Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

Last year, I travelled regularly throughout the U.S. on business. As an etiquette consultant, I'm always on the lookout for service that is exceptional or disappointing. Regardless of my experience, I usually take the time to share my perspective with management in a constructive way. As a business owner myself, I would want to know if my clients were less than pleased so that I could investigate the problem and find solutions.

In November, I experienced service levels at opposite ends of the spectrum during back-to-back stays at two hotels. One is a grand hotel in the old tradition and the other is of the newer boutique variety, but their rates are about the same (in the range of US $400 to $600 per night). My stay at The Ritz Carlton Tyson's Corner, Virginia, was excellent from start to finish. It is a beautiful property whose staff take delight in meeting your needs and who are able to fulfill any request - extra pillows, cold medication, shipping items home - almost immediately. The room service, dining and overall attention to detail was above par on every level.

From there I moved on to a trendy hotel in Manhattan where I was hosting a group of 30 guests. I had a detailed contract outlining what I could expect in return for bringing so much business their way and had paid the full cost in advance for extras like pre-arrival check-in so members of my party wouldn't stand in line. Despite the anticipated arrival of a large group, the hotel had a minimal amount of staff, who seemed to spend most of their time talking among themselves, as guests opened doors and struggled with baggage. The hotel had also inexplicably scheduled a computer upgrade for the day of our arrival which crashed their system and resulted in my guests having to be checked in with pen and paper by the one available desk attendant. Room service was sloppy and simple requests required tracking down staff who were usually ill-equipped to help. Case in point - when the business centre photocopier ran out of toner, the concierge asked me to replace it myself. I was prepared to comply out of desperation but was unable to as no one knew where the extra toner was stored.

Upon my return to Toronto, I wrote letters to the owners and managers of both properties. In my letter to the Ritz Carlton, I raved about the service and asked that my feedback be shared with the hotel staff. To the manager of the Manhattan hotel, I politely expressed my disappointment, invoked phrases from our signed contract, and asked that my concerns be addressed in a timely manner.

Within a couple of weeks, the general manager of the Ritz Carlton wrote back, thanking me for the kind words and committing to share my praise with his staff. A month later, I received a two-line e-mail from a staff member at the Manhattan hotel, who had 'intercepted' my letter to his boss. He said that he was conducting an investigation and would get back to me. Alas, that was the last I heard of him, despite a couple of follow-up e-mails on my part.

This reinforces my belief that organizations which are committed to outstanding service make it a priority on every level. Etiquette dictates that it is not necessary to respond to a thank you letter but the best companies feel the need to acknowledge the time you took to write one. On the other hand, an organization whose indifference to clients is evident from the moment you walk in the door, can hardly be expected to flip into service mode when they receive a complaint.
I make it my business comment on my experiences with service personnel, whether it's a coffee shop or luxury resort, and I'm happy to say I spend as much time praising as I do complaining. When I'm doing the latter, I often receive an apology, occasionally receive restitution and sometimes, am completely ignored which is the most frustrating of all.

Like most humans, usually I'm just happy to have someone acknowledge my existence and listen to me. You can thank me, disagree with me, even shout at me. Just don't ignore me please. My fragile ego can't take it.


  1. Are you going to send another note to that hotel boss-dude who perhaps hasn't seen the intercepted letter? Sheesh.


  2. Nah, I've given up. I'll just vote with my feet and never go back. It's not like there aren't hundreds of other choices. You would think in a market as competitive as New York's, hotels would be vigilant about service.