How Bad Does a hotel need to be
to be good enough for print?
We have all heard the adage 'so bad it is good' but how bad can a hotel be before one can make a story out of it? Le Chief reviews a recent stay in Osaka Japan...
28 Dec 2023
One of the most common questions we reviewers get asked is 'do you ever write bad reviews?' It isn't a difficult question to broach but it is not quite a simple 'yes/no' response. Unlike our western counterparts who are all about the truth and liberty, Asian media thrives on self-censorship. A delicate web of cause and effect usually detracts us from making overt criticisms and there is also the conventional wisdom of not burning bridges to heed. Yes, bad reviews, especially the salacious types, may induce viral news, but it is now somewhat clear that viruses kill, especially those festering within a certain David-Goliath context.
To be perfectly honest, for complex operations like hotels, especially those festooned by brand reputation and ideals, it is practically impossible to deliver a perfect 10 for every single trip. Personal tastes not withstanding, expectations differ across the board, making it very hard even for seasoned reviewers to arrive at unform conclusions. Nonetheless, some fundamentals still have to be fulfilled - good service, efficient processes, tasteful furnishings and more than ever, sincere recoveries.
Recoveries not revelries
Once upon a time in the gilded age of luxury travels, it is unthinkable to accept bad service as a given at the famed establishments bearing legendary names. Those were the days of imperial expectations and aristocratic patronage, and the failure to deliver would come with dire consequences. Were you thinking the turn of the century? I was pondering upon the 2000s. Today, bad, or in some cases, horrifying bewildering mishaps at even the most renowned hotels is a given, owing largely to the current stupendous proliferation of such hotels and the lack of manpower and expertise to fill the ranks within, The resultant lack of training has led to all-round sloppy service and at the end of that horizon appears to be a sharp drop. Very naturally, there is no gentleman's understanding with feuds in the internet age - every deed that raises a guest's ire very quickly makes it to the all-powerful review platforms, which for some years now have become the bane and terror of all but a few recalcitrant operators.
While on the mass level bad reviews have hit a certain saturation point and is no longer as sensational as before (ie. it is also no longer quite the powerful bargaining chip for irate customers to demand, or worse, blackmail, for freebies), recovery is now the all-important service lingo that hangs on discerning hoteliers' lips, because it would be futile and quite foolish to pretend that errors are not possible nor permissible due to a hotel's branding and reputation. Incredulously, there are still hotels, even in the legendary class, that err upon such farcical premises.
So bad it's good
Over a recent review stay at an international 5-star hotel in Osaka, the most incredible episode of 'bad' unfurled from arrival to departure at said hotel. There have been similar situations at other hotels before, but they are rare, and did not occur under 1 roof and within 48 hours.
This hotel is a famous brand tied to a particularly rarefied lineage and is known for its classically attuned decor. It isn't a big hotel, with 100-plus rooms and suites and a couple of bars and restaurants. Like many 5-stars hotels in Japan, it has a small gym, no swimming pool but charges a few times more than hotels that are replete with facilities. The entry category rooms are somewhat puny, but the higher grade rooms and suites are comfortably spaced and well-designed. The views from the more expensive rooms and suites are gratifying.
Check-in like most Japanese hotels is set at 3pm. I had arrived at 3pm and was initially impressed by the porters and greeters on the ground floor who were very polite and distinguished looking. As duly observed, they never fail to open the door or hold the lift for guests. The chagrin began at the lobby where the check-in process was a complete and recurrent disaster.
There is a tiny front desk manned only by 2 staff. One was a harrowing looking lady seemingly on the verge of a mental breakdown and the other was a man with the demeanor of a Noh actor who avoided eye contact. Both somehow took inordinately long time to process check-ins. The lobby is tiny so there were no queues for check-ins but there was already an impatient crowd assembled in the seating halls. I approached the lady to initiate check-in and she frenziedly waved me away and disregarded all my questions. That in my opinion and the Japanese context is rude beyond belief. And I am not kidding, she didn't even bother to pretend to listen to me and persisted with the flip-off. She resolutely wanted me out of her sight because she was clearly too busy with the other guests already waiting for check-in. Bewilderingly enough, the chairs before her desk were empty
Before i could erupt, the press rep of the property appeared and nervously initiated the inspection process. Sensing my unhappiness, she approached front desk and requested for my check-in after the inspection (it was 50 mins after my arrival, and the hall was still packed). When she informed me that I am checked in, we approached the desk for the keycards, only to be unceremoniously shooed away by another staff, this time a fawning older gentleman whose only job seems to be shooing people away from the harrowing lady and the expressionless man. Before I could contemplate eruption, another guest began yelling at the expressionless man in a thick accent, demanding to be checked-in because like me, he had been waiting for over an hour. Unsurprisingly, the man faced it sans expressions as the woman frenzied away in a distance, both seemingly unperturbed by the outburst.
