Guest Experience Critique: Love is Blind

Guest Experience Critique: Love is Blind

Turn Negatives into Positives

During this cold and windy winter's weekend, there was a parking dilemma for guests. All street parking outside the hotel had been blocked off with orange cones to prepare for roadworks.

With unofficial, hand-written signs saying 'no parking' outside - nobody on the street knew whether it was legal to park on the street or whether they would be towed away in the dead of the night.

It just happened to be miserable weather outside as well. That meant most guests with cars had to use the hotel car park - at $22 per night extra.

If the hotel had adopted digital signage on the premises located in public areas, this would have been a great opportunity to inform guests of the parking situation and remind them of the process for parking in the hotel.

But imagine if they had taken advantage of this negative for guests by offering a 50% discount on parking that weekend?

These are the sort of small gestures that guests really appreciate because they show real empathy for their situation.

I stayed at this hotel over two consecutive stays to experience check-in and check-out multiple times.

On my first visit, the front desk tried to charge me for two night's parking when I had only parked for one.

Then on my second return a few days later on another stay I asked to park one night in the car park and was told by staff at Reception that he would put '$44 extra on my account'. I reminded him that parking was $22 per night and I had requested one night's parking. His reply was that 'But aren't you staying two night's?'.

Yes, I replied, but I only wish to pay for one night's parking as requested. He gruffly reminded me that I would have to vacate the park by 10am the next morning or be charged an extra night.

Hardly the best way to make a guest feel like they are 'at home'.

Parking Pain at Hotels

Parking is an often overlooked guest experience negative for many hotels with plenty of ways to increase profits by removing the anxiety associated with it.

Firstly there are the normally inflated prices charged by hotels. This encourages guests to drive endlessly around the hotel seeking off-street parking. Then there is the inconvenience and confusion often associated with hotel parking.

This confusion is amplified by guests being not only unfamiliar with your hotel, but also the local streets - and probably the car they are driving. To top it off they are tired and hungry!

At this hotel for example, upon checking in I was asked for my car registration number as if this was something I kept with me at all times.

How many guests do you think that are driving a rental car can rattle off their registration number? And what about the anxiety that this causes the guest as they worry providing the wrong registration number by one digit might result in the car being towed away.

The front desk staff at this hotel (noticing my anxiety) suggested that I just 'Give them a call from my room with the registration number'. This was a ludicrous thing to suggest because I wasn't going to suddenly remember my car registration number once I got to my room...

He then said something even more revealing. 'We don't really need your registration - it's just in case you have left your lights on'.

What he was really asking me to do was … Go upstairs and make yourself comfortable, and then just when you think you can relax and enjoy your stay - leave the hotel room, go back down to the freezing cold car park and then write down your registration number on a pen and paper that you will have to find in your hotel room then go back up to your room and call reception, get put on hold for two minutes - and finally repeat your car registration three times before we get it right.

What he could have simply done is asked me which floor the car was parked in and the make and model of the car and written down the registration number himself as a nice gesture.

This would take all of three minutes for him to do - and would have made the start of my stay and check-in a truly positive, memorable experience - for all the right reasons.

People remember the first and last things they encounter most readily. That means the check-in and check-out experiences are the things that people will remember more than anything else (and later recall on TripAdvisor).

Just this simple change to their procedures would make an enormous difference to their guest experience and would probably result in a handful of extra five-star reviews on TripAdvisor every month if done consistently.

The real truth to this whole parking saga is that the hotel did not have a robust parking system because I was able to stay an extra night in the car park without being charged.

I advised reception of this and paid the extra $22. But it just shows how flawed the parking system was and how open to abuse it was by both staff and guests!

I think Kevin O'Leary the Billionaire Entrepreneur from Shark Tank sums it up best...

There must be a better way!

Yes Kevin - there is a better way. It's called - free parking for all guests!

The Check in 'Experience'

The check in experience was mostly completely forgettable. That can be good, and it can be bad, depending on your perspective.

Yet again, and typical of four-star hotels around the Asia Pacific region - I was given my plastic key card in one of those generic, annoying little cardboard key card sleeves that never close properly.

Annoying because they serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever except to be the first thing deposited into the rubbish bin inside the hotel room.

Of course, they do have your room number on them, but sometimes that is not very legible with different people at reception writing numbers in their own style of handwriting.

At least this one had the hotel room number on the FRONT of the sleeve, making it just that little bit easier to find...

But like most hotels, there was no printed information provided on check in. That meant I had no idea what the facilities of the hotel were, the checkout times, wifi access etc.

Every hotel in the world should provide guests on check-in with a printed information sheet that not only 'welcomes them' but provides key information about your hotel.

