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 notwithstanding, 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, skillful 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.
Foregoing the details, here is a summation of what went wrong at this hotel -
1. The front desk is tiny and manned by only 2 staff. One appeared like a frenzied Kabuki character while the other an expressionless Noh actor. Both somehow took inordinately long to process check-ins and check-outs. The lobby was always filled with disgruntled guests. Outbursts from guests seem like common occurrences here, as personally witnessed.
2. The front desk lady has a nasty habit of impatiently shooing guests away without the slightest inclination to listening or assisting guests with their enquiries. Another older staff seems to be stationed there just to shoo guests away, albeit very fawningly. Little wonder on the common outbursts.
3. This is a butler service hotel. Services they provide include daily tea delivery, bath drawing and luggage packing. Tea was a dainty sized affair that was delivered to the room uncovered and lukewarm. A hot bath request resulted in a tub of bath water hot enough to poach eggs. The hot water flask reeked of old coffee, and the official response was that all their flasks smell as such, case closed.
4. At breakfast a waiter sneezed into my face at very close range. He was clearly unwell and not wearing face mask. None of the staff were wearing masks. A cheerless looking waitress took my order then promptly vanished. No, actually she circled around a few times but never with my order.
5. Over my stay I was involuntarily attended to by a battalion of senior executives, but the spat of unpleasant and recurrent incidents continued unabated.
6. 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.
7. The exposition on rudeness continued at check-out, duly executed by the very same lady with the Kabuki gait, exhibiting the same resolve to shoo away and disregard guests. This time she even attempted to squirm away from me by squeezing past the 50cm gap between me and her desk.
8. After an excruciatingly slow check-out, I was pushed into a cab that was ordered by a certain Matsumoto San heading to the airport. This was after I asked 3 different ground staff if the taxi was hailed from the streets and not pre-booked. The taxi had to circle back to the hotel from the busiest part of Osaka where I was greeted by a sea of confused faces all quick to deny their part in the onus. A good 30 mins passed before I was unceremoniously shoved into another taxi and sent on my merry way.
9. 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-ins. It was just like a scene at immigration in Bangkok and yet, the whole process only took roughly 30 minutes. There were no Kabuki antics nor ashen Noh 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 an urgent wake-up call. Having your head in the clouds collectively will only sink the ship faster, and by golly, this lumbering vessel in Osaka is heading straight for the iceberg.