I seem to have spent most of the last month in other people's beds......no not like that!
Late July/August saw us spend one weekend in Birmingham for a wedding, two weeks in Cyprus for the annual Shanahan-clan holiday, and the weekend just gone in Eastbourne for a visit to the in-laws.
Each stay left me ruminating on what defines quality, value for money and good service.
First stop was the Crowne Plaza in Birmingham for a two night stay. The hotel was priced incredibly cheaply - just £58 per room per night on a Friday/Saturday night stay. It was immediately apparent why when we rolled up to Holliday street and found the building shrouded in scaffolding as it came to the close of a 16-month refurb project.
However, once through the doors, any semblance of building site was left behind and we settled in for a very good weekend. The rooms were newly-decorated, spacious, clean and cool. Probably not to everyone's taste - they were a bit red and black all over - they suited us well. But what really won points for the hotel on this stay was the staff attitude. Over the next 48 hours I talked refurb with the duty manager; good places to eat with the bar tender and cricket with the front desk staff. We weren't asking them to do anything extra or special, but their friendliness and willingness to go the extra step made it an easy and relaxing stay.
That's what we were looking for the following week at another ICH property - the redoubtable Aphrodite Hills in Cyprus. The very fact that this is a package destination - we booked through First Choice - does enough to suggest that this isn't actually the domain of the world's highest rollers, but the hotel didn't quite seem to have cottoned on that in the summer peak at least, they're actually an upscale family holiday destination.
For our first week, the clientele wasn't Europe's high-rollers, but mainly British families with kids and in-laws in tow, and probably more plumbers, electricians and small businessmen like me than the Captains of British industry. In the second week, many of the Brits were replaced by their Cypriot counterparts as Nicosia shut down for the Cyprus holiday season and the capital's families headed for the coast. Over both weeks, the core clientele was supplemented by a visible presence of ostentatiously wealthy Russians - plenty of bling, lots of brand labels....but not a lot of smiles.
The hotel has some great facilities - a well-run kids club that Sophie took full advantage of; a good gym and heath club and, at first glance, a selection of restaurants to frequent. But these formed part of the downside for me. The main restaurant was a buffet for breakfast and dinner. In both instances it was chaotic with often too many staff but too little organisation. It didn't feel five star; it didn't feel special in any way. Two of the alternatives were around the pool, while the third opened only on the last weekend of our stay.
Both the main alternatives that were open during our stay were very expensive - and unsurprisingly pretty empty most evenings. A large waiting staff brigade stood rather menacingly around both and did little to make either seem welcoming. We ventured into one - a fish restaurant, but didn't venture back.
Using the same set-up as the day-time poolside bar, but with linen on the tables, it offered fish priced by weight. So you actually didn't know what you were paying until the bill arrived. The waiting staff was mainly Eastern European and lacked more than a little in warmth though they were exceptionally efficient. However, with a brigade of eight, and just six active tables, they were overly-attentive to the point of being intrusive. What really grated with me was the constant upselling - actually a feature throughout the hotel during our stay. That particular night, we were pushed towards particularly expensive French wines (rejected for cheaper, but still overpriced local wine), the kids' drinks were replenished too often and we must have been asked six times if we wanted to order more, and what finally got me, my eight year old daughter was urged to have a second ice cream by the waitress.
At that point I snapped. I've run customer service courses in the past and have written extensively on the subject for clients over the years. One thing that should never happen is upselling to a child. The waitress got the sharp edge of my tongue; we didn't return to experience the 200 Euro two course experience again (including a child's meal!) and my dis-satisfaction featured in my end-of-holiday comment card.
Other than that, the stay was pretty good. Not everything was perfect - the air con broke down and took a while to fix, random TV stations dropped out on numerous occasions; and we never seemed to get the right number/selections of towels and bed linen. But these were minor things.
I just had a sense that the resort was a tad pretentious and pitching itself for a high-rolling audience when actually its market in summer was more family orientated and cost aware. Six euro fifty for a cranberry and soda and five fifty for a small beer around the pool soon added up, and even the other 'village' food outlets were all priced at a similar premium.
The result was that we used the car more to get out and eat out - more fun for us, but overall a revenue loss for a hotel that probably has too high a staff to customer ratio.
90% of the Aphrodite Hills experience3 was terrific - maybe my expectations are too high, but I came back a bit too focused on the other 10%.
The downside of the package was flying First Choice Airways - a horrible cramped Boeing 757; disaster-scene food and sub-Ryan Air service. Yuk.
Still, it set the tone for this weekend's trip to Eastbourne. We booked in to stay at the Travelodge on the front. Travelodge normally delivers a good, clean, basic product and everyone knows what to expect. But this time I got a lumpy bed, on the ground floor, opening on to the pavement and beside both the reception desk and the lift. On a hot summer's night, it was incredibly noisy (with the biscuit being taken by the person who honked up his night's beer right outside our window at about 1am as he stepped out of his taxi returning to the hotel); the lift had a loud two-tone electronic beep every time it arrived; the front door had another electric beep and the doors between reception and the room corridor groaned open and closed.
Ok, it was unlucky to get the worst room on a hot and busy night. But the staff didn't seem to care, and seemed to have the attitude that any guest was more likely to nick anything not nailed down than be in need of some service. Perhaps if they'd been more welcoming, we'd have had a better experience.
There's both an art and a science to customer service. They appreciated both in Birmingham; some but not all got it right in Cyprus (high praise particularly to the Concierge and Kids' Club staff); and it didn't appear to be on the radar in Eastbourne. It's funny how my best experience was, on the face of it, the least promising - and also cost the least.