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Au Revoir Europe - Thanks for the memories
During the last seventeen days, my wife and I have had nine separate Hotel experiences across London, Paris and Germany, and believe me when I say, we have been looking forward to this ride back home to Hong Kong, that is an understatement! The thought of finally unpacking, is so appealing and a luxury in its own right.
But don't get me wrong. Staying in Hotels can be a wonderful experience. And the more wonderful the Hotel is, the more wonderful the experience should be. But nothing equals the pleasure of being @home, surrounded by your own creature comforts, and a familiar environment. That being said, the age-old concept that a Hotel is your home away from home, was tested the last couple of weeks. Some were better than others - and price, on occasion, had little to do with living up to this expectation.
There is a common belief that you get what you pay for, but when the 'Host' of a family run Guest House in a small remote German village (Dinkelsbühl) addresses you by name then asks you to let her know if anything is missing from an already complete breakfast buffet, or conversely, when a Front Desk clerk at a super duper deluxe Central London Hotel passes a patronizing remark that you may have demagnetized your room key by placing it next to a mobile phone (when you didn't), then you realize paying a premium is no guarantee for service in the Hotel business...
Keeping things in chronological order, let me try and recount the various experiences we had, kicking off with the York and Albany - London.
Best way for me to describe this establishment, is a Gourmet Pub with accommodations. Part of the Gordon Ramsey stable of businesses, the property is located on the periphery of Regent's Park, and was to be our initial encounter with European Hotels - for the first two nights of our journey. Chosen by my wife for whom I don't hold a grudge against her, it was simply selected because of its close proximity to her office.
Getting out of the cab, and maneuvering our luggage to Reception was the first hurdle to overcome - there is no driveway. One needs to alight at the kerb, and then schlepp one's bags down a cobble stoned passageway (not so easy with bag on wheels) - finally arriving at a large door made of glass and wood as one struggled to figure whether you had to pull or push to get through it. A simple sign on the door would have helped, but the only visible sign was the five-star AA (Automobile Association) accreditation badge on the wall behind the door - stating 'Restaurant with rooms'. I think the place needs a re-valuation...
The Registration process was fairly straightforward, but one would not expect much else with just a handful of rooms to manage. Even so, I felt the lady on duty seemed somewhat stressed carrying out a pretty straightforward check-in.
After getting our metal keys, we headed up to the 2nd floor, and thankfully, they had an elevator. The short distance seemed to take about two minutes to ascend but was a great relief, as I would have not wanted to carry the heavy luggage up, as could easily have been the case since there wasn't any staff to assist with that task. (My wife and I do not travel light, perhaps a mistake!)
The room was quaint - although small - maybe 25sqm, but complete with facilities. One just had to take turns opening the wardrobe and wanting to get in or out of the bed. The same could be said for going in/out of the bathroom after needing to also place luggage in that part of the room.
A faux fireplace pretty much covered up one wall, and the ledge above it was used to house two bottles of comp water and some glasses. Naturally, the desk was small, and could not be used at the same time as watching the TV. Air-conditioning was supposed to be provided by an in-room unit, but the outside air was definitely cooler, as experienced when we cracked open the windows. The problem with that practice was the fact that on a fairly regular basis, emergency vehicles whizzed by with sirens howling. This seemed to happen at all hours of day and night in London - and tranquility was something one could only dream of.
The request for a second luggage rack was fulfilled by borrowing a chair from the hallway outside of the room, however, the luxury of in-room Tea/Coffee making service was not forthcoming.
The shower as I regrettably discovered in a few establishments during our trip was built-in to the bath, but this one had the most bizarre curtain arrangement, and seemed whatever configuration you used for closing the curtains, the floor got soaked. Could this be the rationale for the oversupply of towels - to be used for mopping up water spillage?
