Service Recovery For When Things Go Sideways
Brad and I recently completed a 3-night trip to Portland and Seattle to celebrate New Year’s Eve and enjoy some much deserved time off together. While I get to travel a lot, Brad actually doesn’t get to take too many trips with me, so when he does, I take extra care to make sure things are seamless. For this trip, we decided to travel with our dogs, who admittedly aren’t very good travellers. As such, we decided to split the trip into three separate nights at three different hotels, minimizing the driving time but still being able to visit two of our favourite places: Portland and Seattle. I took special care in booking the hotels, knowing we would have limited time at each property. Despite my best efforts, none of the hotel stays were seamless, and service recovery ended up being the theme of the weekend. I recently read a good post from Tiffany at One Mile At A Time about hotels failing to meet expectations, and I thought it was about time to do a post on what to expect when expectations are not met at luxury hotels.
Our Seattle – Portland – Seattle Itinerary
I was originally considering a last minute trip to Paris for New Year’s Eve, but couldn’t coordinate everything to my liking, and we ultimately decided we didn’t want to kennel the dogs for a week. Instead, we decided on a road trip through the Pacific Northwest, which would allow us to drive and bring the dogs along with us! Brad wanted to stay in Portland on the 31st, but was open to visiting Seattle too. Since our dogs get extremely anxious in the car (probably a combination of excitement and my driving), we decided to stay in Seattle on the first night, Portland on the second, and Seattle again on the way home, which would limit driving time to about 3 hours at most.
The properties we booked
Day 1 – The Fairmont Olympic Hotel Seattle
Booked through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts, this was an easy choice given the off-season prices, great location in the city, and since both Brad and I have Platinum status in the Fairmont President’s Club, we knew we would be well taken care of. The hotel is pet friendly, but charges $50USD (one-time charge) for pets.
Day 2 – Hi Lo Portland, an Autograph Collection Hotel
A member of Marriott Rewards, we redeemed 40,000 points for our one-night stay at The Hi Lo, which seemed like fair value given the hotel was selling rooms for around $300 on New Year’s Eve. Brad and I both have Marriott Gold Status through our American Express Platinum Card, so we anticipated some added benefits, though didn’t really know what to expect from a relatively new property. Furthermore, neither of us have stayed at an Autograph Collection Hotel, and we were’t really sure about their branding, other than that it was one of Marriott’s luxury properties. The Hi Lo charges $50USD per pet, per night, which is hardly ‘pet friendly’, and something I didn’t find out about until check-in (more on that later).
Day 3 – The Four Seasons Seattle
Four Seasons is my favourite hotel brand, and I tend to book when the stay has to be good. Being the end of a long weekend covering a lot of miles (and a lot of champagne), I knew we would be tired, and wanted to book a property I thought would deliver. Like the Fairmont, The Four Seasons is an American Express FHR property. Unlike the Fairmont, The Four Seasons was still priced high, coming in at twice the Fairmont rate. While it was a tough pill to swallow, I decided to book thinking the service would far exceed the other two properties and I wanted to experience for myself if the price difference was justified over other luxury hotels in the city. I was under the impression the Four Seasons Seattle didn’t charge pet fees (similar to the Vancouver Four Seasons and Whistler Resort), but this property does have a $50USD fee for pets weighing up to 20 pounds.
What Went Wrong, And What Service Recovery Was Offered
Before I explain what happened, I think it’s important to differentiate between the two different ways hotels can fail to meet expectations:
The Hard Product
This has anything to do with the physical aspect of the property, and may include the room condition, location of room within the hotel, the bed, squeaky door, etc. Generally these are easy to remedy, by requesting a room change, but may also be impossible to fix, if, for example, the you don’t like the lamps or bathroom marble colour. Doing a bit of research in advance can usually give a good indication on what to expect with the hard product at any hotel.
The Soft Product
This has anything to do with service, and is much more vulnerable to failures. Also, the soft product is a lot more difficult to predict based on past experiences. In my opinion, the service level of a hotel is what differentiates a true 5-star, luxury property from a very good 4-star. Luxury brands will generally have the best staff training and service levels should be consistent from property to property. Service recovery is really important when the soft product is off, as this is usually not the brand standard and are generally isolated events at reputable hotels.
I won’t go into full detail here of what happened exactly at each property (I’ll talk more about specifics in the full reviews), but wanted to touch on what went wrong and what was offered as a service recovery by each hotel.
Day 1 – The Fairmont Olympic Hotel
What went wrong:
- Valet parking was disorganized, took more than 30 minutes to get car parked
- Pet amenities were not in room on arrival despite email confirmation from hotel that they would be
What was offered:
- Parking fees waived (without me asking)
Overall these were very minor failures on the Fairmont’s part and I thought them waiving the parking fees without any request a very decent service recovery.
