Archive for February 2011

My life in hotels – Part 3

I’ve been in some weird ones and that’s a fact so I thought I would dedicate a few paragraphs to three that stick in my memory the most. Like the one in the Gulf that had a trout stream (yes a trout stream with trout) running through the lounge and patio. I remember I dropped my glasses case in it by mistake and had to sprint across the patio to grab it before the waterfall carried it down to the next floor. Worst of all the sound of tinkling water kept me awake and wanting to go to the toilet all night.

Then there was the Anouska Hempel owned hotel somewhere near Knightsbridge. That was a weird one. It was a ‘trendy’ boutique hotel that had individually themed rooms and mine apparently was designed with a kind of Bedouin tent look. It was in effect black. Well the walls were throughout…and so I think was the ceiling. This ‘black’ look extended to the bathroom as well.

The floor was made up of old creaking boards and the bed was a four poster shrouded in canvas and netting. I counted the scatter cushions and there was something like 32 of them. Fantastic if you wanted a feast, love-in or satanic rite but not perfect for business travel. Worst of all there was a hole in the ceiling above the bed and I wondered whether porn’s equivalent of Cecil B DeMille was in the room above with a wide angled lens. All he would have got on celluloid that night was me cutting my toe nails. I had strange dreams that night.

The bed was almost as weird as the one I had in the Bermudiana Hotel in Hamilton Bermuda many years ago. You cannot miss the hotel because it is huge and painted pink. I turned up very late at night as my flight in from Miami had been delayed and they did not know who the hell I was. All they knew was that the hotel was full. All except one ‘special’ suite. I had a piece of paper in my hand that said I had a reservation so they reluctantly gave me the keys to the ‘special’ suite.

I was starving so before going to bed I went for dinner. Dining alone? I was asked cryptically. Err yes, I said as he walked off pulling a face. After dinner I went for a drink in the bar. Drinking alone? I was asked. Yes, I said turning red. Building up a bit of courage are you? Ehh? I replied. “You’re the man” the bartender called out as I left.

The mystery was solved in big scarlet letters when I got to the double doors of my penthouse. Bridal Suite they said. So that was why everyone could not understand why I was alone and carrying a briefcase. The room was vast. It was perched at the top of the hotel and the main feature was a spectacular circular bed at least 8 feet in diameter under a mirrored ceiling. The sheets were scarlet satin which gave me mild electric shocks every time I moved. Within 10 minutes of sitting on it every hair on my legs was bolt upright and charged with static electricity.

I decided that if I was going to sleep in this garish, slippery nest I was going to have a nightcap drink first. I went to the drinks cabinet and discovered it was almost as big as the bar downstairs. So me and my dear friends Jack Daniels and Remy Martin had a few before I tottered tipsy and jet-lagged to my raunchy sleeping quarters.

I jumped aboard and sat there in my striped pyjamas looking a totally sad. It was then I noticed some controls above the pillows. I pressed one and to my shock my world, or should I say my bed started to rotate and ripple. I couldn’t stop it. I pressed everything but all I managed was to get it turning the other direction. To hell with it I thought and fell asleep whilst cruising at about two miles an hour around my own axis.

I was awoken by the sound of wedding bells being played loudly. It was the suite door bell. I leapt out of bed forgetting I was on the move and crashed into the side table that was not moving and was, at that moment located at the bottom of the bed. As I was floundering in an undignified pile both doors swung open and in wafted not one but two waiters with a giant trolley.

Hello, can we come in they called. You are in I replied. Ooh they said and how are you and your new ‘wife’? Is she in the bathroom? Is she shy? They asked smiling at each other in a knowing way. Out I said firmly and poked them through the doorway. I then saw what they had left behind.

The trolley was vast and included huge amounts of food including caviar, two bottles of champagne and a massive floral display. Right I thought. It’s a mistake on their part but I am going to eat and drink the lot. Which I did.