Our most unfortunate experience was that of pre-authorization on my wife's credit card. As you know most Hotels like to at least pre-authorize for the value of your room rate times the number of nights you are booked in - plus a reasonable buffer for incidentals. Well, she gave the card, and was told it was rejected. She gave another card and while this was being processed she strolled to the adjoining restaurant to take her breakfast. There minutes later and in front of the other dining guests, she was asked rather curtly to check her bank. It was surprising behavior as later we found out that the fault rested on their credit card processing system, and not her credit limit.
Seems some people (in London) are a tad too hasty in jumping to conclusions, over matters that directly affect Guest Service (see 45 Park Lane Blog).
On the day of departure - we had a leisurely morning, and decided to take our lunch in the Dining Room (really a converted Pub). While the food was good, and also the service, I cannot help but feel the food was not served in accordance to the menu description. For example, I ordered freshly grilled Sardines, and got a freshly grilled Sardine. To me - Sardines is plural, meaning more than one, and not one Sardine, which has been cut down the middle and served as two fillets. I did not point this out. On hindsight, maybe I should have.
After checking out of the York and Albany (perhaps not a moment too soon for me), we headed over to the newly opened Dorchester sibling - 45 Park Lane, and a separate Blog (New kid on the block) detailed our less than perfect experience there.
Next on our list was the Andaz - Liverpool Street - the original Great Eastern - a railway Hotel, which underwent major renovation works transforming it into the 21st century.
Andaz is Andaz - hip, kool and funky. You get out of the cab and are met by some pencil-thin, kool looking dudes who whisk you through the enjoyably informal registration process, and get you up to your room in a flash. No fuss, no muss. Everything about Andaz oozes simplicity and service - from the commercial size self-help Nespresso machine in the lobby, to the ever-flowing snack tray, free non-alcoholic drinks in the mini-bar and of course, wonderful free Internet access that just works!
Is there anything to nit-pick about? You better believe it! The room was too warm - I could not tell you the exact temperature, but I estimate 25c. We could have done with a couple more power sockets, especially at both sides of the bed, and the TV system definitely had issues, since it kept pixelating - sometimes freezing up.
But the winner of the most interesting feature about Andaz Liverpool Street is the vacuum system they use for removing water from the washbasin, bath and toilet - closely resembling the type used on an airplane. You know what I mean; You press the flush button and WHOOSH - the contents of the toilet are sucked away at such a force that you can only be thankful you have finished your business, while that happens, for fear your rear-end would have been sucked away along with the waste.
Andaz claim this system saves 80% water - or is 80% more efficient when compared to standard offerings. Not being an expert in this area (perhaps there is someone out there who can justify this), it's tough to dispute their claims. All I can say is - when you want to go to the loo during the middle of the night and tiptoe your way there and back so as not to awaken your partner (and your next door neighbor), it's a near impossibility with the all the whooshing, unless of course, they are sporting ear protectors.
One last thing to mention about Andaz is the shower. Like the York and Albany, you have to step into the bath to use it. Whilst it's a pretty good one - nice hot water, and good pressure, getting in and out is a rather scary process because the sides of the bath are high, deeper than most baths - maybe 50cm/20". That said, when getting into the bath/shower, there is a grab bar on the back wall (ours was a little loose - Room 606), but when getting out of the bath, the only thing you can hold on to, is the wall mounted electric towel rail - which is hot hot hot. I was anxious about the health and safety issues associated with this, especially as you have wet feet and possibly a slightly soapy/slippery floor in the bath - "hmm" I hear you say. One wrong step and I dread to think what could happen. Please Andaz - address this issue now.
For Andaz London photos - click here
So, we've done London (part one), and it's now time to head off for a couple of days in Paris before making our road trip to Dinkelsbühl.
Having Eurostar'd from London, we arrive in Paris' Gare du Nord, and take a cab ride over to the Shangri-La. Alighting from the cab, and being met by a real Doorman who elegantly welcomes you and just takes care of business - one's luggage - you realize you've nicely segwayed back into the land of luxury, and great [Asian] service.
