Undercover hotelier: What’s missing from luxury hotels?
 
Undercover hotelier: What’s missing from luxury hotels?
28 MARCH 2016 7:36 AM

A visit to six luxury properties in Florida exposed some obvious cutbacks in service and amenities that seem out of place for the chain scale.

In the pre-Internet-domination days, Forbes’ star ratings or AAA’s diamond ratings provided an immediate litmus test of luxury, with a 5-star or diamond as an immediate indicator. Regrettably, the sun has set on these traditional bulwarks of quality control. TripAdvisor and other online review agencies have now assumed the mantle of being the traveling public’s quality thermometer.

As a hotelier, it may seem counterintuitive that select-service or economy properties can achieve a prestigious TripAdvisor rating of 4.5+ out of 5. And yet somehow, the public now equates free WiFi and waffles to be more important than evening turndown service or 24/7 concierge availability. The standards for third-party approval are now based upon emotional whims rather than logical systems and checklists.

However much I gripe, the situation is what it is, and instead of fighting the current, we must accept this paradigm shift and adapt accordingly. I recently set out to visit six purported luxury properties throughout southern Florida. Each of these properties has exceptionally high TripAdvisor scores in addition to 4- or 5-star and diamond ratings.

What was surprising to me was the wide variability in accommodation quality and service offerings. All of these half dozen properties appeared to be trying to save money, cut corners and scrape by with near-minimum standards. Whether this is a product of decreased overall margins—or already knowing what their target demographic of “luxury customers” already wants and excising everything else in the name of efficiency—is still up for grabs.

I’ll add that I did not ask for comp rooms. After all, this was peak season in Florida. Moreover, I wanted an unbiased treatment. My findings are as follows.

1. A lack of value
Every roomnight was more than $500. Add to that the compulsory resort fee ranging from $27 to $45 per night, $38 to $54 for parking and mandatory taxes, and each night was close to $650.

At that price range, I would expect that there would be some special treatment, or at least some added value. But alas, there was the large water bottle with an $8 price tag and an outrageously priced mini-bar. The complimentary magazines, usually plentiful, were down to just one or two. Welcome amenities and welcome notes from the GM were non-existent. WiFi was variable, too. All featured some form of free WiFi, often available to members of loyalty programs only. However, the “free” version was typically so slow that I felt second-class. Morning newspaper delivery? I couldn’t even find one in the breakfast room. How about a simple flower vase in the room? You must be kidding.

2. Imperfect housekeeping
I’ve long stressed the importance of housekeeping and standards that must be upheld. Every one of the hotels I visited failed in one way or more to achieve my minimum housekeeping criteria.

Some of the flaws were so flagrant that Conrad Hilton would be rolling in his grave! I don’t like to hear a knock on the door at 8:30 a.m. and “Housekeeping!” loudly spoken. After all, check-out is at noon and check-in for the next guest is 4:00 p.m.; certainly there could be some sense of timeliness.

What’s most surprising here is how important housekeeping is to the average online reviewer. Being flawless in this regard is a vital part of the new-age TripAdvisor paradigm of hotel reviews, and yet we are still failing to give guests what they want.

On a related note, one of the latest housekeeping ideas is to reuse towels, supposedly for eco-friendly reasons (but really to save laundry costs). At one property, even those I left on the floor were picked up, folded and placed back on the racks. Amenity bottles—half-used shampoos, for example—were not replenished. Bed sheets were often not changed daily at all six hotels.

The list of errors by traditional standards could fill a page. I do not fault the housekeepers, though. Rather, I fault operational management who are probably pushing too many rooms per shift on these hourly employees.

3. Rip-off breakfasts
I know that roomservice has a cost, and most hotels (maybe all) do not make any profit from this department. But the prices have now moved to the point of umbrage.

A guestroom-delivered, continental breakfast for two, including all compulsory service charges and taxes, came through in the range of $70 to $90. Sorry, but that is simply unfair. It would be borderline acceptable if the breakfast included the best pastries, juice and coffee on earth, or if it was cooked right before my eyes by Anthony Bourdain. But sadly, in this instance the grapefruit juice was reconstituted and the bread rolls tasted store-bought. The next morning I walked to the nearest Starbucks, and, with even more melancholy, I was hardly the only guest making the trek.

