I always ask a famous person for their favorite hotel and why, and I asked politician, government minister, tourism advocate and train traveler Michael Portillo for his hotel preferences in a recent interview.
The United Kingdom has been responsible for some of history’s most epic explorers and writers on travel and exploration, who no doubt have experienced places to stays from a divot in the ground to the grandest hotel on the Côte d’Azur.
Authors such as Norman Lewis, Freya Stark, Eric Newby, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Rory Stewart, Wilfred Thesiger, Jan Morris, William Dalrymple, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Peter Fleming, Rebecca West and Redmond O’Hanlon. The list is long and keeps going, fueled maybe to there being too many of us on a small, rocky island.
I have read books by all of them, in many cases multiple books. Some of these writers are known foremost for being novelists. Some migrated to making TV documentaries. Comedian Michael Palin has become a seasoned traveler, TV presenter and commentator on travel but decades after having started his career in comedy with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
And so it is in the case of Michael Portillo, who I met two weeks ago in his role as moderator of a conversation on the state of U.K. inbound and outbound tourism at the London offices of online travel agency Expedia.
Portillo was a member of Parliament for 13 years and served as a minister under two prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. His shocking loss of his constituency seat in 1997 has become one of the most-famous TV moments in British history, actually coming in third in a poll of the Top 100 TV moments of the 20th Century.
How much of a shock might be relayed to non-Brits in the facts that the fourth spot was the tragic death of Princess Diana and the No. 1 spot was the 1969 Apollo 11 mission and subsequent landing on the moon.
Anyway, when Portillo eventually left politics in 2005 (he won another seat after the shock), he “fortuitously” (his word) was asked to present a TV series in which he traveled around the U.K. on trains, commenting on social and industrial history and guided by an 1863 edition of travel book “(George) Bradshaw’s Descriptive Railway Handbook of Great Britain and Ireland.”
The program is immensely popular, and Portillo has since taken the format to Europe and
North America. For the latter, he uses a similar guide book called “Appletons’.”
But Portillo was at the conference to talk about hotels and hospitality.
For a Conservative Party politician and minister, Portillo’s choice as to his favorite hotel in the world came as a surprise.
Of course, that was my first question to him.
“It would be the Moscow (Marriott) Grand Hotel, where I stayed in the very room where (Vladimir) Lenin first ran the Soviet government after the 1917 Revolution,” Portillo told me.
His second choice, he added, is the Grand Hotel et de Milan (it appears Portillo likes grand hotels), as it was where composer Giuseppe Verdi lived and composed during his residence at Milan’s La Scala, probably the most famous opera house in the world.
The hotel has a Suite Verdi, which I believe is where Portillo slept, but the actual room Verdi used is today kept as it was during the maestro’s stay and can be visited by tourists.
It was amusing to see the hotel’s search engine, after I had tapped in some booking dates for the Suite Verdi, tell me “Hurry up! Last room available.”
Verdi died at the hotel in 1901.
Portillo currently is chair of U.K. hotel and hospitality membership organization The Tourism Society.
During the debate I attended, it was evident Portillo knew much about the industry, which I am sure comes down to the attention to detail demanded of at least the better representatives of government.
The acid test, I suppose, is whether Portillo knew instantly what the acronym RevPAR stood for, and he did.
Portillo was a little critical of some aspects of British tourism, notably how often the dots are not joined to provide a seamless service to guests. Not doing so, of course, can lead to bad first impressions when a second impression might not be forthcoming.
Why, Portillo asked, is there not a train in the U.K. that has a raised passenger deck with a huge glass dome to better see the scenery? He has been on many such trains around the world; I have been on the Alaska Railroad, which has one.
Although I hope Portillo has not experienced my worst case of non-joined-up-dots, a booking of a “hotel” in Dunstable, Bedfordshire (I genuinely have forgotten its name), where I was told my room was not ready.
“No problem,” I said. “Can I leave my bag and check in later?”
“No, mister, it ain’t like that. The room ain’t been built yet, inn’t?” came the reply.
I do not know if the receptionist actually spoke like that, but I am going to pretend that I believe he did, as 30 years have not in any way dented my disbelief.
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