Suppose you have bought a business class ticket for something like two or three times the economy class fare. You slip into your comfortable seat and decide you want a drink. “Fine,” says the air hostess, “Here’s your martini. And could I have $10 (around Rs400), please?”
How would you feel?
Assume you ask for a Coke instead. The hostess charges you $3. You reduce your demands to a glass of water. That’s still $3.
Nothing inclusive: No hotel has such a sign. (Imaging: Malay Karmakar/ Mint)
Would you ever travel by that airline again?
Probably not. And which of us would blame you? When we pay for a value-added service, such as club class rather than economy, we expect that the higher price will be reflected in the quality of services on offer. An airline that charges so much extra for your ticket should be able to give you a free Coke at the very least.
Now, transfer this analogy to another part of the travel experience: the hotel. All of us have the option of staying in budget hotels. But many of us will choose to stay in five-star hotels. In return for our money, we will get a little more space than the budget hotel would provide—just as club class seats are larger than those in economy. And we will get better furniture—the equivalent of the leather seats in club. But that’s about it. While airlines will ply us with food and drink, hotels will give us nothing. Even a bottle of water will be charged for—usually at a price that is 300% the actual cost of the bottle.
It is not my case that hotels are like airlines or that all meals should be included in the room rate. My point is that while “value-added” means something in the airline business, it means damn all in the hotel trade.
The most basic rip-off is water. You can’t do without it. So they will make you pay through the nose for it. So it is with the minibar. How much can it actually cost a hotel to make the minibar free—at least in the deluxe rooms? Consider that most hotels have executive lounges where guests can gather in the evening for free drinks and snacks. How much extra would it cost the hotel if a guest also consumed a miniature of Scotch from the minibar? Not much, surely.
So, why do hotels still charge you for a bottle of Bisleri or a can of Coke when you are already paying Rs20,000 for a room?
My guess is that they do it out of habit. The motto of the global hotel trade (unlike the airlines, which take value-added more seriously) has always been: Screw the guest.
Consider the other rip-offs. All of us who stay in hotels are reconciled to paying mark-ups of 500% or more on phone calls. Within the hotel business, they feel no shame about this. Telephone services are called “profit centres”.
Try sending a fax from a hotel and you’ll be shocked at the rates. Some hotels will even charge you for receiving a fax. Or take another scam: the fee for Internet usage. It costs the hotel virtually nothing, so why does it charge us so much? Well, because the hotel knows that we have no choice but to use the Internet and it sees an opportunity for profit there.
It always astonishes me how the hotel industry—even that segment which prides itself on luxury—gets away with ripping off its customers for every little thing. Try getting a suit pressed at a hotel and your eyes will pop out when you see the cost. Why does it cost so much? Simple. The hotel knows that a businessman cannot turn up to a meeting looking rumpled, so it seizes the opportunity to make a quick buck. Try getting the concierge to confirm an air ticket for you. That will attract a charge of many hundreds of rupees—for one phone call.
Part of the problem is that we allow hotels to rip us off because we rarely pay our own bills—the company is picking up the tab. The hotels know this and because they are aware that the mark-ups are not coming out of our pockets, they recognize that we won’t care too much.
But this should be as true of airlines. I reckon that something like 90% of all business class and first class travel is charged to the company. But airlines will fall over each other to offer us new services for free: showers in arrival lounges, better wines, Internet at each seat, movies on demand, etc. Why should we choose our airlines on the basis of free perks and yet allow hotels to rip us off for the same perks? Why do we prefer Jet because it has movies on demand, which Air India does not, while simultaneously forking out money for every movie we see in a so-called luxury hotel?
My guess is that we’ve got so used to being ripped off that we’ve lost all perspective. Plus, there is an oligopoly problem: Virtually all hotels do the same thing, so on what basis can you choose between them?
But hotels that treat customers with more respect will, I believe, win out in the long run. There are certain basic minimums that any guest at a deluxe hotel should expect: free minibar, free local calls, free pressing up to a reasonable quantity, free movies, free Internet and free airport transfers. At the rates Indian hotels now charge, these should be our basic entitlements.
Some chains have seen the point. ITC now offers more; the Oberois the least. But at least the oligopoly is finally breaking and we have a basis for choice. If enough of us refuse to be ripped off and refuse to stay at hotels that offer nothing for these high rates, then all the chains will have to fall in line.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org