When I checked out they asked if I had taken room service breakfast. Yes I said but if you look at my reservation I am entitled to bed and breakfast within the rate. But you ate the $500 honeymoon breakfast they said. I may have eaten it but I didn’t order it I called back as I weaved myself out of the hotel and into a taxi.

Travel Services – Buying is just the beginning.

I have encountered many of what I would call classic buyers in my career selling travel services. By that I mean very professional people who know exactly what they want and how to get it at the best rate. They are well practised in procedures and buying protocol and have a clear plan. Good stuff, but is it enough? I do not think so.

I think there are better deals to be done and improved return if two other abilities are learned and brought into play. They are presentation and selling skills. Buyers should know how to buy but there are often other considerations that come into play when buying a service like travel. For example unless you really are going to issue a mandate that is capable of monitoring and enforcing there is likelihood you could lose 20% volume from the programme. You will also probably be buying from people who are frankly not up to dealing with professional buyers. This brings me back to selling and presenting.

Most travel suppliers are becoming more and more cynical and suspicious about the ability of buyers to deliver volume negotiated in travel deals. They are now starting to hold back a little and only give the best package to those that convince them they can deliver volume where there mouth is. The most mutually successful deals I have seen are where buyers are able to ‘sell’ their ability to deliver in a way that has credibility. I once helped a buyer create their own volume delivery agreement which they gave to a delighted supplier and got a fantastic market leading deal.

The deal itself is the beginning not the end of the project. There are numerous ways people can get round a policy and I have seen them all. I could write a book about it! However many loopholes can be closed , or at least made harder, by the ability of the buyer to get to the right internal audience along with a strong sponsor and present their case. To me this is more important than the deal itself.

I have always tried to tell myself that to be successful I should out-sell the salesman and successfully communicate how clever I (the company) has been. After all if you have used you selling skills to get an exceptional programme you might as well you communicate the benefits to ensure everyone knows and acts upon it.

There is so much talk and activity around apps, social networking et al. perhaps if we used some of these fast developing tools to focus on compliance and rationales then companies would have greater control and diminished leakage. A better ROI than repetitive tendering and programme changes to keep a leaking travel bucket full.

My Life in Hotels Part 2

Some of you may remember I commented previously that I only get decent hotel rooms when I am on my own and whenever my wife Judith comes along I get a diabolical one. It has become a bit of a standing joke between us though I am not convinced she sees the funny side of it. One particular example of this was when we both ended up staying at the Cumberland Hotel London many years ago.

It is quite an upmarket place now with statues, bright marble and bohemian looking reception staff but then it was a tired, enormous monolith of a place. In those days the numerous rooms housed mass tourists from every part of the world plus guests using their banqueting facility. It was for the latter that we were there for.

The evening started badly. At literally the last moment I managed to scrounge a second place for Judith who quickly climbed into her finery and jumped into the car which promptly would not start. I frantically called the local garage who came round, scratched their heads tut-tutted a lot and said “This car is going nowhere mate”. However they did agree to lend us their young mechanics car for the night. This was an ancient Ford Escort with lots of stickers and a giant whip aerial. We looked rather special in it seeing as we were wearing full evening dress.

We arrived at the hotel late and rather bedraggled as we had soon found out that although you could wind the window down you could not then wind them up again. As we could not find anywhere near Marble Arch to park and as I was not aware the hotel had a car park I decided to pull in front of the main entrance and give the keys to the doorman. It was amusing to see his face as he tried to climb in top hat and all while the next car (a Porsche Carrera) waited.

There was no time to spare so, instead of checking in we dashed (via the ladies loo) to the banqueting suite. It turned out to be a bland affair. I could hear nothing because of the big band next to my right ear and Judith had a monosyllabic man with halitosis next to her. Thankfully the formalities ended before midnight and off we went to check in. Unfortunately they said they had no rooms left except for one single they kept for ‘emergencies’.

