Posts Tagged ‘hotels’

Freshly laundered hotel towels

The sense of smell is an amazing thing.  More than any other sense, a smell can instantly transport us to someplace else.

Cities have smells.  London smells like diesel fumes, from the second you step outside the airport and walk towards the taxi rank.  You know that you’re in Edinburgh from the hops that you can smell across the city, a byproduct of the local brewery.  And there’s a strong, ever-present medicinal smell of disinfectant that reminds me I’m Asia.

There are other smells that transport me, like the ubiquitous Tiger Balm that takes me back to massages on the beach in Phuket, or the burning charcoal of the street vendors on the streets of Bangkok.

Nancy Griffith once likened the smell of a Woolworth’s store to “popcorn and chewing gum rubbed around on the bottom of a leather-soled shoe.”  That’s a nicer description than I’d give of the Paris Metro, which smells like a combination of burning brakes and day-old urine.  Or Mumbai, where the stench, together with an unrelenting humidity, hits you like a wall the second you hit the jetway.

And so it was when I stepped out of my shower yesterday and grabbed a towel at my hotel.  It smelled like Bounce.  And instantly I was transported back to my childhood.  It was comforting and dislocating all at the same time.

Let me explain.  Using dryer sheets or fabric softener is uncommon in Europe, where most people hang their laundry out to dry.  So our towels at home don’t really have a strong smell, even when they’ve come straight out of the dryer.

And most hotels use industrial laundries to clean their linens.  So when you normally grab a towel in the hotel, it smells industrial, a faint smell of chemicals being ever-so-slightly detectable.  But nothing that you would remember.

So it was a real shock to grab a towel off the rail and smell the fabric softener.  It was strong, and floral – comforting, not industrial.  And it instantly made me feel at home – a different home, half-a-world away and twenty years removed.  A powerful thing, smell…

So what takes you someplace else?  Takes you back to a time or a place?  Cut grass?  Your father’s aftershave?  A lover’s perfume?  Gasoline?  Leave a comment below…

Lobby of China World Hotel, Beijing

Lobby of China World Hotel, Beijing


Lobby of China World Hotel, Beijing

Lobby of China World Hotel, Beijing


Lobby of China World Hotel, Beijing

Lobby of China World Hotel, Beijing


This is my first stay at a Shangri-La hotel, and I’m reasonably impressed.  Nice room, great service, and seemingly the biggest employer in town.  Definitely an Asian-feeling hotel, both in design and in terms of service.

 I’ve never seen quite so many people whose job is basically “standing by something”.  Thailand comes close, but it’s really a phenomenon here.

There’s one guy whose only job is to press the ‘up’ button on the elevator.  Actually, there are three of these guys, each working an eight-hour shift.

Chamber group at China World Hotel, Beijing

A chamber group plays in the lobby of the hotel


There are countless people who are paid to stand by things – signs, doors, plants, pillars, hallways, lobbies…  There’s live music in the lobby around the clock – everything from a pianist in the morning to a full chamber orchestra in the evenings. 

Still, in a country of 1.3 billion people, I guess you have to do what you can to create employment opportunities.

Five-star hotel toiletries

Signs that you’re staying in a five-star hotel: “Deluxe” sanitary bag and “Luxury” shower cap. Before you ask, no I didn’t figure out what makes it “deluxe.” Maybe it’s lined with silk, but even in the name of photojournalism, I’m not investigating.

I arrived in Mumbai around midnight.  Our flight arrived early, but no gates were opened so we ended up sitting 30 minutes on the tarmac waiting for a gate to open up.

Straight through customs and out to my waiting car, the Mumbai adventure began anew.  My driver decided to do his best impression of a F1 driver, and we raced through the heavy Mumbai traffic and to the hotel.  I haven’t figured it out – maybe we’re all just too polite to complain – but seemingly all the chauffeurs in Asia think that driving like a maniac is what we’re after, and the fastest car will get the biggest tip.

Fresh flowers at the Mumbai Four Seasons

Fruit platter and ice tea at Mumbai Four Seasons 

The hotel is getting better. I’m still not a big fan of the Four Seasons here in Mumbai (it’s overpriced and the service isn’t up-to-scratch), but they made an effort this time.  I was greeted by name out of the car, my key was waiting and handed to me by the doorman (no check-in formalities, a blessing at midnight), and I arrived in the room to find fresh flowers, fruit, iced tea, and a note from the manager of the hotel, welcoming me back.  They’re trying to win my business, which is something.