Day 2 – The Hi Lo Hotel Portland, An Autograph Collection Hotel
What went wrong:
- Valet parking was disorganized. Had to park in loading zone, couldn’t find valet staff
- Pet policies were very restrictive, and expensive pet fees not disclosed at booking ($100USD per night for two pets). No pet amenities provided without request, at which point bowls were brought up
- Lobby lounge closed at 10pm on New Year’s Eve
- Room was lacking basic amenities for a luxury hotel – no fridge, glassware, one bathrobe, motel style coffee maker with paper cups, no hotel directory
What was offered initially:
- A complimentary cocktail in the lounge while we waited for a pet friendly room (interesting they allow dogs in food/beverage areas but not all guest rooms due to allergies)
What was offered on follow-up:
- Marriott customer service refunded half of the points used for the redemption (20,000 points returned) and an additional 10,000 points as a gesture. While I consider this quite fair, I would have just preferred the duty manager waive the pet fee and assign us to our original room without an hour of negotiation (we still paid the pet fee in the end)
I thought the duty manager handled the service recovery poorly during our check-in, and I was shocked that nobody followed-up with us prior to departure to ensure we had a good stay. Luxury hotels will usually have a member of management meet you at check-out to make sure you’re satisfied, which didn’t happen here, and resulted in a follow-up call to Marriott customer service.
Day 3 – The Four Seasons Hotel Seattle
What went wrong:
- Check-in was sloppy. Room not upgraded automatically through FHR, which resulted in a flustered front desk agent trying to up-sell. Had to remind of FHR benefits, at which time an upgrade was offered
- FHR benefit is listed as a $100USD food and beverage credit, but I found out the following morning it excluded alcohol, taxes and service charges, which is the first I’ve seen at any FHR hotel. Front desk agent failed to provide me with literature during check-in explaining the benefits
- Pet amenities and alternate bathroom amenities (I had requested these be in the room on arrival after the long drive, which the reservation agent confirmed) were not in upgraded room, which resulted in more communication with front desk, who passed that responsibility on to me for requesting an upgrade at check-in. Took 45 minutes for pet amenities to arrive only after calling, and bathroom soaps still not replaced
- Turndown service provided firm pillows (which we requested) but didn’t include anything else (lights, curtains, water, cleaning). Also, requested bathroom amenity swap for the third time which were still not delivered
- Television remote went missing during turndown (maybe brought out during pillow swap). Requested a new one. It never came with zero follow-up from staff
- Went to the lounge and ordered the cocktail that was being advertised in the elevator. Said they weren’t sure what it was, and after some follow-up, said it wasn’t available anymore (though the great bartender did make a close replacement, which was delicious). Why is this still being advertised if it’s not available?
What was offered:
- Parking and pet fees were removed from bill at check-out (without asking)
- The Director of Rooms apologized personally during check-out and extended an invitation back to the hotel where they would ensure a memorable stay (without asking)
I was grateful for the invitation to return for a more seamless stay more than anything, as I was feeling really upset about this experience. It’s not that anything really bad happened, but rather just a constant series of service failures. Four Seasons is my favourite hotel brand, and one that I often recommend when someone is looking for a truly exceptional experience. I had booked this hotel at a premium knowing we wanted one relaxing evening, and the whole experience was botched. I was feeling like a fool for spending the extra money for what turned out to be a stay full of interruptions and follow-ups, and am grateful for the chance to get a second impression. While some people may consider these service failures petty, I don’t believe there’s much room for error at this price point, especially when expectations were emailed in advance. Thankfully Four Seasons takes service recovery very seriously, and I have no doubt that my impressions will be different after our return visit.
Service Recovery Bottom Line
I always have expectations set before arrival when I book hotels, and assess service levels accordingly. Would I expect a transient airport hotel to anticipate my needs and provide alternative bathroom amenities on request? No. Would I be surprised to see an outdated lobby lounge poster in an elevator at a 4-star business hotel? Probably not. However, I do expect these sort of minor details when I’m paying more than $500 per night at a luxury hotel, and especially when all of the special requests have been confirmed in advance. Some people may call it petty, but I consider it getting what I paid for, and I’m not shy to call out hotels when they fail to deliver on service relative to their place in the market.
This trip ended up being far from seamless, which I take somewhat personally. I pride myself as someone who takes great care in planning travel, and can often choose properties where they ‘get it right’ the first time – which is why I often select luxury hotels I’m familiar with. However, the soft product of any hotel is subject to failures due to the human factor, and I empathize with front line employees, who often have demanding jobs. Since no hotel can be perfect 100% of the time, I do think it’s important for management to acknowledge these shortcomings as they happen, and ensure that guests leave not only satisfied, but willing to return, and in my case, recommend the property to others.
On this trip, each property had some degree of service failure, and I had the unfortunate experience of voicing my concerns to two of them (with the Fairmont taking more than appropriate action without asking), which always takes away from truly enjoying a trip. While I would have preferred a seamless weekend without any interruptions or phone calls to duty managers, I am thankful that all of these hotels had some degree of service recovery to make up for failing to meet expectations.
Have you ever had a hotel fail to meet your expectations? Was any service recovery offered? Tell us about your experience below!