Every morning, I earn my money talking about business people. But for two weeks, I've been living the life of one, constantly on the road, in a new town every day and a different hotel room every night. And as Bill Clinton used to say, I feel your pain. The impression some have about business travel - that it's all well-tanned executives gliding into swanky hotels for a carefree evening of fine dining and fancy cocktails - is just bunkum. Pick the wrong hotel, and you'll be lucky to get a toasted sandwich and a warm can of cola when you struggle through the door after a long day of meetings.
There's an unpredictable variety of British hotels, and we saw the lot during our 10-towns-in-10-days-tour - the excellent, the terrible, and the shockingly exorbitant. From a hotel said to have been built on the site of a brothel, to a hotel that assumed one of our guests was a rent boy; from a sun-kissed penthouse suite with stunning views from its floor-to-ceiling glass walls, to a subterranean cave where the already-limited natural light was blocked by the builders' skip - we had them all.
The infuriating thing was: the quality of the hotel bore little relation to the cost. Most big organisations have a fixed idea of what they are willing to spend on a hotel room, and negotiate a corporate rate accordingly. It keeps the accountants happy, but it also distorts the market. Bad hotels can get away with charging far more than they deserve, while the good ones don't get a proper reward for excellence. It's a wonder we have as many good hotels as we do, when proprietors can easily charge a fortune for shoddiness and discomfort, and customers still pay because ultimately someone else is picking up the tab.
But it's not all grim. Our tour took us around the country, from Aberdeen down the East Coast to Cambridge, and then from St Austell back up the west to Manchester. And there were some truly excellent hotels, with world-class service and staff to match. As it happens, most of those were built as part of urban regeneration schemes. I knew we were on to a winner in Newcastle when the Copthorne's head receptionist was able to rustle up a bouquet of flowers late at night. He didn't bat an eyelid when I materialised at reception, gibbering about an opera singer we'd just booked for our outside broadcast, who was taking a late train from London, and would need a suitably operatic thank-you gesture before 6am the next morning. An impossibility, I thought, as it had already gone 8pm. But nothing could be simpler. Mark whipped out his mobile phone, called a mate who worked in a florist's shop and left a message asking him to drop off a sizeable bunch on his way to the market in the morning. The flowers arrived and the delighted opera singer agreed to sing for us by the banks of the Tyne. Now that's service.
Bizarrely, hotels of the same name are not necessarily of the same standard. While the Copthorne in Newcastle was able to rustle up flowers without breaking into the local park, another Copthorne had almost to break into one of its own offices to retrieve our faxes. To be fair, it was 4am - but when we asked the receptionist the day before if our editors in London could fax through the latest overnight news in time for the programme, there wasn't a problem. They just forgot to tell us that the fax we could use was locked up at night in the business centre, which wouldn't be open until after we came off the air. It was not an entirely satisfactory arrangement.
Even hotels with the same brand and star rating can be utterly different. One Best Western - a perfectly respectable three-star establishment - was best described as snug, replete with its single bed, and a bathroom no cat would enter as it knew it couldn't be safely swung around inside. Another Best Western - also with three stars - could have fitted a small aircraft in the bedroom, and had a bathroom to match. I'm sure it was the extra walking distance within the room alone that made me late for my early morning taxi.
Talking with real business folk, a complaint I hear regularly about our hotels is their anonymity and sameness - "great big filing cabinets with beds", as one captain of industry put it. But quirks are still alive, and thank goodness for them, because they give us places like "doily heaven", a hotel room were no surface went unadorned with knitted lace. Even the upper frame of the four-poster bed had seen some hot crochet action. I'm sure it was the honeymoon suite, to which I had been upgraded when the owners saw the BBC truck pull up outside. The scene at reception during check-in reminded me of the moment in Fawlty Towers, when Basil is fawning over the con man posing as a peer of the realm, while Sybil has seen right through him. One of the owners wanted to give me the best room in the house; the other wanted to get us something better suited to the BBC's corporate rate. I got the upgrade, and the doilies, and was grateful for both.
The service in that hotel, by the way, was as far from Fawlty Towers as you could imagine - friendly, efficient and absolutely unstinting. If only every hotel had been like that. When I think of some of the other ones we stayed in, I can't imagine where else in the world you would get away with billing so much for a narrow bed, weak shower and indifferent breakfast. With poor value like that, all propped up by the business trade, it's no surprise that tourists - home-grown and foreign - complain about the high cost of UK holidays. I'll certainly have less sympathy for the British hotel industry when it next whines about tough times. It needs a course in Business 101, a lesson any of its guests who work in other industries could tell it: if you want your customers to come back, improve your service or cut your price - or better still, do both.
Declan Curry is business presenter for BBC One's 'Breakfast' programmeReuse content