Entering this one-time Palace built in 1896, previously lived in by the Grand nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, one cannot avoid being impressed by the architecture - and how so beautifully adorned it is with fabulous flower arrangements. Smiling faces welcome you from behind the Reception counter, and although the majority of staff are European, you sense undertones of Asian hospitality, transporting you to the best of what is back home. My wife and I glance at each other - and silently acknowledge , "now this is nice".
Escorted to our attractively appointed room with a direct view of the Eiffel Tower, you become automatically geo-tagged of the location.
Space was adequate, everything was where it should be, and it just worked. You opened the desk drawer and there was a good supply of stationary items. You plugged the supplied Ethernet cable into your laptop, and you were effortlessly on line and for free. And with a flick of the wrist, you were enjoying a nice cup of Welcome Chinese tea poured from a lovely tea service, reminiscent of what we did back in the mid 70's when I worked at (the now defunct) Hong Kong Hilton.
A quick freshen up, and it was time to rendezvous with a friend for a pre-dinner drink in the Hotel's bar.
A lovely cozy room made complete with superb background music, and very comfy surroundings. Service was impeccable and friendly - and the snacks accompanying the drinks complemented the experience in this intimate Parisian location.
Awaking from a good night's sleep, my wife and I decided to take breakfast (especially since it was inclusive in the room rate) and sauntered down to the breakfast room, aptly named La Bauhinia - the Hong Kong emblem.
In all the excitement and rushing around, we inadvertently were still running on UK time. Due to this irresponsible oversight, we arrived just before 11am thinking it was 10am - and I fleetingly noticed that the tables seemed to be more laid up for lunch than breakfast. That being said, we announced we were there for breakfast, and after a pregnant pause, the Greeter said, "they were in fact getting ready for lunch - but it's no problem, we will take care of you". WOW we thought - that was so nicely handled, and it could so easily have gone the other way - south - but thankfully, it didn't.
A table was quickly cleared, and we were offered a sumptuous fare. It was a lovely experience, and my wife said they were the best-poached eggs ever. The server was so polite and friendly and had a lovely demeanor. I can't help thinking she must have been exposed through deep training to the Shangri-La way, and if so - kudos to the folks who did it.
Checkout was very well handled, and a short exit interview conducted. I was asked if I needed a taxi, and confirmed we did - to take us to the Mandarin Oriental across town. Since there may be a delay, the Concierge suggested waiting in one of the small lounges off the main Lobby area, and we did just that for the first ten minutes. Getting anxious I ventured back to the Lobby and one of the Reception staff noticed me, enquired if all was ok and apologized for the delay even though it was not her problem. She then followed-up with the Concierge. A few minutes later the cab arrived, and we were off to the Mandarin, for part two of our Paris adventure.
Room Rate: €695 (including Breakfast and Internet)
Shangri-La Paris photos can be found here
The ride across town was pleasant, and enroute we were able to take in a few of the many famous places of interest Paris has to offer.
Soon we were at Rue Saint-Honoré (a major fashion district of Paris) and pulling up outside the Hotel - which, unlike the Shangri-La that has been open for nine months - the Mandarin is just two months young.
Strangely, we had a feeling they must have known we were on the way, because a Guest Relations person was at the door waiting to greet us along with the Rooms Division Manager - and warmly welcomed us. Like the Shangri-La, the Mandarin has a team of people to help with the bags and everything, so we just followed the lady who escorted us to our awaiting accommodations. Enroute to the room she interestingly inquired, "How was our stay at The Shangri-La"? We were baffled how she knew where we had come from. Later we discovered she asked the taxi driver for our pickup point...
First thing to notice when arriving at the room was the absence of a room number on the door or wall. Instead, it is etched into a marble slab that makes up the threshold to your room - novel idea.
Entering the room - your expectation is that this is going to be a luxurious 21st century experience - not just because the MOHG Corporate IT Department has loaded it up with all manner of goodies, but more importantly because it's a purpose built brand new Hotel and in the exclusive district of Paris - of course the room rate provides you some indication...
