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Friday
Mar042011

Have you stayed in a British hotel lately?

Have you stayed in a British hotel lately? Try it. Make sure that you pre-book. Guarantee the booking with your credit card, the combination to the wife’s chastity belt, or the deeds to your home. Whatever it takes. The experience will be an education

Arrive, march into reception on your own /with the wife /secretary /bit of totty from the pub /18 year old plump-arsed boy from Malaysia. Attempt to check in. This is where the warfare will begin. The receptionist will ask for your name, and tap it into the computer. He/she will then frown at the computer screen. Next, the receptionist will try and communicate with the computer by means of, apparently, Morse Code. Tap, tap, tap-tap, tap-tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap tap-tap, tap, tap-tap, tap-tap, tap, tap. Pursed lips. Tap, tap, tap, tap-tap, tap-tap, tap, tap-tap, tap-tap, tap, tap. The receptionist will then say ‘Excuse me sir’ and call over a colleague. There will be much pointing at the screen, followed by another burst of Morse Code. The constant tapping will stretch your nerves to breaking point, and your bit of totty from the pub will have wandered off to the bar. More screen pointing, and more Morse code will follow. Eventually, the receptionist and colleague will nod in agreement and the computer will finally print you a registration card.

What will have been particularly irritating about the whole procedure will be that you will NEVER, EVER be allowed to see the computer screen that has caused all the pursed lips consultations, and Morse Code. There are two reasons for this, the first fairly obvious. It would never do for you to find out that, while you are paying £130 for your room alone, everyone else in the hotel is paying far less. Indeed the contents of the 52 seater coach in the car park, are being treated to dinner, bed, breakfast, and a three hour free bar, at £45 per (geriatric) head.

The second reason that you will never see the receptionist’s computer screen is that it would breach the confidentiality clause in the hotel’s licence to use the ultra sophisticated ‘ShaggaGuest’ specialist room allocation software. Actually, it is not called ‘ShaggaGuest’ it is probably called something like ‘Roomflow’, or ‘Optimum Occupation Organizer’. It doesn’t matter, every receptionist in the country uses it in ‘ShaggaGuest’ mode. It is their way of reflecting their feelings about their poor wages against your apparent ability to spend £130 for one night’s sleep. Or then again, more like £250 if you have to wine and dine the totty in the hopes that you won’t even sleep very much.

‘ShaggaGuest’ operates by utilising a complex algorithm to balance a guest’s declared needs against the available facilities within the hotel. The computer will consider double or twin rooms. Smoking or non-smoking (yes, you can still get smoking bedrooms in some hotels). Large or small. Accessibility or otherwise. Bath or shower. Distance from reception/carpark. Proximity to lifts/kitchen smells/air con unit/late night bar. It then allocates you, of course, the room that least matches your needs. Thus, if you turn up with your totty, hoping to impress her, you will be allocated an ex broom cupboard into which have been squeezed two single beds. There will be a cubicle in the corner, containing a toilet with a wonky seat, and an electric shower that scarcely dribbles. The heating will be jammed on maximum in mid-summer, and inoperable in winter. The window will be welded shut, and the view will be of a flat roof featuring 15 aluminium vents belching coloured steam that contains most of the vitamins that were once in the food being reheated in the kitchens. The room will be the opposite of what you wanted in the smoking/non-smoking category, and there will not be enough space to hang up your clothes. There will be an internal fire door right outside, controlled by the tightest spring ever manufactured, which results in it closing with a bang like a pistol shot every time anyone passes through. Needless to say, your corridor will be the only route to anywhere else in the hotel.

‘ShaggaGuest’, has a commercial purpose as well. Every hotel in every major chain, or group, appears to have a daily working assumption that either a): The whole Royal Family, or b): Their entire board of directors, is going to turn up, unannounced at 11.00 p.m. and demand to be accommodated. It is for this reason that the ‘ShaggaGuest algorithm is heavily biased towards filling the hotel in the order of worst rooms first, with a grudging allocation of better rooms as the hotel fills up. Thus, if a typical 100 room hotel achieves an average of 80% occupancy, you can be assured that the 20 best rooms will be empty. On this basis, of course, the best rooms get better through lack of use, while the poor rooms get worse as a result of constant suitcase banging/foot odour/smoking/fornication etc.

You may think that I have been guilty of some exaggeration in my remarks. I can provide some genuine examples of ‘ShaggaGuest’ in operation. Due to a cancelled appointment, I once checked into a large hotel near Preston at 2.00 p.m. in the afternoon. It is one of those hotels built in blocks, moving outwards from reception.  They promptly checked me into the furthest room on the top floor of the furthest block – somewhere in Cumbria. It took me most of the rest of the afternoon to move my bags in. Why did they do it? I don’t know, I hadn’t been rude, or fallen out with anyone. I must have been one of the first of that night’s ‘guests’ to check in, and thus ‘ShaggaGuest’ automatically delivered the worst of the worst, just to keep the staff amused.

The most blatant example, and I swear this is true, involved one of the large national hotel chains. I was travelling on business, and had booked a double room, single occupancy, smoking. I arrived at about 6.00 p.m. – peak checking in time – and reception had reluctantly provided two check-in points. I now make a point of confirming exactly what I am getting when I check in. My receptionist was making a fairly good pretence of being apologetic about the fact that they only had a non-smoking twin room, when I became aware of the fact that the couple checking in next to me were kicking off big style. They actually wanted a non-smoking twin but had been allocated a smoking double. Caught in the act! Did they apologise? Did they hell! They made damn sure that it took another 10 mins of ‘tap-tap-tap’ to switch the two rooms around.

