Robots on the heritage circuit

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The Independent Online
"On your departure, were you bid goodbye?"

This slightly melancholy, semi-lyrical thought has stuck in my memory ever since I first read it. It is not a line of poetry, though it could be. It is not a gasp from a Mills and Boon novel, though it could well be.

It is in fact one of the items from a short work called A Question of Service, a questionnaire which is left behind by Forte Heritage Hotels in their bedrooms for guests to complete and send back. I stayed a night in a Forte Heritage Hotel at the weekend and I have been busy filling in the questionnaire ever since.

Trouble is, I can't remember if I was bid goodbye or not. Nor can I remember if I received a welcome call in my room or not. They want to know. Well, Stuart May wants to know. He is the managing director of Forte Heritage Hotels and has signed the questionnaire in green ink, saying that he would be grateful if I would spare a few moments of my time (as opposed to whose time?) completing this "guest questionnaire" so that they can maintain or improve their standards.

"Did you receive a welcome call in your room?"

I really don't know. Nobody phoned to say anything. Nobody knocked on the door and said, "Welcome!" Nobody showed us to our room and said, "Have a nice room." We were just left to find the room and get on with things. That's how I like things to be.

Of course, when I booked the room at this pub, I thought I was just booking a room at a pub. I didn't realise I was booking a room at a Forte Heritage Hotel. I certainly didn't realise I was booking into the Forte Heritage experience.

I should have known right from the very start when the woman at reception signed us in and then said in a curious monotone: "The bar area is through there, the lounge is there, the dining-room is there, where breakfast will be served in the morning, and the bedrooms are at the back of the hotel. Would you like a courtesy Telegraph in the morning or is there some other paper you require?" It reminded me of the safety routines that air stewardesses have to go through ("an emergency exit THERE and two more on the wings THERE"), routines that have been done so often that all spontaneity has gone.

She was a robot. She had been to Forte Heritage training school, where she'd had her personality put on hold and been taught to welcome guests to the hotel and point out the facilities in the Heritage manner.

Sure enough, A Question of Service, Stuart May's little questionnaire, includes the question: "Were the hotel's facilities explained?"

The answer to that is not yes or no, as Mr May wants, but: "Well, we were given a monotone lecture by the robot in reception on the rough geography of the hotel that had been instilled at Heritage programming classes, but at no point was eye contact made, and anyway, what is a welcome call and how would we know if we got one?"

There isn't room for that long an answer on a Heritage questionnaire. There isn't room for anything longer than a tick. You can answer either yes or no. That's it. So, when it comes to my comments on breakfast, I have a choice of 16 boxes to tick.

But I don't want to tick a box. I want to write an essay. I want to say: "Dear Mr May, Since when has a mixed grill been called a 'Heritage Platter'? How can you pollute the English language by using phrases like Heritage Platter to describe anything, let alone a collection of grey, lifeless mushrooms which squeak louder on the teeth than any mushrooms I have tasted? Why do you say on the menu 'your choice of eggs' and 'your choice of cereals', when phrases like 'your choice of' are just Heritage junk lingo meaning nothing, but sounding vaguely picturesque (like describing a Telegraph as a 'courtesy Telegraph' when it's not a courtesy at all, just a free newspaper)? Why do you list so many things on the breakfast menu when they are not available at breakfast, such as fresh fruit, grapefruit segments and yoghurt? How do you manage to get your Heritage toast so thin and your Heritage prunes tasting so remarkably like carpet felt? And why, when I mentioned this to your Heritage waitress, did she only say, 'Oh dear'?"

"I once stayed in a large hotel in Buxton (now closed) where the coffee was so dreadful at breakfast that I commented on it as I paid the bill.

"Your coffee must be the worst in Derbyshire, " I said to the cashier.

She thought for a moment, then smiled.

"In Britain, probably," she said.

I warmed to that woman. No Heritage lingo there.

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