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Simon Kelner: Hospitality is just not the forte of the British

I was in Manchester last night, on an intensely private matter. Oh, all right, I was at a football match. Anyway, I was staying at the city centre hotel where I am a regular visitor. In the relatively short time I have patronised this establishment, it has changed names – and, I assume, ownership – three times, and in its latest incarnation it went from a hotel with a short, memorable name – just four letters – to one with a cumbersome, Americanised moniker – three words, 18 letters.

But no matter. It is clean, efficient, friendly and good value. There is nothing special about it, apart from the fact that, in my experience, British hotels are generally found wanting in at least one of those four categories. And that's before we even talk about the overheated rooms with windows that don't open, key cards that don't work properly (sorry to be a parody of a grumpy old man, but how I long for the days when you'd check in to a hotel and be given a key that was actually a key), staff who don't understand the meaning of service, and a dining room where everyone talks in a conspiratorial whisper.

It is a truism that comedy works best when it is rooted in reality, so the success of Fawlty Towers was in some part due to the fact that we had all had experience of similar establishments. The truth is, I think, that the British are not very good at the service industry. Servility doesn't come naturally to us.

Compare the way, in America for instance, you are treated at anywhere from a hotel or restaurant to a dry cleaners. My favourite story of the British service industry happened early one morning at Gatwick airport. I was having a cup of tea in one of the terminal's restaurants and I heard raised voices from the serving counter. I looked up to see one of the staff with his arms round a customer's neck, dragging him across the counter. "If you do that once more," he yelled, "I'll [expletive deleted] kill you, you [two expletives deleted]." The customer skulked off, and when I went to pay my bill, I noticed that the member of staff was wearing a badge. It read: "My name is Michael. I'm here to help you."

I remember a conversation several years ago with Tessa Jowell, then a Cabinet minister who had responsibility for tourism, telling me at a Labour Party conference that she'd just had a deputation from British hoteliers wanting government help. She said they might have had a more sympathetic hearing if she hadn't been paying an extortionate amount for a tiny room at a hotel where she was unable to order a cup of tea on room service.

It does make me wonder what visitors who come for the Olympics will make of it. The overcharging, the inefficiency, and the fact that many hotels seem to be run for the convenience of the staff. How many times I've heard that triumphant message, delivered with unfailing good cheer: "Sorry, the kitchen is closed for the evening." Whatever else, don't expect Team GB to qualify for the final of the 100 metres hospitality.