A very spacious room - with an entrance corridor that gives you the feeling you are actually entering via the bathroom because on your left is the WC, bath and shower, and on your right are the vanity units one at each end of the assigned space. Interesting concept.
It does not take the deduction powers of Sherlock Holmes to realize that this room is full of high class brands - like the B&O TV, Frette linens, Nespresso coffee, Mariage Frères Tea pot, Jing Chinese Tea, NEC IP Phones, Diptyque cosmetics, Bowers and Wilkins I-dock, Evian Water on the bedside and an Ad Notam Mirror TV over the bath. The only thing I felt missing were Cohiba cigars in an in-room Humidor. Maybe next visit - LOL.
Oh, but hang on, what's up with placing a whole fresh mini Pineapple in the Welcome fruit amenity? Admittedly it looks beautiful - but honestly, how do you eat it?
Our room like so many others in this courtyard-designed structure was equipped with a balcony, and overlooked the central inner garden complete with a humongous birdcage. Doubling up as an extension to the Bar, this venue has thankfully for me, evolved into a smoking area. Craving to take advantage of the golden opportunity to have a cigar, I suggested to my wife that we head down there for another pre-dinner drink (with the same friend as the previous night), but this time being outdoor, I could enjoy a cigar while sipping my San Pellegrino.
Being the gentleman I am, I went down first and secured a table - which was assisted by, and under the watchful guidance of the Guest Relations Manager who had just checked us in. We got a lovely table, and when I informed the Server of the desire to smoke my cigar, he promptly summoned the Bar Manager. The gentleman brought with him a cigar ashtray, and graciously lent me his personal cigar cutter and a torch, which is best described as the same type as making the crust on Crème brûlée. It was an exquisite two hours - me smoking my stogie, and the girls nattering away while imbibing their wine.
A tough race, but I think the Mandarin had the most tech of any room we stayed in this trip (especially versus 45 Park Lane) - and quite candidly, I just didn't have enough time to check it all out - or do it justice.
If I had one bone to pick - it would be the TV - which incidentally, is the central point for all the in-room technology.
The B&O TV Beovision 7 can only be classified as impressive - and is stocked with goodies including internet radio, and a sexy play back function for one's i-device, through a Schneider-Electric spring-loaded dock which sits neatly under the TV and from which there is a pull out shelf to rest the gizmo - if needed.
So what's my gripe about the TV? Funnily enough, it's the motorized bracket from which it is suspended. When you press the ON button on the sleek remote control - the TV auto swings out forty-five degrees for a better viewing angle from the bed - but, when it does so - it make a mechanical noise, and the exact same happens when you turn it OFF. Meaning, if you are watching the late show, and your partner is already catching their zzz's ahead of you, and you turn OFF the TV, then there is a chance that the motor noise will disturb them, and the same goes for when you turn it ON, as I've been known to do so in the middle of some sleepless nights.
And there's just one other thing (perhaps not tech related) and that's the mirror inside the shower - which mists up when you steam up the room. I think that's a bug - otherwise how will you use the mirror in the shower? I didn't find a squeegee in my room, although I did make a general observation that European Hotels seem to like to include Toilet Brushes next to bowl...
As morning quickly arrives, we somewhat bleary eyed reluctantly agree - even if we don't want to, that we can't lounge around all day in these superb surroundings, and have to jump in a cab to the car rental place to collect our car, and begin the 995km drive to Dinkelsbühl.
Room Rate: €985 (excluding Breakfast and Internet)
Mandarin Oriental Paris photos can be found here
After the very long drive, and at around 11pm, we finally arrive at the Hotel Blauer Hecht in this Hansel and Gretel like village. But wait - the Hotel Team have gone for the day, no one is around to register us.
