x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Travel secrets: Ensuring a warm welcome

'What amazes me, especially in hotels that specialise in the fulsome, often exasperating, welcome, is how perfunctory the goodbye can be'

The Arrival Pavilion at Phulay Bay, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Phulay Bay Thailand. Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company
The Arrival Pavilion at Phulay Bay, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Phulay Bay Thailand. Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company
We arrived in Mauritius at 8am after an overnight flight, crumpled, grubby, and murderously tired. There'd been a screaming baby on the plane, I'd accidentally spilt breakfast apple juice all over our seven-year-old, so she was wearing just a long T-shirt, and my husband was fuming as he hadn't been able to shave because someone had locked themselves in one of the plane loos for an hour pre-landing. Arriving at our five-star hotel, the last thing I wanted was to have to pass through a kind of honour guard of exquisitely uniformed young female staff, all immaculately groomed, as we were shown to our villa. We couldn't quickly disappear inside, either. We had to stand outside in hot sunshine as garlands of marigolds were draped around our necks, and cold towels and cups of ginger tea pressed upon us, while a gregarious manager blithely held forth about the hotel's restaurants, spa, diving school and delight in having us. I realised that this standard ceremony had been devised with the best of intentions - wow guests, make them feel special, etc. But it made me feel terrible, being scrutinised in such a scruffy state.
In contrast, the personalised welcome a few months later at the Hôtel du Cap Eden-Roc, after a fraught drive from Nice airport, felt much more comfortable. Piling wearily into the grand lobby, hot, bothered and with my husband fuming again (foreign satnav, this time), I could see Philippe Perd, the suave managing director, read the situation in a nanosecond. A barely discernible gesture to an underling, the briefest of pauses, and we were being ushered into the lift. "Please, settle yourselves, and I will send someone up to check you in properly a little later," said the calm, slightly distant deputy manager, as he backed out of our room, leaving us in peace. Heaven. He'd barely made eye contact.
In discussing hotel welcome routines with my Dubai-based friend Bella recently, however, my allergy to fuss met with scathing disbelief. "Good grief! After a long journey, I demand to be smothered with attention the second I arrive at a hotel!" she said firmly, admiring her new gel manicure. "I don't care what I look like: it's the hotel that's supposed to be impressing me, not the other way round. I want red carpet, metaphorical if not deep-pile, everyone in attendance, and fuss, fuss, fuss!"
Poor hotel managers. It's hard to get the hello right. First impressions count, as we all know, and they obviously put much thought into how they greet their guests. But they can't please all of us all the time with the same corporate-prescribed ritual - the gregarious Bellas of the world, and those, like me, who cringe at ingratiation, especially when underdressed for it. Doormen with swishing coats and a sense of occasion; bellboys who run to get a case; bring them on. Once in the lobby, however, all I want is to get into the room as quickly as possible. A friendly smile as I get my credit card back is all that I ask for. I'm not averse to a wow factor - but only when it doesn't involve me doing anything or having anything done to me. The hand massage that guests get on arrival at the jetty at the Royal Livingstone in Zambia, for instance, which Bella told me about most approvingly, I would find exasperating; I'd be wanting to scrabble in my handbag to check that I hadn't left my sunglasses on the boat. The 2,000 candles that, I read recently, are lit each night at the Ritz-Carlton's Phulay Bay resort in Krabi, Thailand, on the other hand, sound more the thing: spectacular and entirely uninvolving.
So perhaps the lesson is that luxury hotel managements should teach staff to react to each guest intuitively, and be ready to upsell, downplay or otherwise adapt the signature arrival ceremony accordingly. For you, madame, a hand-kissing display of ecstasy from the general manager, that you know is just a little bit fake but enjoyable all the same, followed by a 20-minute chat on the lobby sofa; for you, other madame, a brief bow before you sprint to the lifts.
Last impressions count, too. What amazes me, especially in hotels that specialise in the fulsome welcome, is how perfunctory the goodbye can be. I feel neglected, unseen, when I just pay the bill, wait in silence as the credit card receipt is stapled neatly to the invoice, and then set off across the lobby amid no cries of regret. Checkout is surely the perfect time for the management to fuss and flatter. You're calm, composed, and usually have a few minutes to spare. Just the opportunity for a manager to get up from his strategically sited desk in the lobby, ask about your stay, thus hearing about any complaints, and make such a show of delight at your having graced the hotel that you leave imprinted with a happy memory, eager to return. Those managers have to remember to keep that smile on their face until they're sure you're out of sight, though, or they'll never get an Oscar. You don't want to turn around for one last look and catch them rolling their eyes.
I still remember leaving the Four Seasons yacht in the Maldives a good 10 years ago. After four days on-board, we got into the speedboat that would zoom us to the airport amid cries of regretful farewell, enthusiastic waving, the works. A few minutes later, my husband realised that he'd left his deck shoes in the cabin. We turned around - and the surprised smiles and laughter gave us the sense that they'd really been feeling quite sad that we'd had to leave. We left to more waves, and calls to come again next year. Just as the engine was roaring, I realised that I'd left my passport in the cabin safe. Agh, how stupid can you be? Shame-faced, we turned back to the yacht yet again. But even the re-re-welcome couldn't have felt warmer, the farewell full of laughter. We could have felt like idiots, but instead felt treasured. Remembering it now, I'm smiling as I type.