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08 February 2007

Revolution in UK hotels

As a contractor living away from home Mon-Thu in hotels, I am now experiencing the joys and delights of living in hotel rooms for up to 200 nights a year and gaining a completely different perspective of what does and doesn't work from a business traveller point of view. This experience also relates to using Wi-Fi on trains and at airports.

In much the same spirit of when I launched Britain's first guide to getting online with a view to publicising how different services work and driving down price I thought it would be useful to do a wish list for hotels to improve quality and mean that I don't have to negotiate special terms whenever I turn up somewhere and use the "I'd like to stay in your hotel for 200 nights what can you do for me" card.

First off Internet access. For me this is a #1. Yet, can someone find me an accommodation search engine that mentions it? It needs to be available in the bedroom so that I can make free VOIP calls, as there is no privacy in the public areas if Wi-Fi is public areas only. Secondly it absolutely must be free from logins, this means that it is either free or included in the room price. The cost is not the issue here, the login screens are the issue. I would quite happily pay £5 a day for a service that was free of login screens because frankly I waste about 30 minutes a day logging in to do stuff between the PDA, the laptop, getting login details, typing them in over and over again.

The other important point is that PDAs with Wi-Fi just don't work the same way as login screens on a laptop. On a laptop, if you want to surf the web, you connect to the wireless network, open the browser and then some magic happens that instead of going to your homepage there's a redirect to a page for the WiFi network you are using so that you can log in and use it. Great. On a Symbian PDA that doesn't happen. You open your browser, connect to the WiFi network and then all you get is a timeout because you haven't been authorised. Hotels, trains, and airports take note! If I want to set up a connection string to allow the WiFi to work on the PDA, I actually need you to publish the web page I have to go to in order to get authorisation.

Without that info, I can't use the service. Doh! You should maybe try it on a PDA sometime just to experience the irritation factor of the login screen.

What happens when it is set up simply:

1. Open email client on PDA

2. Connect

3. Smile, that's it.

What happens when you have a login to the Wi-Fi set up on a PDA:

1. Open email client on PDA

2. Attempt to connect

3. Experience timeout

4. Read instructions on how to use connection. Note point about the login screen hasn't been published.

5. Borrow someone's laptop and get them to try it.

6. Note down the web address.

7. Park your email client and open your web browser

8. Manually enter the web address making sure it is 100% correct. Book mark it.

9. Wait for browser to display web page

10. Navigate to the username box, click in it and type the username in manually (no facility to save usernames). Some extreme panning and scrolling may be required to locate it because the developers won't have developed it for a PDA browser.

11. Navigate to the password box, click in it and type the password in manually

12. Navigate to the "accept terms and conditions" box, click it.

13. Navigate to the "submit" button, pray that the version of JavaScript is compatible with your browser and click submit

14. I have been thrown out at this point by sites that didn't support Symbian browsers, so if you reach this far then well done. You may need to close your browser down at this point if the connection offered is only single channel.

15. Go back to the mail client, possibly restarting it and try again.

Pain in the neck compared to the simple solution. Repeat steps 9-15 ad nauseum several times a day whenever you want to collect email. Get thoroughly fed up with the whole affair, noting point above that Internet access is #1 priority. Annoy guests even more if you decide to change their password unannounced every day (yes, some places actually do this).

Providing free Wi-Fi access probably costs less than the cost of the two free biscuits I find beside the kettle in my room each night. Now I know the pain that hotels must be feeling as the techno savvy traveller using Skype no longer has to pay the glorious rip off telephone rates that have been the mainstay of hotel income for decades (at least 5 times the cost of a domestic phone rate is not unusual) but Wi-Fi should not be viewed as a telephony income replacement. It is dirt cheap to provide and free Wi-Fi that is simple to use will actually bring in business rather than cost the hotel money.

Indeed if you're in the city centre, you might get free Wi-Fi through the hotel window, which certainly puts paid to any plans the hotel might have to make life difficult.

Next, let me talk about breakfast, my total cholesterol level hasn't changed for over 10 years and is still around 2.5mmol/l, well under the 4.0mmol/l recommended under European guidelines. However, despite this I feel no particular need to over indulge on the heart attack on a plate which commonly passes for the typical fry up British breakfast. Continental breakfast is fine for me. When I have a coffee I choose not to put sugar in it. The hotel very thoughtfully leaves the sugar separate such that those who want sugar in their early morning hot beverage can choose to add as much or as little as they like. Why then don't they do the same for supposedly healthy breakfast cereal? The standard options that all hotels seem to have bought into generally have sugar as one of the top 5 ingredients, even on so called healthy options such as muesli. Rather than spend most of the year in a hotel and end up putting on the pounds, why not just buy sugar free varieties of muesli etc and then leave out the sugar for the tea/coffee such that guests can have sugar on their cereal if the want and as much or as little as they like. Besides the obvious weight gain factors, there is also a clear advantage in catering for diabetics etc.