This sheet (unlike the cardboard key sleeve) will then more than likely be kept by guests inside the room for easy access to just the important information a guest needs.

Because it's so compact and brief, it can also be translated into multiple languages with much less expense and hassle than a full hotel compendium.

Comfortable Rooms

I have stayed at this property before, and I quite like the rooms. They are adequately furnished and feature very comfortable beds. Featuring small kitchenettes and laundry facilities, they tick all the boxes in terms of facilities and general comfort and cleanliness.

Perfectly adequate and comfortable hotel room.

Perfectly adequate and comfortable hotel room.

But as you are probably aware of in the hospitality industry, ticking boxes is not what it's all about.

The problem with this hotel is they have failed to really understand the importance of the guest experience. They have not walked in their shoes.

While the rooms themselves are perfectly adequate, they suffered from many 'small' problems which can turn a great experience into something rather grim.

Perhaps that is why this hotel only scores an 'average' TripAdvisor rating online?

The Sadistic Bathroom

Let's start with the bathroom in this particular room. The toiletries are excellent and have a great perfume that reminds me a New Zealand rainforest. Points to whoever chose the toiletries.

But they overlooked one small detail. The description on the side of the bottles for the 'bath/shower gel' was so small that it was unreadable.

The trendy young designer didn't consider that people remove their glasses before having a shower.

The shower gel is the most important toiletry and ideally, it should be in the shower where it belongs. Not perched on the bathroom counter hidden among conditioners, body lotions and other potions.

After putting my glasses back on to find the shower gel and getting back into the shower you realise that you now need shampoo and conditioner. So back down you go - and in the process completely drench the floor.

But here is the real problem, and this is far more important and serious than not putting toiletries where they actually need to be; there is no shower at this hotel - instead, you get a shower over the bath. This is almost always sub-optimal as it presents real safety concerns for guests - unless managed well.

The risk of guests slipping over in the bath while showering could (easily) be reduced by providing rubber safety mats, and by providing grab handles inside the bath. It can also be eliminated during a refurbish by designing a shallow bath or putting a shower there in the first place.

Now I am not suggesting this hotel remodels their bathrooms - but the lack of any grab handles inside the bath for safe egress was a shocking omission.

I stayed in several rooms over two stays and in another room there was actually one grab handle. However, it was so small and far away from where anyone would actually stand and shower that if someone lost their balance, they could not grab it.

The shower door was glass and hinged both ways, and so swung out towards the bathroom. It horrifies me to think of how many people have slipped inside this bath shower and fallen head first onto the floor below.

This is the sort of accident that guests - out of embarrassment - would only report to their doctors, or worse - anonymously online.

Just as well you can't sue businesses for negligence in terms of injuries caused by accidents in New Zealand. Because this is absolutely an accident waiting to happen!

The bath is relatively high and so the step down to the wet floor below was too far. There also needs to be a grab handle on the wall under the towel holder to steady yourself and prevent slipping.

What do you think guests do in this situation when they are trapped inside the bath? That's right - they grab the towel holder which is less than adequately fixed to the wall to steady themselves as they exit the bath.

Without grabbing onto the towel rack there was no physically safe way to egress from the shower onto a wet floor. It might have been less scary if the towel rack didn't look like it was about to fall off.

You can see in this photo that this has resulted in the towel rack being bent as hapless guests grab anything they can to try and safely return to the bathroom floor without slipping over.

Picture of bent towel rack in hotel bathroom
Picture of bent towel rack in hotel bathroom

If I were advising the management of this hotel (which I am - albeit unsolicited) I would immediately suggest installing two grab handles in every bath/shower. One long grab handle inside the shower close to where people are standing and another to assist in getting out of the shower safely onto the floor.

Mini Bar Still Stuck in the 80's

Hotel managers and owners love referring to areas of their hotels as profit centres.

But the challenge for hotel operators these days is that profit is only one side of the equation. Equally important is the actual resulting guest experience.

Charging $6.50 for orange juice is not going to endear your hotel to guests. Regardless of whether it was 'convenient' for them to pay very inflated prices for mini bar items, they are still not going to be singing your praises on TripAdvisor.

Firstly, the prices for these items are off the charts. Lowering the prices to encourage demand and therefore turn over the stock is the smart thing to do. That was backed up by my observation that one of the items was past its use by date.

The mini bar with less than guest friendly pricing or fresh contents.

The mini bar with less than guest friendly pricing or fresh contents.

Lower prices will also result in more people purchasing items from the mini bar honestly and not attempting to rort the system by replacing the goods the next day - or other such tactics to 'get back' at the hotel.

