What star service?

Rude staff, absurd prices, execrable facilities - it's high time British hotels got their act together
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The Independent Online

Walking the length and breadth of Britain over three years, I became an expert in the shortcomings of our hotels. This is one area of endeavour where the words "service" and "industry" hardly ever come together to create a pleasurable reality for the consumer. Last week the new Which? Hotel Guide published a report condemning the practice of imposing an extra charge for breakfast on top of the room rate. A good point, but overcharging is just one of many failings of the large hotel chains that need to be addressed.

Walking the length and breadth of Britain over three years, I became an expert in the shortcomings of our hotels. This is one area of endeavour where the words "service" and "industry" hardly ever come together to create a pleasurable reality for the consumer. Last week the new Which? Hotel Guide published a report condemning the practice of imposing an extra charge for breakfast on top of the room rate. A good point, but overcharging is just one of many failings of the large hotel chains that need to be addressed.

First, so many new hotels are being built that finding staff is a problem. Training them, especially if they are too young and low-paid ever to have stayed in a hotel, is difficult. How can they have any idea of what the average guest expects? Last week in Brighton I stayed in the Royal Albion Hotel, newly reopened as part of the Britannia Hotel Group. The website for this hotel promises "a unique experience", including a restaurant serving traditional English "fayre", whatever that might be. My room was at least finished, unlike that of a colleague, who was sent to a semi-basement cell with builders outside her window. In reception another guest was refusing to occupy a room because the smell of just-dry paint was overpowering. In my room I pushed up the sash window to take some sea air; the mullions were stuck on and came away in my hand.

I couldn't find any mention of room service in the hotel directory. It was 4pm and I'd been chairing a meeting through lunch. I was ravenous. "We might be able to make you a sandwich," a receptionist grudgingly allowed, but nothing hot. I asked for a plate of smoked salmon and some salad, with a glass of Chardonnay. A phone call a few minutes later told me there was a problem. I couldn't have hot smoked salmon. I pointed out to a disbelieving Australian girl that it normally came cold. The food eventually arrived with the wrong wine, but I couldn't have it unless I paid cash in advance. Eventually the manager came and took my credit card, swiping it for £100 against future food consumption. That may have been the most expensive salad of my life. Earlier, as I checked in, I was asked if I would be using the phone in my room. That, too, necessitated a large deposit.

Later I went to the empty bar, where I asked for a gin and tonic. The barman was busy tying his bow tie. "Just a minute," he replied, as if I was making a ridiculous demand. I stood and waited while this oaf completed dressing, examined his image in a mirror, checked his cuffs and then started to pour my drink without asking me which gin I wanted. Then he picked up a slice of lemon with his fingers and was about to lob it into my glass before I stopped him. Next morning a colleague was refused breakfast in the dining room because his name wasn't on a clipboard and he hadn't paid in advance. I was taking no chances and breakfasted at a pleasant café round the corner.

If all this sounds like nit-picking, there is a serious point. Increasingly our seaside towns are turning to the conference trade to revitalise themselves. This seems eminently sensible. It's a way of restoring once-grand buildings and establishing year-round income that's not dependent on the weather. The problem is, busy people attending conferences are not package-deal holidaymakers. They have basic requirements like hairdryers and irons, and a need for food outside set meal times. I wasn't on a family holiday or a bargain break. I, and all the other guests in this hotel, were booked in by reputable companies, and were working during our stay. Why staff a place with school leavers and treat the customers like naughty children? When it comes to hotels, this is one case when small surely is best.

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