Travel secrets: Losing valuable time on unnecessary fussing?

Hotels that waste a guest's time on force-fitted niceties and flawed service are counterproductive to a holiday. The ultimate luxury is a hotel that matches what one has at home.

Jumeirah is one of very few hospitality groups that invests in staff training to eliminate delays, as is evident at Burj Al Arab. Pawan Singh / The National

If there’s one thing that hotels take for granted, it’s their guests’ time. Too often, the mere fact that we’ve chosen to stay in a hotel is taken to mean that we’ve got time to waste. Somewhere along the line, relaxation has been equated with inefficiency. Yet nothing could be further from what the seasoned luxury traveller wants and deserves. When you’ve put in a lot of time working, spent a lot of money, and are tired from travelling – even if it is for a holiday not business – the last thing you want is to lose any of your valuable hotel time on unnecessary faffing and fussing.

For me, the ultimate luxury is a hotel that matches what I have at home – discretion, comfort and convenience, with everything where I want it and within reach. The extra facilities – beaches, spas, restaurants, interesting staff – should be a bonus, not another experience that feels like work.

Unfortunately, at the majority of hotels, things that should be intuitively present are mysteriously missing. Take the butter that has to be hunted down at breakfast, the room that has a coffee machine but no teabags in sight, or teabags but no milk (please, no Coffee-Mate). Drinks that are not replenished the next day; ditto with bathroom stuff – cotton wool, face towels. At home, there’s no shortage of these things, so why should a hotel be any different?

Many time-wasting irritations are serious design flaws, such as curtains that don’t block out the light, showers that flood or poor soundproofing. Uncomfortable pillows and noisy or unresponsive air conditioning are also unforgivable, but having to phone down to complain about such annoyances, and wait for them to be rectified, is even more time- consuming. Of course, the best hotel operators such as Jumeirah and the Oberoi Group invest heavily in staff training, proving that “intuitiveness” can, to a large extent, be taught. Staff spend a night in the hotels they work at to see things from the guest’s perspective. Small things such as stamping your valet ticket before you leave the restaurant are not rocket science but add up to a world of difference.

Of course, luxury hotels, especially large resorts, can often be the biggest time-wasters, and the clock starts ticking immediately on arrival, when your bags disappear – who knows when (or sometimes if) they will reach your room? You can guarantee that the time you really need your bag quickly, for that change of clothes and shower before a big event – is the time you’ll be dialling down to reception three times to try to locate your stuff. Hotels: don’t grab guests’ bags but maybe give them a choice. Sometimes we want to carry our own bags, so hands off them.

Then, there’s the standing around at check-in while a staff member finishes off a phone call to another guest, or the dreaded “please take a seat”. No, I don’t want to take a seat and wait for you; I want to go to my room as quickly as possible. A “welcome drink” often seems a cover-up for staff who seem like they’ve been ambushed. Advance guest-preference emails, if they ask relevant questions and are actually acted upon, are a good idea, as is online check-in.

There’s also the tour of the room and the increasingly bizarre practice of checking the minibar just after you’ve arrived at the room, or coming to do the “turndown” service just while you’re having a bath or enjoying the sunset. With so many knocks at the door, a one-night escape can easily start to feel like a siege. Yes, the “do not disturb” sign is a valuable tool, but not when you’re still waiting for your bags/room service/engineering.

David Whitley, a United Kingdom-based travel writer and author of the Grumpy Traveller book and blog, says having to be shown how to use your room is a prime example of the "fuss factor" that blights so many hotel stays. "Take the shower controls," Whitley says. "If I have to spend any time at all working out how to use it, it hasn't been designed properly. Put power sockets by the bed and have the lights controlled by one or two switches." He's also critical of the oppressive effect of huge numbers of staff interrupting your day with pointless greetings and comments. "The sheer bombardment of people saying 'hello sir', or even addressing me by name, is baffling and creepy," he says. "Haven't they got a job to do? Just ignore me."

Whitley is right: why is it that hotels (and by definition their staff) imagine that we have nothing else to do than sit around waiting for things – whether it’s a buggy or attention in a restaurant? All of this gets in the way of living. Sometimes we simply want to be somewhere different but to be left alone, to read a newspaper or do some work, which leads us to the thorny problem of internet access. At home, I have a strong Wi-Fi connection and am always connected on all devices via an easy-to-remember password. At a hotel, I do not want to have to become a Bletchley Park codebreaker, only to find that I’m logged off after an hour, overnight or whenever I move to a different area, or close and reopen my laptop or switch off my iPhone. If I can’t get a connection quickly, I now hand my device to a staff member for them to connect – your service, your problem.

Thankfully, the growing trend in the Middle East towards small, mid-range business hotels, seems to be giving larger luxury resorts something to think about. I recently stayed at the Novotel Abu Dhabi Al Bustan, an Accor property, and was impressed with the light, confident efficiency of the staff, who realise that guests are people, not playthings, and act accordingly. It’s about time.