Secondly, this form - just like the room service breakfast form - is way too complicated. Are you really going to charge $6.50 for an Orange juice and then make guests add up the total for you and bring it down to reception with all those fields filled out?

Seriously, who fills out mini bar forms? I don't think I have ever seen anyone fill out one of those forms - and I certainly wouldn't. What is wrong with simply asking guests if they had anything from the mini bar at checkout?

The only thing required on the form is the product, the price and a small message such as 'Please tell us what you used from the mini bar at checkout. Thanks for your co-operation and enjoy your stay!'

What possible benefit is there in having a total line at the bottom when the PMS is going to calculate that anyway? It is just madness because it sets up in people's minds a level of complexity and anxiety that they simply don't want to have to deal with.

One look at that overly detailed form and they think - 'No way will I gorge on that chocolate - because I don't want to fill that bloody form out'. And that's before they even see the excessive prices.

Please consider not treating your mini bar so much as a profit centre but as a chance to surprise and delight your guests with a range of fresh, local, delicious and reasonably priced items - and watch those 5-star reviews come in as appreciation.

The final straw for me was filtered coffee being on the mini bar list. Many hotels (and motels) provide plunger coffee for free and many are not purporting to be four-star hotels.

In any case, no-one is going to pay $7 for plunger coffee when they can go downstairs and get a proper latte for $4.50 from the restaurant cafe. Especially when the only milk in the fridge are tiny thimbles of UHT Milk - but more on that later!

Guest Experience is about Empathy

As a hotel manager, there is no better way to understand guest experience than to stay in your hotel rooms on a regular basis.

You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it
— Harper Lee

Let's just take the simple act of making a cup of coffee in this hotel. This is a very small example of guest experience, but it speaks to the importance of actually 'climbing into his skin'.

At this hotel, I attempted to make a cup of instant coffee. I certainly wasn't going to fork out $8 dollars for the plunger coffee from the mini bar.

Here was the result:

Picture of mess making coffee with UHT milk in hotel
Picture of mess making coffee with UHT milk in hotel

You can see the mess that I made just trying to make a cup of coffee. That is because I had to use three of those bloody little UHT milk thimbles. When doing so they invariably fall over or spill milk on the kitchen bench.

Just imagine how the guest feels after paying $7 for plunger coffee only to discover that there is no real milk in the fridge?

If motels can manage to provide real, free, fresh milk to guests then I don't see why hotels cannot provide the same level of service (especially 4-star hotels).

This can be achieved either by doing what motels do (giving guests the option of free fresh milk on check-in) or having housekeeping ensure there is always fresh, unopened milk cartons inside the fridge.

Even providing larger UHT milk containers would be an improvement!

Cryptic Washing Machine

Can you imagine the frustration, anger and stress caused by having all of your laundry soaked wet to the core just before checking out?

That was the experience at this four star hotel and it wasn't the first time this has happened. You see - this hotel has one of those impossibly complicated and cryptic European washing machines that attempt to disguise all the functions with little meaningless icons.

Picture of washing machine instructions
Picture of washing machine instructions

The complexity of this device is because it's supposed to both wash and dry your clothes. However, getting the washing machine to ever actually dry my clothes was about as elusive as Father Christmas.

On my last visit to this hotel several years ago I actually had to call reception and get housekeeping to come and find the dry cycle. So I know it exists.

It was perhaps unsurprising that again I was unable to operate it successfully. I am absolutely convinced that the instructions are either incorrect, very poorly worded - or both.

This problem for guests requires a thoughtful person to spend half a day with that washing machine to understand it intimately.

Then THAT SAME PERSON needs to create clearer and correct instructions using simple plain English or a combination of English and language agnostic symbols.

Then those instructions need to be given to multiple people who have never used it before to see if they can use them.

Furthermore, all staff should be trained on exactly how to use this complicated device (and that also include all other devices in the room).

I would also suggest as well that this is a form of communication that should be translated into other languages like Chinese.

Housekeeping Interaction

One morning I took the time to find the housekeeper to advise them I didn't require my room to be made up today. I thought this would be appreciated as it meant the housekeeper could cross me off the list for the day.

Imagine my surprise when the housekeeper simply replied 'ok' and didn't even look me in the eye or thank me.

The rooms were spotless, so there probably isn't an issue with housekeeping per se. But if housekeeping are not 'on board' with Guest Experience then you are really fighting an uphill battle.

Some training in GX and guest interactions including a 'cheat card' or 'cheat sheet' on how to greet guests they encounter, protocols for various situations and of course emphasising the importance of above all just smiling may help here!