It was the worst single I have ever had the misfortune to be put in as it was tiny, next to the lift and contained little more than a small bed and a basin. Needless to say Judith loved it. “This is lovely” she said over and over again as she tried to take her make-up off without tripping up over her very expensive dress that was precariously balanced over the single wooden chair.

Actually it wasn’t the absolutely worse single but I was on my own that time. I was at the old Heathrow Park Hotel. I had a room next to reception and I first identified something was wrong when I noticed all the locks were on the outside. I then spotted the barred windows and realised it was a room usually kept to detain deportees overnight before expulsion. “Don’t worry” the receptionist said. Just ring us in the morning and we will let you out “You are after all on an agent’s discount”. That does not make me a bad person” I replied. Anyway, I digress.

We went to bed and I now know how sardines must feel. It was hell but somehow we both fell into an exhausted sleep...until the door was knocked on for the first of a number of times. Having slithered out of my side of the bed I opened the door to find this middle aged lady with lots of lipstick and few clothes who asked me if I ‘fancied a push’. It took a moment for my sleep addled brain to realise what she was saying. It did not take her as long to understand what my wife was yelling from the bed. This happened three further times before we got up at about three in the morning to drive home for some rest.

When we went to check out we found we were in a queue of ladies. All of them were trying to exchange the foreign currency they had been earning upstairs. These included our first lady who had obviously persuaded a yen paying Japanese person to have ‘a push’. It seems they had a special method of business in such hotels where they obtain a list of all the numbers of single rooms and work their way around them in the hopes of finding lone and lonely men. We fled into the night in our whip aerialled chariot and vowed never to return.

The Cumberland is an amazing old structure. What many people don’t know is that it has as many floors under the ground as above. They are all low ceilinged and very much how I assume the catacombs look. They are deserted except for old furniture and I think they may have been used in the Second World War

In the end I did actually go back. It was when the hotel changed ownership and had been given a total revamp. It really is quite gorgeous and not a lady of the night in sight. I had a great room too…as Judith was not with me!

Anybody Understand the Corporate Hotel Market?

I spoke to somebody last week about the problems they were having whilst trying to organise a managed hotel programme for their company. He is new to this side of the business and could not comprehend the basic issues he was facing. All he was certain of was that nobody really knew what the company spent and whether they were getting good value. Ok they had a corporate card that most travellers used but nobody seemed to be able to tell him any useful spend detail.

He was also concerned that there seemed no simple, coordinated and efficient way of making, changing or cancelling bookings. There were so many different ways and each with varying processes. Some you could book online and some you couldn’t. Some on the GDS but most not. The majority necessitated a call to an agency which cost too much for such a transaction. He correctly identified that these variations contributed greatly to the lack of proper MI. What he wanted to know from me was what the problem is? Why is it so hard to book hotels in a way that gives him as a buyer what he absolutely needs to do his job? I gave him the basics as I saw them and thought you might like to read them too.

The hotel market is hugely fragmented. There are thousands upon thousands of hotel and most of them act individually. Yes there are major hotel chains and yes there are consortiums but even here a large amount are privately owned. Consolidating a programme becomes very difficult when there are so many different players with different systems and different communications methods and language. This differs hugely from airlines which are not only far smaller in numbers but use the same GDS booking platforms and share similar systems and codes however I did warn him that this may be changing soon!

So how should one make a reservation? It would be good to combine it with the air or rail booking but unfortunately the range of hotels in the airline booking systems (GDS) is tiny compared with the market. Add to that the difficulty of being able to use your own negotiated fares or room allocations and it becomes not a very feasible option.
You could connect to the numerous hotel booking web sites but again can you be sure you will be booking your deal and capturing sufficient detail. You might get one-off savings using their buying power but creating a nightmare in payment, reporting and control terms.

Out of frustration and a desire to save fees charged by agencies many travellers book direct with the hotel but is that what you really want them to spend time doing? And then again you could miss out on consolidated MI for policy measurement, security and negotiating purposes. I can understand why travellers or their administrators want to make hotel bookings personally but in my view you can forget about control if you let them do it. It is also very vexing when they find out the hotel GM is spot selling rates cheaper than your centrally negotiated deal. This is another thing that regularly happens in this industry.