However, standing ready to assist us with the room key is my dear friend Gerhard. He is the reason for this trip being his ancestral town and the location for his daughter's wedding. Along with him is a couple of the entourage to include the Groom; ready and able to help us carry the heavy bags up two flights of creaking stairs to our room.
Walking down corridors lined with old photos, memorabilia, various object d'art and scattered rugs, are sure tell-tale signs of what awaits you around the next corner. This was a hard thing to do coming from two super luxury Hotels in Paris and one in London, but it was unquestionably time to wind back the expectation meter, to the reality setting, somewhere at the eight o'clock position.
Inserting a metal key attached to a heavy fob into the door lock and giving it a couple of turns allowed us to open the door and witness at first hand where we were billeted for the next five nights. A bright spacious room with two portal windows draped in pretty white lace curtains, were built into the eaves of the roof. A twin bed pushed together with single lightweight duvets and pillows that could have been blown away by a heavy sneeze were to be our touches of bed linen luxury.
An oblong coffee table with a crocheted cover sat in front of a two-seater sofa and the accompanying side chair - this later proved helpful as a second luggage rack.
The bathroom had the standard fixtures, but only a hand-shower, which for one who is both horizontally and vertically challenged, was not something I looked forward to using.
But, it was clean, well maintained, and one of the designated Hotels for the wedding party to stay. I was later to discover that this not only had the most friendly and courteous staff, but also a sumptuous German Breakfast.
The quietness of this remote village was shattered at 6am when the church bells start pealing, and are easily heard through the open windows, which formed the built-in air-conditioning system.
The absence of a kettle, and the ability to make morning tea for my wife and coffee for me was not great - but we improvised by drinking bottled water and munching on some locally acquired fruits. But, a walk back down the highly decorated corridors, and the creaking stairs got us to the breakfast room, which had all manner of goodies for breakfast. Fresh fruits, compotes, bread and pastries, smoked salmon and herrings, cheeses, cold cuts, juices, hard boiled eggs split in half and decorated with a whirl of mayonnaise and a sprinkle of paprika proved to be one of my new favorites.
Coffee was acceptable although dispensed from plastic thermos jugs, and when you're desperate - you make allowances - remembering we'd already dialed back the expectation meter.
There was no in room Internet, but a couple of nooks were turned into pseudo Internet café's by the younger generation of the wedding party, and I felt right at home since they all sported MAC's or IPads. Registration for internet access was mandatory - and you did this by giving your Passport to the Hotel Manager whom I believe made a copy, and in exchange you were issued with a twenty four digit hexadecimal password - similar to that used by Microsoft as a license key - know what I mean? I've never seen such a complex security key before, and assumed this is just because we are in Germany where data privacy laws at OTT. Anyway, we got on line - sporadically, and it was for free.
After being on the road at several different Hotels for the last week mostly for one night at a time, we required the use of a laundry service, and had stored up our soiled stuff in the hope of using such a service at this Hotel - that was a missjudgment of expectation - they didn't have a laundry service. PANIC!
With some sweet-talking, and coercion by our Wedding Party Hostess, we got the owner to agree to let us use their washer and dryer for our urgent bits. So one morning, I'm sitting in the Housekeeping office doing laundry, reflecting back to the last time I used a washer - which must have been almost 20 years - we now have someone to do that for us. Anyway, three hours later, I'm done and the situation is almost saved - since we also needed some ironing. Reality check.
Five days later, we pack up and leave Blauer Hecht - this time conscious of the fact there would not be any assistance with our bags, we brought some down the day before and left them in the car parked outside the Hotel. When staying at this type of Hotel (more like a Guest House) - hand-carry luggage is really all you should have.
Driving to Munich our next port of call before flying back the next day to London, was a straightforward two-hour sprint and a local personal connection saw us staying at the Platzl Hotel.
An old Hotel, situated in the historic part of the town - had the most precarious car park I have ever used - be warned!
The room was fairly comfortable and surprised us with free Internet access, which one could use by borrowing a LAN cable from Front Office (after agreeing to a deposit for the cable) and entering a password into the log on screen.