The Elusive Hamburger

Here is another gripe that comes down to communications. The hotel has wisely installed a large promotional sign at the location of the lifts on each floor.

Needless to say, these are the high traffic areas of the hotel and best used for promotions and announcements.

The problem here is that this sign doesn't provide all the information that is required. In fact, it's just misleading and confusing.

There is nothing wrong with the photo of the concept in general or the typography or the original idea. The problem is that there is no indication that this burger is only available (it would seem?) via Room Service.

Should you visit the house restaurant you will not find it on the menu. Nor is it on the lunch menu or any other menu I could find - except the room service menu.

But the promotion does not mention this. It does oddly say 'Terms and Conditions Apply' at the bottom, though.

Perhaps it would just be better to tell the truth - 'Only Available from Room Service Menu 24HR's a Day'. Or even better 'Available through Room Service Right Now'.

I went downstairs to the restaurant expecting to see it on the menu and was naturally disappointed when it was unavailable.

My Steak Tenderloin/s

Which bring us to my experience at the main house 'grill' restaurant for dinner.

I was quickly greeted by a professional waiter in a suit who was everything you would expect from a well-trained service professional.

While the service was a tad over the top, I like most others would much rather prefer slightly 'over the top' service than no service at all (or disinterested waiters). Oscar Wilde was right when he said: "You can never be too overdressed".

You can never be too overdressed
— Oscar Wilde

A review of the menu revealed a reasonably well thought out menu. However, I can't help but feel it should have featured more Asian food options.

For example, there was a lack of any stir fry, curry or noodle dishes which I thought was missing a trick. It did, however, feature a good range of both vegetarian and gluten free options.

All 'cuts of meat' as it's described on the menu are served with stacked potatoes, onion rings and grilled tomatoes.

People when dining at hotels want to feel at home. A Chinese tourist, for example, is not going to feel at home with stacks of potatoes and grilled tomatoes served with every main course.

That wouldn't be my first choice of sides to serve with every meal, but the stacked potatoes were very good and quite suited to the time of the year (dead of winter). The onion rings had run out and were replaced with calamari rings which were fine.

Ideally, guests would get a choice of one side to go with their main course.

I ordered the Beef Tenderloin with Red Currant sauce expecting a single piece of steak. This is the generally expected outcome when ordering a steak.

The Beef Tenderloin was actually presented as 'Beef Tenderloins' or about four small end pieces of beef tenderloin.

It's not really the 'end of the world', but these end pieces should probably be best kept for other dishes like Beef Stroganoff and not served to somebody ordering a $38 steak.

Room Service Breakfast

What could possibly be wrong with a simple room service menu? Let me give you a hint - it's the same thing that is wrong with the laundry menus in most hotels.

The answer is that there is far too much information requested from guests and too many options and fields to complete. People order room service breakfast because they want convenience.

A menu like this should be redesigned to be much simpler, with far fewer options and without forcing people to write their names on the outside of the menu for anyone walking past to capture.

That is a major privacy concern in this day and age. Having to state your name and hang it outside your hotel room is not a good idea for obvious safety and privacy reasons. This is a relic of the past.

The Room Not Serviced Notice

Picture of room not serviced notice
Picture of room not serviced notice

These types of notices are a fantastic idea which we recommend to all hotels. But the whole idea has been let down by the implementation.

Firstly, there is a big difference between what you might call this notice internally and how the guest interprets it.

For the hotel, this may well be described accurately as a 'Room not serviced notice'. But for the guest, this just comes across as some sort of frightening warning notice that in some way they have inconvenienced the housekeeping staff.

We are all used to getting 'final warning notices' for things like fines and other demands.

Actually calling it a 'notice' is a very bad idea. How about injecting some humanity and empathy into the message?

If you are going to use big words please make sure you spell them correctly! This is the way things were written twenty-five years ago. This sort of stuffy wording is not going to endear anyone to your hotel.

There are actually four grammatical or spelling errors on this document (mainly lack of commas, spaces etc and misspelling replenished). This can only lead me to believe this piece of communication was carelessly prepared.

The message this sends to guests is that the management or staff don't really care. Does that all extend to cleaning and food and beverage? For these guests, subconsciously that is what they are thinking - even if that's not the case.

A far better version of this notice would start with something like 'For Your Comfort' or 'We Respect your Privacy' or even a more humorous or light-hearted title depending on your branding.

Guests do not refer to the contents of the mini bar as 'stock'. They also don't refer to the 'Do Not Disturb' sign as the DND sign. All of this just creates added confusion, especially for non-english speaking guests.

Breakfast Butts

This is a pet peeve of my mine that I see regularly at all hotels - regardless of their star rating.

