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Business Hotels in the Gulf- My Top Ten Moans (Spoilt – Moi?)

September 8, 2014

Middle East hotels

Anybody who’s done a reasonable amount of business travel outside what pampered business travellers from the west define as civilisation – in other words, the major metropolitan centres of North America and Western Europe – will be familiar with the scene. The pasty-faced, grumpy middle-aged businessman (and yes, it’s usually the men) bristling with indignation at some imperfection in the hotel he’s just checked into, giving the management and staff a hard time and spreading an air of disgruntlement wherever he goes.

I’ve done enough travelling, especially in the Middle East, over several decades to realise that explosions of outrage rarely bring more than raised blood pressure on the part of the exploder.

Quiet persuasion followed by weary resignation is more my style unless grievously provoked. But a recent three-week trip around Saudi Arabia and Bahrain served to remind me that the niggles never seem to go away. So, in the grand tradition of listicle blogging, here are my top ten moans about business hotels in the Middle East:

Bath Taps: is it beyond the wit of bathroom designers to indicate which way you push the handle to get hot water, and which way for cold? You read the sanctimonious notices in hotels about conserving water, and yet it takes on average three minutes of water flowing down the drain before you can get the shower temperature right. Sanctimonious the notice may be, but water is a big issue in the Gulf. Governments are turning the waters of the gulf into a salty soup devoid of life with their desalination plants. They are steadily draining the aquifers beneath the desert, yet here is a prime example of needless water waste.

Internet: the internet in most hotels may be free, but it’s steam-powered. So whenever I check in, I search the corridor top see how close the internet hub is to my room. More than five yards way, and I try to change rooms. It’s extremely irritating when your email server times out, and your skype calls fall over every few minutes. Equally irritating to be offered a premium “fast service” when the bog standard free version hangs like a giant sloth.

In-room supplies: why is it such a struggle to extract more than two sachets of coffee, tea and “creamer”. If you’re a coffee addict like me, you run out within an hour. I’ve gotten into the habit of going off to the local store to buy my own supplies of milk and coffee. Anything to avoid the dreaded room service! Oh, and why does someone have to check the minibar every day???

Air-conditioning: Just as I have a regular problem with hot and cold shower handles, I’m constantly amazed that when you enter the room it’s as if you’ve wandered into a refrigerated meat wagon. Why 18C when it’s 45C outside? It usually takes about half an hour to figure out the controls sufficiently to reset the climate to the equivalent of the British summer rather than temperatures prevailing in Greenland. And speaking again of waste, you wonder why these hotels seem to keep their rooms so ridiculously cold whether they’re occupied or not. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that in many Gulf countries the cost energy is highly subsidised. And because it’s cheap they waste it with gay abandon.

Buffets: in most hotels I stay at there is an evening buffet. But the last thing I need is a three or four course meal every night. Yet if I want two courses or even one, I still have to pay the full price. Would it be so difficult to set a variable tariff for people like me who want to pick and choose? Burgers and french fries in the coffee shop do get rather boring after a while.

Breakfasts: why do you have to be asked for your room number every morning even if you are there for a week? And why are you asked to sign a bill even when breakfast is included in your package? And wouldn’t it be nice if the hot dishes were changed a little more regularly than the same boring options every two days?

Currency exchange: why do hotels offer such a ludicrously unfavourable exchange rate for currency? Would they not make far more money if they provided rates closer to the commercial exchange companies? I can understand that they would rather not exchange currency at all, which is probably why they offer such rip-off conversion rates. But aren’t hotels supposed to be in the business of customer service?

Room phones: Outrageously inflated external call rates is an age-old beef against hotels everywhere. It’s less of an issue now that everybody has mobiles. But wouldn’t you think that they could use a competitive landline rate as an additional benefit for customers?

Room safes: a good percentage of all safes in Middle East hotel rooms don’t work, or have indecipherable instructions. I generally don’t bother with them, but if I was carrying jewellery or large wads of currency I’d be pretty irritated.

Power Cut-Off devices: why do power cut-off devices switch off all power outlets in the room? Power saving is all well and good, but if you leave phones or laptops in the room to charge, you have to get another room card to put into the slot so that they keep charging while you’re out. Would it not be a simple fix to install one “always-on” socket?

Another more general moan is about branded hotels. In the Middle East, mid-market chains like Holiday Inn and Ramada are mostly franchises. So the brand promise of these big names – that you get the same standard of service wherever you are in the world – is usually subtly degraded by the owner-operators under the justification of cultural difference. Whereas the real cause is usually poor training and poor treatment of staff, leading to high staff turnover.

One of my favourite sayings about business and public life in the Gulf is that the real objective of many initiatives, especially those involving social change, is not the change or improvement itself, but “the appearance of” the desired outcome. Thus when you check into a hotel with an international brand name, you often get the feeling that the hotel has “the appearance of” a Marriot or a Hilton, but the reality is far fuzzier.

This is particularly the case with hotels that have been around for a while. They may have started off bright and gleaming under the eagle eye of the corporate brand police, yet slowly but surely they gracefully degrade under the weight of apathy and cost-saving measures. Décor looks tired. Things don’t work very well because of poor maintenance. Managers value job preservation over customer service.

Thankfully the hotels in the Middle East haven’t yet copped on to the Ryanair model of customer service, namely that the profit is all in the add-ons. You can still negotiate a late checkout at no extra charge, for example. Gulf nationals often like to sleep late and work (or party) late, so I suspect that they would be outraged at having to pay extra for a long sleep-in followed by a leisurely check-out late in the afternoon.

Moans apart, the one redeeming factor of most of the hotels I visit is the poor, hard-worked, put-upon staff. Most of the waiters, bellboys, room service and maintenance guys are unfailingly polite, cheerful and helpful. They tend to come from low-wage regions such as the Philippines, Nepal and the Indian subcontinent. They work long hours. Some only get home every couple of years. They put up with guests barking at them, clicking their fingers to summon them and sometimes far worse. I heard one story about a housekeeper at a five-star hotel in Riyadh who knocked on a room door several times. On getting no response he went in to clean the room. He was met by a husband who, outraged by the fact that the housekeeper had seen the man’s wife unveiled, beat the poor guy so badly that he had to be hospitalised. An Egyptian I met on a plane the other day told me that he once worked in one of the big hotels in Sharm El Sheikh. A drunken Russian tourist took offence at some minor issue, invited the guy outside and punched him so hard that the poor chap fell and broke his leg.

And yes, when I hear such tales, I do feel like a bit of a prima donna for getting aerated about the trivial annoyances I’ve listed above. Spoilt? Most definitely!

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