Steaming wrinkled clothes in the hotel shower 

I still refuse to pay their extortionate prices for ironing / pressing, more out of principle than anything.  My colleague tells me that he pays 3 rupees (about $0.10 each) to have his shirts pressed.  The hotel wants 600 rupees ($13 each) to do the same thing.  That would be on the expensive end in Switzerland, where labour costs about $25/hour.  But here, where wages are measured in single dollars a day, there’s no excuse.  So I resorted to the old traveler’s trick: I stuck them in the shower.

A very jetlagged Matt

A very jetlagged Matt


Jetlag kicked in big time.  I managed to get a few hours sleep on the plane, which was a mistake as it meant I couldn’t fall asleep.  I finally drifted off at about 7am, just in time for my alarm to go off at 8am.  Monday was a long day in the office.

Workshops all day Tuesday and Wednesday, then off to Sydney on Wednesday night.  Stay tuned.

I read an interesting article called It’s the Little Things today about the type of small services that only come from loyalty, and it got me thinking.  I’ve stayed at hundreds of hotel over the past ten years, but there are some where the personal service really stood out – and where my loyalty paid off. 

It’s a chicken-and-egg thing, of course, and that’s what I think the article misses out on.  The hotels where you’ll stay frequently enough to build loyalty are the ones that treated you well enough as a guest initially to cause you to return.  It speaks about the commitment of the hotel management to really understand what their guests want, whether it’s for a single stay (when you get the standard package) or for a long-term repeat visitor who gets a little more special treatment.

I’ve certainly had the kind of treatment that the article talks about from a few hotels where I was a ‘regular’, and the extra service really makes them stick out in my mind.

In New Orleans, the sales manager of the hotel knew that I liked a particular room, and she made sure that it was always available for me whenever I stayed at the hotel.  At the hotel bar, the staff learned that I liked Guinness (not on the menu) and arranged to have it special-ordered and kept in the bar when I was staying at the hotel.  It was a really nice, personal touch.  When the lifts were slow, I was escorted to the staff lift and taken downstairs the ‘back way’ to avoid the queues.  Each time I arrived at the hotel, the front desk staff greeted me like an old friend.  The sales manager at the hotel would invite me for a coffee every few weeks to find out personally how I was enjoying my stay.

At another hotel in London, it was the same story.  There was one room in the hotel that was furnished differently from all the others – it was a prototype for the redesign that they rolled out to the entire hotel, but some of the higher-end features were cut from the final design, so only featured in this room – making it the nicest in the hotel.  Once again, the hotel manager learned that I liked this room, and made sure I had it on every visit.  He’d often invite me for a drink in the bar to hear my thoughts about the hotel and service – it was a really personal touch that made a huge influence on my decision to stay with the hotel.  When the food & beverage manager learned that I had eaten everything on the room service menu and was bored, he asked the chef to propose some specials from the main restaurant and have them sent to my room.  It was a nice touch.

In Singapore, there was no formal loyalty programme at the hotel where I used to stay regularly, but it was clear that the hotel was tracking my stay and preferences each time I visited.  There was a sort of one-upmanship in the welcome I received each time I visited.  The first time I arrived, there was a pot of tea waiting for me in my room.  The second time, it was a pot of tea and some cookies.  After that, tea, cookies, wine, fruit, even a tub filled with rose petals.  I was afraid of what they’d think of next if I went back again!  Still, it made an impression that they really valued my business and were interested in making me happy as a customer.

As much as a hotel can track preferences through loyalty schemes and guest preference cards, there’s no substitute for the real customer service that comes from a genuine human.  It’s becoming more and more rare these days, but there are still some places that make the effort.

Hotel room at the Four Seasons, Mumbai
Hotel room at the Four Seasons, Mumbai


Bathroom at the Four Seasons, Mumbai
Bathroom at the Four Seasons, Mumbai


Soaking tub
Soaking tub looking out over the city


Another city, another hotel room. In this case, it’s the Four Seasons in Mumbai. The room was nice enough, on the top floor of the hotel, with a view overlooking Mumbai. The bathroom was lovely, with a big soaking tub that looked out over the city. I imagine it would have been nice to use, if only I’d had the time to use it.

View of Mumbai from the hotel room
View of Mumbai from the hotel room


View of Mumbai from the hotel room
View of Mumbai from the hotel room


The view out the window wasn’t as picturesque as some other places I’ve stayed. But this is pretty much the extent of what I’ve seen in Mumbai. (I suppose I could add some pictures of the office to give a totally comprehensive report, but you get the idea).

Anyone who thinks corporate travel is grand, or a great way to see the world, hasn’t done much of it. I’ve seen an awful lot of hotels in my career (particularly recently), but not much of the rest of what the cities have to offer!