Nicest features of this Hotel apart from the location was the fact they had a decent free standing shower, and a most quaint breakfast room on the first floor. The decoration was like something out of a fairy tale, and I can understand why some Japanese guests were driven to this location, which they enjoyed taking photos throughout breakfast using their smartphones.
A short plane ride, and it was back to London, for a couple of nights at the Grosvenor Hotel.
First thing you notice pulling up at the Hotel, is that it is still undergoing the GBP25m renovation in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. A small gap in the scaffolding allows you entrance to the Hotel, and the Lobby is the first fine example of where restoration has taken place.
Although work continues around you, after getting in the lift and up to your room, you temporarily escape from the hammering, drilling, paint cans and ladders.
Thanks to Michael the GM, we were assigned one of the newly renovated rooms, which was very comfortable. The Welcome fruit basket was a real treat and we loved the selection of berries and extremely sweet grapes. Thanks also for the bananas.
Everything worked well in the room except for the Wi-Fi, which could only be accessed from the Coffee Table area, and not the desk. Apparently, there are some coverage issues, and these are being addressed.
Also part of an Asia influenced chain - the Grosvenor has a Chinese Restaurant called 'Grand Imperial', and this was to be our venue for entertaining some old friends the following day - for Dim Sum.
Even though my wife and I had not eaten Chinese food for the last two weeks, our guests who are very familiar with Chinese cuisine, agreed with us that the food served was both authentic and delicious - even if a tad pricey.
Grosvenor Hotel photos can be found here
And so ends our various stays in Hotels across Europe - but, last Hotel to mention for the trip was the Lanesborough, which although we did not stay there, was the London venue for me to enjoy smoking my cigar.
Set up like a sunken garden, the Garden Room seems to have originally been a void outside of the main building, and then covered with a partial roof and decorated with all manner of foliage to accommodate this type of facility.
It's a very popular location, and quickly fills up after opening at 4pm with guests enjoying champagne as well as a cigar. This pleasure is not exclusive to men - women were enjoying the vice as well.
Sofia and Pasquale were my wait-staff, and happy to inform me there is a GBP25 minimum spend, which you can use on booze or cigars, or a mix of the two. Great thing about this place is that they don't bat an eyelid if you bring your own (cheaper) smokes.
The wicker and leather chairs which incidentally carry a logo on the back akin to that found on a cigar are very comfortable, and your drinks are accompanied by and endless supply of cashews and queen olives. Each table has a Vector crystal table lighter, Royal Worcester bone china bowls, crystal cut glasses and is romantically candle lit. A splendid location, and an oasis in this otherwise hectic and noisy city.
Lanesborough Hotel photos can be found here
Going to Europe was an eye opener. It's been a while for me, and I wanted to see for myself how things are done in this part of the world and if they differ from Asia, like what sadly happens in the US. I wanted to also see how, or could the Asian culture be transported across the world, and what's it like to stay in a new luxury Hotel in the centers of London and Paris.
I was not disappointed - I was surprised, sometimes good, and often times not so good.
Looking around the cabin, all the lights are out and I'm the only one awake - so it's good night from me, and au revoir Europe - Thanks for the memories...
© Terence Ronson ISHC
Terence Ronson began his hospitality career over thirty years ago as a Chef, and has held various management positions with prominent hotels, both in England and Asia. In 2000, Terence started Pertlink, a hospitality IT Consulting firm headquartered in Hong Kong that specializes in helping hotels differentiate themselves through the effective use of technology.
Terence moderates an online discussion group for in-room technology at: www.wiwih.com firstname.lastname@example.org. while at the same time puts out an active Hotel Technology Blog and participates in numerous hospitality related events. Professional affiliations include membership of the Hospitality Financial Technology Professionals (USA), the Hotel Catering Institute Management Association (UK), HTNG - Hotel Technology Next Generation, and is a proud Member of the Institute of Hospitality Consultants.
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