So how has this lamentable situation come to pass? Frankly, it is because there is virtually no point of personal connection between hotel staff and their ‘guests’. And there is certainly no concept of ‘service’. Your credit card will have been pre-authorised at reception. Once you get beyond the minefield of check-in, and room allocation, you are trapped in an environment where the hotel will be trying to extract as much money as possible from you, before booting you out, considerably poorer, in the morning. Once you get to your room, your television will be switched on with a personalised message saying something like ‘Welcome Mr Bloggs, we hope you enjoy your stay. Please press any button on the remote control for a full directory of hotel services’. In fact, the only thing that happens if you make the mistake of pressing a button on the remote, is that you are immediately transferred to the ‘Adult’ channel and an automated £9.99 will appear on your bill. If there is a fridge in the room, do not, under any circumstances, open it. It contains very expensive booze. If you do, another automated £17.99 will appear on your bill for a half bottle of ‘champagne’ that triggered some kind of electronic contact when you opened the door. You will be held up for half an hour when you check out, while they send someone to your room to confirm that the ‘champagne’ is still there. If you go to the bar, the beer will be about £4.00 a pint. Well it would be, if they ever served you a full pint. Seriously short measures are endemic. I think that the trading standards people are far too busy ensuring that the local greengrocer is not selling carrots by the pound, to bother with blatant short measures at the local hotel. In the restaurant, a menu with ornate and florid descriptive prose will result in a very ordinary three course meal, which will cost £24.99 per person, not including coffee. If you make the mistake of taking the totty into the restaurant, a smarmy wine waiter will spend five minutes trying to persuade her, to persuade you, to buy a very ordinary bottle of wine for £26.50. It is remorseless. The only ‘service’ you will receive will be along the lines of ‘Can I get you another bottle of wine? No? Perhaps a liqueur Sir?’

In the morning, assuming that your credit card still has some remaining funds available, you will be offered the opportunity to navigate the exercise in cynicism loosely described as ‘breakfast’.  A few years ago, the two options available would be something like ‘Continental’ – juice, coffee, cereal, croissant/toast, at say, £3.50. Or, ‘Full English’, at say £6.99. The problem was that, even then, too many punters were opting for the cheaper ‘Continental’. The solution? Reduce the price differential, and of course, increase the prices for both. Thus today, you will be offered the same ‘Continental’ for £8.99, and the ‘Full English’ for £11.99. The principal being, that if it is going to cost you nine quid anyway, you might as well spend twelve. Either way, the hotel will make a whopping great profit. The cynicism doesn’t end there. My local café does a freshly cooked ‘Full English’ in the following variants: ‘small’ at £2.99, ‘medium’ at £3.99, and ‘large’ at £4.99. They are all excellent. Trust me, you would have to starve yourself for at least 48 hours, before taking on the enormous (pro)portions of the ‘large’. You would imagine, therefore, that a twelve quid ‘Full English’ would be something pretty exceptional. Wrong!

For a start, it won’t be freshly cooked. In fact, you will be fortunate if it has been cooked within the last two hours, or in the case of the sausages, within the last two days. You will be required to self-serve your labour saving, expensive, ‘Full English’, from a pre-cooked breakfast selection, presented on a buffet, resembling a kind of gigantic immobile hostess trolley. I won’t go on about the foulness of the individual items, save to comment on the lip-smacking desirability of pre-cooked scrambled egg. Presented, of course, as a light yellow paste, surrounded by a small moat of discoloured tepid water. Even the most air-headed totty will not be impressed.

I haven’t finished with breakfast yet. I am not notably ‘green’, but even I was unimpressed by the amount of packaging waste that I managed to generate, on my own, at a recent hotel ‘Full English’. Some of them may seem insignificant, but bear in mind that these will be per diner, per breakfast, per day, across hundreds of hotels.

Item ONE – individual carton of Orange Juice.

Items TWO, THREE, FOUR. Sugar sachets. I only take one standard spoonful of sugar in my coffee but ‘portion control’ means these mean little sachets contain about 11 grains of sugar each.

Item FIVE – individual carton of UHT milk for coffee.

Items SIX & SEVEN – Individual sachets of salt & pepper

Item EIGHT – Brown sauce carton  

Items NINE TEN & ELEVEN – More sugar sachets for second cup of coffee.

Item TWELVE – Second UHT milk carton

Items THIRTEEN FOURTEEN & FIFTEEN – Sachets of butter

Items SIXTEEN & SEVENTEEN – Two individual pots of marmalade that an unknown number of other people had already tried to open, and failed, because of broken tabs. Ugh, chuck away!

Items EIGHTEEN & NINETEEN – Two further pots of marmalade, tabs intact

Items TWENTY & TWENTY ONE – The successfully removed foil tops from the marmalade pots.

Item TWENTY TWO – Disposable napkin.

Impressive eh? You can easily tell that this particular (expensive) breakfast was memorable!

Now, I do understand that the hotel visit that I have described is, in its entirety, unlikely. If it ever unfolded, as described, it would constitute a will-to-live breaking experience. It is an amalgam of experiences I have encountered, many times, in British hotels. I have never had the full grand-slam of the events I have described in one single overnight stay. Mind you, it’s been close sometimes. What is scary though is, using these events as a check-list, how few hotel visits it would take to tick-off the lot. This wouldn’t include the severe ‘ticking-off’ you would get from your wife, if she found out about the totty.