When approaching the heavily defended gateway to a breakfast buffet there will be a sentry - who it seems, has been placed there with the sole purpose of making sure only those 'eligible' for a free breakfast should be permitted to pass.

So the first greeting you normally get is a rather mechanical 'Good Morning Sir - Can I have your room number please?'. At which time the person will 'look you up' and verify if you are eligible to pass.

There are several problems with this approach from a guest experience perspective:

Firstly, many guests do not actually care for breakfast buffets and prefer to order a la carte for many reasons including time and dietary constraints.

I am quite happy with a fresh Eggs Benedict and flat white thanks.

So you can imagine how things proceeded at this hotel. Firstly, I was asked just that question - 'Good morning Sir, Can I have your room number, please?' to which I reply 'Do you have an a la carte menu?'

Here is where it is rather silly. Just because there is a buffet going on, suddenly the notion of coming to my table to take my order (surely not a difficult thing to arrange) is no longer a possibility.

Instead, I am asked to choose what I want for breakfast at the choke point of the room holding everybody else up who is behind me.

Luckily I was quick to choose what I wanted - but then it got weirder. I was asked to tick off those options myself on the menu and then sign my name and other details.

What if I wanted a second coffee, a glass of orange juice or some fruit with my Eggs Benedict? Well, it seemed like I was being herded around like a farm animal rather than a guest. I felt like a number.

A better approach would be to treat guests eating 'A La Carte' as you would a normal diner who comes for dinner. Spin up an account on the POS, seat them, take their drinks order (coffee) and when the coffee arrives - take their breakfast order.

This would also give customers the chance to really think about what they really wanted for breakfast. It also allows them to take a peek at the buffet and decide if they want to go for the more profitable buffet option.

Bear in mind, this would only be for guests who did not automatically get a buffet breakfast as part of their package. So it would be for a minority of guests.

There were some other small issues with the breakfast service in general, but just like dinner the night before - the food was perfectly okay.

Coffee was average without being terrible, but could certainly be improved very easily.

But, it does seem like you are at McDonald's rather than a 4 Star Hotel when you get served coffee with a wooden stirring stick. Those things are only good for building things with glue at preschool - they shouldn't be anywhere near a hotel. Did they think I would steal the teaspoon?

Picture of wooden stirring sticks.
Picture of wooden stirring sticks.

It is also unacceptable to see this sort of thing at breakfast time from your table. A discarded cigarette left right outside the window.

This could have been deposited five minutes previously but this is definitely not the sort of thing that should just be left to housekeeping to clean later.

Staff should always be on the lookout for small things like this. It could be a cigarette butt, a chewing gum wrapper or discarded beer bottle. It doesn't really matter. The point is, that somebody should have noticed this and quickly and discreetly cleaned it before anyone noticed.

Picture of discarded cigarette butts outside hotel breakfast room.
Picture of discarded cigarette butts outside hotel breakfast room.

This got me thinking about their 'No Smoking' policy which applied to the whole property apparently. Such rigid 'No Smoking' policies are almost impossible (especially without any on-site security staff) to enforce.

Because of the 'Smoke Free Hotel' policy, there are no ash trays which means people will just be forced to throw their cigarette butts on the ground or off the hotel balcony onto the street below. A much better strategy would be a dedicated smoking area with plenty of ash trays.

Guests are going to smoke regardless of your 'No Smoking' policy and why alienate 15% of your guests by having such a rigid policy when there are reasonable compromises and allowances that can be made for smokers - that make everyone happy.

Unoccupied Front Desk

Maybe it was just bad luck, but when I arrived at reception to check out there was nobody to be seen. It took a good minute before someone emerged from the back office to serve me. When they did, the young lady in question who appeared to be from Thailand had that wonderful smile that Thai people are known for and all was forgiven.

Still, a wait of one minute is not ideal especially when there was no-one else at reception.

These touch points with guests can't just be routine, that have to be stand out experiences that keep guests coming back and raving about your hotel on social media like TripAdvisor. That's the end game!

I was charged for one night's parking when I actually stayed two nights. I advised the front desk staff of this extra costs and they gladly added another night to my room charges.

However, I didn't feel like there was any point to me doing this. I wasn't thanked for my honesty and if anything - I think she was a little shocked that I had admitted this!

The check-out experience was fairly average, in line with the check-in experience. Certainly room for improvement here with the main problem being the wait for service.

Chris Jack is the editor of Locus Focus and a professional hotel photographer based in Brisbane with over 20 years experience in digital marketing. He also hosts the weekly "Sharper Hotel Marketing" podcast.