever especially extraordinary. But hotels that remember what we like to find our room, whether it’s a well-presented plate of fruit, or a generous supply of complimentary mineral water, score points with us. This last should surely come as standard everywhere, especially in places where its unsafe to drink from the tap. We were outraged at the many ways splendid Hotel Casa Santo Domingo in Antigua, the pre-eminent hotel in Guatemala, where heads of state stay when they visit the country. Here there are signs everywhere warning you not to drink the water, yet there is an exorbitant charge for even the two mean plastic bottles of purified water in the bathroom.

How much better, in terms of generating goodwill, is the policy at the J.K Roma, where they give you a whole fridge full of complimentary glass bottles of water – perhaps two dozen of them – which are replenished daily.

Breakfast

Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day nutritionally, but its also, as all hoteliers surely know, a guest’s last experience of their hospitality. Give them a good breakfast, and they may forget their bad night’s sleep, the faulty shower or whatever else has marred their stay. In other words, it can make amends for any amount of shortcomings. Serve cheap, stewed coffee and restrict them to their dreary buffet, however, and they may nurse their grudges against you forever.

Because breakfast is rarely an opportunity for the kitchen to show off its fanciest skills, it all comes down to details. Our ideal start to the day begins with orange juice, squeezed, chilled (not a contradiction; just refrigerate the oranges before you press them) and strained. It should also be served in generous quantities, ideally from a glass jug. (Four seasons mostly do well on this score, though we do resent the way they charge you for refills without warning you.)

Yet how many hotels think they can get away with juice from cartons, or the bottled stuff that masquerades as “freshly squeezed” but has a sell-by date two weeks hence. Then perhaps some fruit, not necessarily (though ideally) tropical, but neatly cut, beautifully arranged and stripped of all pith and pips, thank you.

The same applies to how a hotel presents lemons (occasionally we like pancakes for breakfast). Isn’t it obvious that wrapping it in muslin makes all the difference, preventing you from squeezing it all over yourself with pips flying all over the place? Still, even an unwrapped half is better than those mean thin horrible little slices you sometimes encounter, which have no place anywhere except perhaps floating in a gin and tonic (and even then we’d prefer lime, which enhances the flavour of Bombay Sapphire much more appropriately, we find).

We’re not usually big breakfast eaters (though we’ll make an exception at the Plaza Athénée, Paris, where Alain Ducasse’s team cook perhaps the best traditional breakfast in the world). Toast will do us, as long as it’s good. Yet it astonishes us how few places actually ask how you’d like your bread ‘cooked’ (lightly, to a crisp or somewhere in between?).

Or know how to serve it: it should be wrapped in a napkin. It should not be laid flat, which makes it soggy. And as for the places that put cling film over it – there is no excuse for cling film anywhere except perhaps the kitchen (out of sight, out of mind, we say). We can see the thinking behind places that wheel a toaster to your bedroom to let you make your own, but that, we think, is missing the point. We can do that at home, thank you. And in any case, who wants a bedroom filled with the smell of browning bread.

Next the butter. If it must be wrapped in foil, it should only be Beuree d’Echire, never those nasty little golden tablets or worse plastic blister packs. However, we don’t have a problem with hotels that serve butter (unsalted, obviously; is that too much to ask?) cut from a block and served on an appropriate dish. That is, as long as it isn’t decorated with parsley sprigs, droplets of water or shaved into those mean and pointless curls.

And the jam. It amazes us how few hotel kitchens bother to make their own (bravo for the Metropole in Monte-Carlo) and think they can fob us off with Tiptree (nul points) or Bonne Maman (better, but we prefer our own bonne maman’s).

While were on the subject of mornings, we might also question many hotels’ patronising assumption that just because a guest is an Anglophone they automatically want a copy of the International Herald Tribune with their breakfast. We’re not taking issue with the quality of the paper, but not all of us are monoglots and some of us would rather read an indigenous paper. Particularly if we’re travelling on business, when it can help to be familiar with local stories, political and otherwise.

Reception and concierge

How hard is it to put a name to a face and remember it? You’d think reception staff were hired for their ‘people skills’, but it still amazes us how few hotels bother to remember one’s name, even in places where we are repeat guests. The same goes for concierges who seem to lack any sort of character-reading skills and will gamely recommend restaurants or exhibitions that just aren’t right at all.

How refreshing then, to find front of house staff like those at Hotel Fasano, Sao Paulo. They are able to spontaneously recommend a selection of new restaurants and bars which they love and more impressive still is the way they follow up their advice, checking that you had enjoyed it.

Room service

If only all room service were as good as it is at the Bristol in Paris, where the menu is honestly more enticing and just as inventive as it is in the restaurants, and where the food is delivered promptly, charmingly and artfully arranged on trays, not those awful circular trolleys ostensibly set up as tables that seem to linger in hotel corridors for days at a time.

Anywhere with a decent kitchen ought to be able to provide first-rate room service 24 hours a day, even after the brigade have gone home for the night. (Even we acknowledge that staff need leisure time and sleep to stay at the top of their game…) We’re resigned to a limited menu after hours, but even so it surprises us that so many hotels – we are thinking of our recent experience at the Lugarno in Florence – are unwilling even to rustle up a salad, a sandwich or a bowl of soup after midnight. Surely the night porter can be trained to do that?

How much more impressive is the attitude of the staff at Lucknam Park, an English country house hotel of the chintziest sort (the neo-Palladian building is very fine but otherwise it isn’t really our kind of place). Some guests emerged late on a Sunday morning after breakfast had ceased to be served and fully expecting to be sent on their way hungry. After all, the busy kitchen has a Michelin star and lunch service was about to begin. Imagine their surprise, when they were shown into the library to find a table specially set up and offered breakfast menus with anything they liked cooked to order.

There is a truism (oh very well, a cliché) that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Hoteliers, however, might do well to remember that last impressions count with guests even more. If, on your final morning somewhere, a smartly attired staff member promptly returns your polished shoes to you wrapped in tissue in a handsome wicker basket, you’ll remember that detail. Ditto the immaculately cut grapefruit, every last trace of pith excised, you ate for breakfast. And the way you were greeted at reception when you went to pay the bill.

Worldly as we are, we have ceased to be impressed by grandeur for its own sake. We are fortunate enough to be surrounded by beautiful things at home as well as when we travel. The one thing, however, we will never tire of or grow blasé about is appropriate attention to detail, however apparently insignificant. For therein lies a hotel’s charm. And in the end, that’s what really counts.