Finally in the room, more surprises await. This being a butler-service hotel, you can request for a cup of tea per day delivered to your room, preferably over the breakfast hours. I certainly did not expect the delivery to be an uncovered dainty cup with a sip of lukewarm beverage within. I was successful in requesting for a flask of hot water and assorted cookies and some teabags, but the flask reeked of old coffee. I was told by the service center that all their flasks reek of old coffee. And that's that.
Another service you can request for in this hotel is the drawing of a bath. It was winter and I had instructed the butler to draw a hot bath, and that he did, to astonishing effect. I had to readjust the water in the tub subsequently to avoid being poached alive.
Over breakfast the next morning, while waiting for entry, the waiter unceremoniously sneezed into my face within a 30cm proximity. He was clearly sick but wasn't even wearing a mask, which until fairly recently was criminal at some point. In fact, none of the wait staff were wearing masks. When I complained about that to the restaurant manager, the situation was promptly reversed, but none of the wait staff looked cheerful. A particularly striking looking waitress sauntered over with my tea, whereupon I asked for honey, and she replied with a crisp 'of course' then promptly vanished. Her response was so succinct I remain unsure if the slight wasn't deliberate.
Over the remainder of my stay I was involuntarily attended to by an entourage of senior executives. They have evidently attempted various forms of service recovery in their capacity, including earnestly hearing me out and sending breakfast to my room the next morning (due to an explosive episode of tummy run), and extending a late checkout at 4pm. Sadly, however well-meaning their intentions were, the outcome was still bewildering and disappointing. I think service is as much about the personal touch as it is about the collective effort. Paying lip service is easy but setting about effective processes is not. These gentlemen clearly lacked the mettle and the leadership to make any meaningful changes on the ground, and to be frank, the property was clearly run by people who didn't really give a damn from top to bottom.
On the last day, a butler was dispatched by one of the directors to procure lunch for me at the nearby 'combini' at his own initiative. Upon check-out I was presented a bill for that service, 20% of the cost of lunch, which was a little more than 200 yen. I do not know which is worse - charging a customer with an amount so negligible (for a service which was offered, not requested) or not informing the customer of that cost in the first place. I was and remain quite flabbergasted.
The 15 minutes conundrum
In case you are expecting a fairytale ending to this unhappy, perplexing episode, the check-out process reunited me with both the original players reprising their role at front desk. The guest services manager had told me to inform him by phone when I am ready to leave but as I was not expecting delays at check-out (it is never an issue at ALL THE OTHER hotels I had visited in Japan) I didn't call him. Contrary to popular assumptions, I don't enjoy being fussed over. Alas, I was once again shooed away by the harrowing woman, because unbelievably, the unhappy multitude had reassembled at check-out as well. When I asked her to call the guest services manager, she looked at me blankly, nodded her head, and went on with her deeds. This time she even squirmed past me almost neck to neck as I stood in front of her table waiting for a response. It was 15 mins before I realized she never intended to make the call.
At this point I was truly livid. As I stormed out of the hotel eventually, there was another deadlock at the ground floor with guests waiting for their rides. I had requested 3 different staff to get me a taxi from the streets, and was finally told by a young chap that my ride had arrived after 15 minutes. Both the chap and a senior porter assured me that this is my taxi from the street before I enter the car. As the driver took a turn into the main artery of Osaka, he asked if I was Mr Matsumoto heading for the airport. Clearly I wasn't, and it took another 15 minutes to circle back to the hotel. Back there it was a sea of puzzled faces, some more nervous than others, but no one can tell me exactly what went wrong.
After yet another 15 mins, another taxi was procured and I was simply sent on my way without even as much as an apology. Till this day, a month later from the stay, no one from the hotel had initiated contact to offer apologies or explanations for the disastrous experience and poor form. It is very apparent that they are beyond caring or one can only assume as such.
On Christmas day I had checked into another hotel in Osaka to attend a Christmas dinner with a visiting friend and her family. This was an old hotel with the cheapest rack rate that I can find on the booking portals. At 3pm, the vast lobby was inundated by a sea of guests in the snaking queue for check-in. It was just like a scene at immigration in Bangkok and yet, I got checked in in roughly 30 minutes. There was no harrowing frenzied faces or ashen Noh-like demeanors. It was service with a smile, with expediency to boot, just like the Japan I remember.
When nonchalance crosses the line into offense, that is when this reviewer takes issue and retract from self-censorship. A brand is a brand but if the people empowered to maintain or improve the standing of the brand willfully and miserably fail to do so, an honest account like this shouldn't be view as an affront but rather as a wake-up call that needs to be heeded. Having your head in the clouds will only sink the ship faster, and by golly, this titanic is heading straight for the iceberg.