I advised him that I can only see one logical way of consolidating all ones spend items together and that is through a Travel Management Company (TMC). There are not that many yet who can provide a true solution and it does not come for nothing so buyers need to be absolutely committed in order to reap full benefit

You basically need to find a TMC that can deliver a system that seamlessly links the GDS booking system to their own separate hotel booking and management platform. This platform needs to directly connect with the main hotel chains and have the ability to store and manage your negotiated rates and room allocations with them and the others. All this, and other services need to be on one customer friendly booking screen. It would also be valuable to have this screen branded to your company not the TMC.

Taking pre booked room allocations at key locations is essential in order to allow the system to confirm rooms to travellers straight away and avoid unnecessary costly and time consuming middle-man phone calls. These allocations when combined with those negotiated by the TMC themselves often mean that hotels that seem full can still be bookable to you. It also results in your travellers have their own company one stop shop that pulls together their whole journey along with bolt on services such as policy compliance authorisation system and communication opportunities.

To me his choice is relatively straightforward. He either does what 90% plus of corporations do which is keep their hotel programme separate from air or go the whole hog and combine the two in an online total travel solution which is only now beginning to become a viable solution. I wished him luck and went back to my hotel room…which I booked myself!

My life in hotels Part 1

I’ve been in some strange rooms in some strange places in my time. I suppose it is hardly surprising considering my career as an airline and travel agency man. They have ranged from a shed like structure in Kenya to an unintentional baroque style brothel in Columbia. The latter tried to deliver to me a whole new concept in bed turnover service that included two French maids and their ‘apparatus’...

I have stayed in some pretty opulent rooms too and one I still remember today for a number of reasons. It was at the Mayfair in London. It is a grand old hotel with mainly huge rooms and a justified 5 star rating. Part of my job at the time was buying hotel rooms for my agency so they obviously decided to impress me by an upgrade to one of their best rooms called the ‘Maharaja Suite’.

I always find it ironic that whenever alone and on business I get great rooms but when travelling with my wife they are invariable tiny and above the hotel kitchen. As I found my suite which topically had a picture of an Indian elephant on the door I reminded myself to say nothing to Judith when I got home as, for some reason, she never seems terribly pleased for me! However, after what I experienced, I could not resist.

The Maharaja suite was vast and bigger than my home at that time. It had a lounge with a huge balcony, two bathrooms and two big bedrooms. In the lounge there was a beautiful, and very expensive black shiny Steinway grand piano and I could not resist the urge to play something. I was half way through the one fingered version of ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ when I could not help but notice some nasty deep scratches above the keyboard and on the top.

My first thought was ‘Oh no, they might think it was me, I better call the manager immediately’. I rang a very calm man who said he would be right up to explain. When he arrived he reassured me the scratches were not only known about but preserved for posterity. It seemed that in the early seventies the Rolling Stones had rented the suite and one of them had ‘entertained’ a certain famous lady singing artist across the piano to amuse his friends. Unfortunately for the piano he did not take the time to remove his belt first. Nasty things buckles.

He then apologised for the second bedroom which I had yet to see. We looked inside and the whole room had been stripped. Also a new wood floor had been laid over the carpet. This had been done for the next guest who was to arrive late the following day. That guest was Michael Jackson who apparentlydemanded a dance floor in every suite for him to practise his moves. After the manager left I could not resist and did a moon-walk across the floor and scribbled in a corner ‘Hello Michael’underneath a Kilroy sketch.

Finally I got tired of sitting all alone in the vast lounge morosely reading about business travel and decide to have a bath. This was when the suite yielded up its most surreal secret. The room had a 6 foot square bath and everything else was mirrors. Mirrored walls, mirrored tiles and even a mirrored ceiling and it was most disconcerting.

