Ok, folks. I might as well get ready to take it on the chin. I am going to come across as a real snob here. But please, before you dismiss me altogether, let me explain that this piece was written with the “lofty goal” of making the hotel industry re-examine its notion of service. Like every Indian idealist, I wrote the following in an attempt to change the world, albeit a world inhabited by a sliver of the Indian population. I mean, this is not about eradicating world hunger. With that caveat, read on…
The problem with fine hotels is that they treat you like royalty. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I recently read somewhere—I think it was the late princess Diana’s butler Paul Burrell’s book—that the staff at Buckingham Palace are trained not to acknowledge the royals they serve. In other words, if a page or a butler is walking down the corridor and sees Queen Elizabeth coming, the correct protocol for the staff is to stand as still as a statue till Her Highness walks past.
I have been thinking about this rule because it seems eminently sensible to me. I have just returned after 10 days at multiple five-star hotels in Rajasthan. The service was uniformly good, but (and this is not just a quibble here) after a while, all that bowing and smiling got a little tiresome. I mean, there you are, walking down the corridor with the early-morning blues, or preoccupied with your PowerPoint presentation. Along comes a smiling staff member. “Good morning, ma’am,” he says cheerily. You barely manage to smile and wish him back before along comes another, and another, and another. After a while, this enforced civility gets a bit much. You don’t want to put on your game face; you don’t want to be wished, you don’t want to be acknowledged. Mostly, you just want to be left alone.
Spare us the exaggerated service and namastes ad nauseum please
I said as much to Torsten Van Dullemen, the amiable general manager of the Oberoi Udaivilas. One evening, he was—as general managers are wont to do—shaking hands and asking guests if they were having a comfortable stay. He actually sounded sincere, like he really wanted to know if I was happy at the hotel. Meet me at the coffee shop tomorrow morning, I said darkly. I will explain everything.
Over coffee, I told Van Dullemen my tale of woe. After 10 days of facing incessant smiles and good cheer, I was fed up, I said. I didn’t want the door opened; I didn’t want my bag plucked out of my hand; I didn’t want to be questioned, “Are you comfortable?” I just wanted to be left alone. Couldn’t the staff just ignore me as I ambled around the hotel?
For a moment, even Van Dullemen—the man who had probably heard all kinds of complaints—was at a loss. He had probably heard hundreds of people complain that the service was not good enough; not that the service was too good. I warmed to my theme. Couldn’t the Oberoi Group include this question in their guest check-in questionnaire: Do you want to be acknowledged or left alone? Along with choosing a king bed, a newspaper (Mint, of course), breakfast in the room and the wake-up call, you could choose a type of service. For purposes of brevity, we could call it “visible or invisible.” Do you want to be visible or invisible? Those who ticked “visible” would be treated like guests normally are at luxury hotels: the smiles, the greetings, the helping with the luggage, the questions about comfort; the inane conversation with receptionists who accost you with a “Welcome back, sir. How was your day?”
Those who ticked “invisible”, on the other hand, would be home free. They would simply be left alone. When the staff saw them coming down the corridor, they would simply scoot away into the nearest toilet, fountain, or hide amid the bric-a-brac. If all escape routes failed, they would become statues. When the invisibles walked into the hotel, the staff would be expressly instructed not to engage in conversation. People like me could simply walk up to the counter and enquire, “Any messages?” sans preamble or politeness. I could dispense with the Hi, how are you, fine, and have a nice day. When the porter carried my heavy bag to my room, I wouldn’t have to talk to him and ask after his family and how long he had worked in the hotel. (I do this compulsively under normal circumstances. Somehow, it eases my guilt that another human is carrying my bag.) By not engaging with the service staff, I could act as if I was at home, only a far more luxurious version.
Service is a funny thing, particularly when it comes to hoteliering. What constitutes good service? Indians, particularly those from the previous generation, are quite comfortable with obsequiousness; Europeans like formality and Americans like casual civility. But I would wager that regardless of nationality, those who spend a lot of time in luxury hotels sometimes simply want to be left alone. Being invisible, it turns out, can be the greatest luxury of all.
Shoba Narayan thinks good cheer and “good morning” are overrated. Write to her at email@example.com