Breakfasts in the restaurants were better but far from exemplary. Any way you put it, when you are coercing your guests to travel off-site, either through exorbitant pricing or reheated, stale food, you are doing something wrong, especially at the luxury level where cuisine is expected to be stellar. Think about it this way: It’s often stated that a great day begins with a great breakfast. In this sense, how can a truly luxurious hotel experience be attained with a mediocre morning meal?

4. Cutting corners on maintenance
Now, most guests are not going to go to the extremes of examining hard goods or looking at sheets for wear and tear. But I did, and I want to report some more not-so-great news.

Not one property of the six kept up on room maintenance—at least for what should be expected at the luxury level. Chipped paint on doorframes and thin towels appear to be highly overlooked. It’s sad in a way, but I imagine everything was trimmed back to a minimum in the Great Recession, and no one thought to reopen the funding for these necessities. While I doubt this error factors in as a priority for most consumers, it is nonetheless a subtle contributor to the overall experience, and something that may stymie an individual from falling head over heels for a specific hotel.

All is not lost, however. Not all properties I visited failed in each and every one of these four criteria. For example, exemplary reception and valet services prevailed. Dinner and lunch in the various restaurants ranged from excellent to outright “wow.” General comfort (beds, air conditioning and so on) was also without fault.

As a closing remark, if these properties are representative of what guests can expect from the contemporary “luxury” segment, we’re not putting up much of a fight against the inevitable intrusion of alternate lodging providers like Airbnb. Properties at this price range should exude a feeling that makes all guests feel special, wanted and appreciated.

For the most part, this was not the case. I do not blame line staff—exemplary in-service delivery to a tee, housekeeping errors aside. I do, however, point my finger at the owners, senior management, the executive team or whoever else is responsible for the rampant cost reductions. In their quest for never-ending profit increases, they have cut corners to the point of embarrassment.

Every little snip pushes the traveling public closer to property ambivalence, brand apathy and the habit of looking solely to alternate lodging providers for a bona fide luxury experience. It’s a shame, though, as I thought our luxury leaders would set a higher standard to ensure healthy long-term success in the face of so many industry changes.

Larry Mogelonsky is the founder of LMA Communications Inc., an award-winning hospitality marketing agency. He’s also a member of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants, G7 Hospitality and Laguna Strategic Advisors. He has published three books including “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?”, “Llamas Rule” and “Hotel Llama”.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Hotel News Now or its parent company, STR and its affiliated companies. Columnists published on this site are given the freedom to express views that may be controversial, but our goal is to provoke thought and constructive discussion within our reader community. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concerns.

4 Comments

  • Shay Baranowski March 28, 2016 11:06 AM Reply

    I think you hit the nail on the head Larry that everything was trimmed back in the recession and funds were never released. You know how the budget is always predicated on what you spent the year before-after the recession everyone had majorly trimmed budgets and there is almost a "well if you could survive on those numbers last year surely you can do it again this year" but I think that comes from greed. I have seen reports on how long it takes the ADR to recover after a recession but would be interested in seeing how long it takes to recover more money in your budget to spend! I feel very fortunate I have always had a regional that has gone to bat for me and gotten me the money I needed to do the right things.

  • Dee March 28, 2016 3:14 PM Reply

    Wish you had included hotel names... I live in Florida and work in the industry and find this article rather on point.

  • Carlo Buscemi March 28, 2016 8:48 PM Reply

    It is a sad article to read, but so true, I am an instructor at a college in the HA program, and, I am always trying to teach my students that Excellence in everything they do is the only way to run a business, unfortunately, a lot of GM and corporate offices have forgotten what luxury service means, shameful to see that the new cadre of Hotel GM tend to fall to the owner's wishes to save a few pennies, I call them penny wise and pound foolish.
    Those GM are not worth their title, not willing to stand up for their principles.

  • Hef March 30, 2016 11:25 AM Reply

    Your article is right on the mark . However, I think not the manager, at least in most cases, are to blame, ownership dictates the level of service and quality of their properties.
    I look forward to reading more of your articles.

Comments that include blatant advertisements or links to products or company websites will be removed to avoid instances of spam. Also, comments that include profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, solicitations or advertising, or other similarly inappropriate or offensive comments or material will be removed from the site. You are fully responsible for the content you post. The opinions expressed in comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Hotel News Now or its parent company, STR and its affiliated companies. Please report any violations to our editorial staff.