Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
The less you weigh, the less you pay. Is this the future of travel?
Saturday 15 April 2006
Careful not to overindulge in those Easter eggs tomorrow if you plan to head for Germany's lovely and largely undiscovered north-western region, and in particular the Ostfriesland Hotel in Norden.
"You don't check in - you weigh in." That's not the hotel's slogan, but it ought to be. Usually, prices for a hotel are either fixed for the season, or vary according to supply and demand. At the Ostfriesland, though, you pay strictly according to how much you weigh - at a rate of €0.50 (35p) per kilogram per night. A short, slender woman, weighing 53kg (8st 5lb) will pay just €26.50 (£18) night, including breakfast - a bargain for a single room in a three-star hotel. A gentleman of modest stature who tips the scales at 64kg (10st 1lb) would be charged €32 (£23). Double rooms are priced according to combined weight, so a few extra kilos on one partner can be offset by a slim fellow-traveller.
The scheme began a month ago, and was due to end today. But so successful has it proved that Jürgen Heckroth, who runs the 15-room hotel, has extended the pay-by-weight idea to the end of April - and may make it a permanent feature.
A GIMMICK? A cynic would say so; without such a novelty, you would not otherwise be reading in a national newspaper about a small hotel in an obscure part of Germany. But Herr Heckroth insists that was not his motive. Indeed, he has found the media interest, and resulting free publicity, "terrible, terrible, terrible, because it was so much work. I was sitting in my little hotel working from 7am to midnight."
One unexpected result of the coverage the hotel received from newspapers, television and radio is that he has lost 4kg - which has taken him down to the 64kg male I used as an example. As it happens, his wife Elke is a mere 53kg ("I am very proud of her," he brags gleefully), the other figure I used.
But most of us are of somewhat fuller figures. Should we be penalised? Yes: from a business perspective, it makes perfect sense. Thinner guests will be less tempted to demolish the breakfast buffet in the manner of some enthusiastic eaters. And the lighter the guest, the less wear and tear on the bed (all other things being, er, equal).
A longer-term concern, though, is that the Heckroths enjoy a large number of repeat visitors, and Jürgen is trying to encourage guests to take more care of themselves so their patronage is assured for as long as possible. Indeed, the germ of the idea was a regular visitor who, each year, grew heavier. "Eventually, I told her that if she weighed any more next time, I would charge her extra," Jürgen says.
Last summer, he drove to the railway station to pick her up (evidently this is a tip-top hotel for service). "I could not recognise her," he says. "She had lost 35kg. At breakfast the next day, she said, 'I should pay less,' and I had to agree."
Now, all guests are invited to weigh in when they arrive, but the process is not compulsory. In recognition that not everyone will feel comfortable with the idea, rates are capped at a maximum corresponding to 74kg per person in a double room, 78kg single.
So who dares to step up to the scales? "Mostly wives," reports Jürgen. "The men tend to be bigger because of all the beer." Until now, he says, no one has gone on a crash diet in a bid to cut down their bill, but he would be happy for his earnings to fall if it means that his guests are in better shape. The Ostfriesland is a model for persuading people to lead healthier lives.
"I have some people who for 50 years have done no sports," says Jürgen, "so I take them into the forest to do Nordic walking." Besides taking guests on the Ostfriesian version of a boot camp, he plans to employ a fitness expert in the autumn to help guests cut their future hotel bills.
Curiously, the hotel also offers the "Ostfriesian Tea Ceremony", centred on a sugary brew served with lashings of cream. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the bill, as the saying nearly goes. I hope guests are not weighed as they check out.
ELSEWHERE IN the travel industry, there is plenty of scope to employ the technique. When I travel on an overstuffed Nicaraguan bus or Indian train, I take up more room (78kg, since you ask, at least before my daily cup of Ostfriesian tea) than the locals; surely I should pay a higher fare.
Some airlines in the US already penalise heavier passengers; Southwest insists that "customers of size" who are unable to lower the armrests between seats are obliged to buy a second ticket (the fare is refunded if the aircraft is not full when it takes off).
For safety, it makes sense for the flight crew to know the total weight of everyone on board; indeed, the loss of a small commuter plane in the US was partly attributed to insufficient allowance being made for the weight of the passengers. At Puerto Obaldia in Panama, the flight to the capital uses a tiny aircraft; no one is allowed on board until they have been weighed (and, if necessary, paid a paunch premium).
Financially, too, there is a strong case for weighing passengers as well as their luggage: heavier people use more fuel. Europe's biggest no-frills airline, Ryanair, already charges for checked-in luggage - can it be long before the carrier starts looking at passengers' personal excess baggage?
Scales at check-in are unlikely. Instead, passengers will be discreetly asked their weight. And in case anyone understates the true figure, air safety regulations - in the US at least - insist an extra 10lb is added.
Ostfriesland Hotel: 00 49 49 319 4400; www.hotel-ostfriesland.de
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