As I sat in the middle of that bath I felt like a sardine in the Pacific All I could see was me. I saw bits of me that I have never seen before and never wish to see again. Where did that mole, that roll of fat, those hairs come from I pondered. In fact I finished washing with my eyes shut. Cleaning my teeth was no better as I got about 18 views of my bum and none of them were flattering.

I went to bed and lay there thinking. What on earth had gone on in that bath and this bed before me? A blooming sight more interesting than a travel agent writing his presentation I thought and a damn sight more successful I suspected. Finally I ordered room service breakfast and went to sleep. When it arrived in the morning the maid told me that she had never brought breakfast for only one and so early to the Maharajah suite before. Oh great I thought, a fantastic record to hold.

Getting back to basics with business travellers

How much does the average business traveller know about travel programme management? I would argue strongly that the answer is very little which is a problem. How much does the average travel buyer know about the practicalities of using travel to meet individual traveller’s needs? Again I would argue very little except for their own particular experiences. Is this a healthy state of affairs? No.

It has always vexed me how little time and effort is spent educating, briefing and convincing business travellers of the rationale used when creating a travel policy. How can a company expect their travellers who obviously know their budgetary and practical travel needs better than anyone else to follow a policy that seems diametrically opposed to their objectives. Should they be told simply to do what they are told? Or should they have the company policy fully explained and justified.

I am not talking rocket science here. To start with one could get down to basics. Key travellers and budget holders should be approached and asked to explain any reasons why they have issues with the policy and invited to ask specific questions to illustrate these concerns. This will bring out the usual range of arguments about why certain airlines are used, why prices vary so dramatically and why can they not simply go out and choose the best fare for their own budgetary and travel needs.

These arguments are the underlying reasons why most corporations have significant known (and unknown) travel compliance issues yet very little is done about it. The average company seems keener to go out and negotiate prices with suppliers than undertake possibly more productive internal ‘housekeeping’ through communication and collaboration.

Here are a few basic example answers to basic questions that might provide surprising results if travellers understood why certain things are done that way:

Q: Why do I have to use agent X when if I book direct with an airline or use another agent I might get better?
A: The company as a whole needs a total picture of its spending and location of travellers for safety, security, financial and procurement reasons. Part of our contract with agent X ensures we get all this information and support in order to maintain control and drive improvement. Any bookings made outside the programme are lost to the company and weaken its ability to support the individual and corporate needs of all stakeholders.

Q: Why am I made to use certain airlines and certain fares when I can possibly go out on my own and find something better?
A: When the company negotiates these deals with airlines it looks at the total annual requirement of the group. It agrees fares that will be available throughout the period which represent significant discounts and other benefits. There will be occasions when lower fares will be possible but availability will be strictly limited and restrictions will apply. By going outside the programme and taking these one off individual discounts it will weaken the company’s ability to get greater benefits for all over a longer period resulting in higher cost. The overall benefit to the company of a negotiated deal is far higher than the occasional individual saving
Q: I went to an overseas conference and found other delegates who travelled on the same plane but paid less for their ticket than me. What’s going on!
A: The likelihood in today’s market of any person on a plane paying the same as another is very small unless they were booked together at the same time or booked on a fixed price. Airlines shift their prices constantly linked to time before travel, numbers booked and historic data. For example there is no such thing as a standard price on a low cost airline. That is why it is best to book early when fares are historically cheaper.

Q: Why should I pay fees to agent X? I could do it myself much cheaper.
A: The fee to Agent X is not just for making your booking but for a vast range of services provided by them to you and the company. These include back up, management information, billing, account management and a raft of others. All this is lost to you and the company if you book outside the programme to everyone’s detriment.

These roughly drawn up examples hopefully illustrate the need to communicate with
travellers to explain that the company is not totally mad and has valid reasons for
requiring their compliance. I bet that if you asked your travellers these questions they
would not give the same answers! After all, how can you expect people to do what
you ask when you don’t explain why? Surely a better way than introducing a mandate
and trying to enforce it on an incredulous traveller.