Moving onto showers. If you are lucky enough to have chosen one of the minority of UK establishments that actually has a decent water pressure rather than the pathetic dribble that sometimes passes for a shower you need to look out for the attack of the dirty shower curtain. Yes indeed, many 3-4 star hotels think that a plastic shower curtain is good enough. However the problem with this is that if the water pressure is anything above a pathetic dribble you find the draught from the water pressure makes the shower curtain flap inwards and you end up having a fight with it for anything more than 2 square inches of foot space. In this case, I find hanging the shower curtain outside the bath is the best way to guarantee being free from curtain attack, however the ensuing flood on the floor is something I am still trying to resolve. A rigid shower partition in sections would be a major improvement. Another major improvement would be a mixer tap with separate volume and temperature controls so that I can set the temperature and not have to fiddle around with it every morning. While I am on the subject of bathrooms, it may be a legal requirement to have an extractor fan if there is no external window but I wasn't aware that it was a legal requirement for the fan in the adjacent room to sound like a noisy hoover being on while the person in the next room takes a 30 minute bath and I'm try to watch TV.

And so to room rates. You can tell how much money a hotel is making by looking up the town's biggest employer (let's call them Acme Big corp) and turning up to a hotel in the same town and saying "What's the corporate rate for employees of Acme Big Corp then?). Typically discounts of 30% off the rack rate will be offered and you can bet that the hotel is still making money on that, not to mention the additionals such as the evening meal. If I’m staying more than a week there’s also the additional cost of laundry which at £2 per pair of socks or £6 for a pair of shorts after a trip to the gym is not a cost to be taken lightly for a week’s washing. £30 a week for washing – it’s almost cheaper to parcel it up an post it home and have a clean set ready to post back.

The evening meal. Back in the 80s you often struggled to find vegetarian options in hotels and had to specifically ask for them and get a separate menu. These days, such options are included on the menu and marked as such. How helpful for vegetarians. However anyone wanting a healthy, dare I say it, low fat menu option in 2007 is in much the same position as the vegetarians were 20-30 years ago. Menus typically dominated by steak might have a potentially healthy fish dish but the opportunity is lost when it comes pre-drowned in cream sauce or similar. Trying to discover the healthy option involves some careful choosing and if you have stayed in the hotel for a week without eating the same healthy dish twice then you've discovered a place that is very much in the minority.

For a slight digression, let us look at, the world's most successful online grocer with over 60% of the UK online food market. For a charge as low as £3.99 they will shop for me, pack the goods into a van, drive the van to my address to arrive within a 2 hour delivery window and carry the shopping into my kitchen. So why is it that the hotel charges me pretty much the same room service fee to bring a sandwich the 5 minutes’ walk from the kitchen to my room? I don't indulge in room service personally but if I did, the option of having Tesco supply my "room service" is one that isn't that far fetched. Whether they could deliver an entire box of cereal plus milk, cutlery and a dish for less than the price of a room service breakfast from the hotel for a fraction the amount of food is well an exercise in arithmetic for the bored. I could also order a brand new 5 pack of socks by post each week and it would be cheaper than having the hotel wash the ones I've had on (£2 a pair!) - what sort of message does that send out for Green Tourism?

Let us now consider the ideal hotel, for it is not as far fetched as it seems. The pub group JD Wetherspoon has been a huge success has a turnover of approx £400 million, profits approx 10% of that, is listed on the FTSE250 and was only founded in 1979. Their basis has been cheap, high quality beer and food. With a no-music policy and aiming for entirely smoke free they are not far from being something that most hotels should aspire to. At a JD Wetherspoon on steak night I can get a 10oz steak and a pint of real ale for £6.99. On curry night it's a good sized curry with rice, nan bread and poppadums and a pint of real ale for £5.49. Similar deal in a hotel round the corner is £12.50 or so for the steak and £3 or so for keg beer and the hotel bill can easily be three times the Wetherspoon's bill and it isn't even as good.

UK accommodation hasn't had much of a shake up since TravelInn and TravelLodge came and introduced basic hotel accommodation priced by the room, a real bargain price for couples and families. However in the slightly more upmarket mainstream hotel line nothing much seems to have changed price wise for decades. So let me propose the following as the ideal hotel:

1. Free Wi-Fi (costs the hotel pennies, subsidised by doing away with the free biscuits in my room). Result, more high spending business travellers. More members of the general public.

2. Flexible breakfast. Costs the hotel the price of a bowl of sugar. Result, more people who find the breakfast appealing. More people staying who need special diets.

3. Decent showers. Costs less than the price of a one night stay per room as a one off fee. Result: Less mess in the bathroom, happier guests.

4. Competitively priced meals. Result: More non-guests eat in the hotel. Sales rise. Long stay guests less tempted to try alternative eateries in the evening.

5. More healthy options. Result: as 4.

6. With increased volume of food and customers from the above then cask ale may become more practical, result: Even more customers.

Easyjet shook up the airline business. Wetherspoons shook up the pub business. Who will shake up the hotel business? Could Wetherspoons move into the bed market and revolutionise serviced accommodation?

Background info: The author worked for VisitScotland/ between 2000 and 2006. These are his personal opinions however.

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