Nostalgia and fun memories can be a dangerous thing – they can lead you to look past some obvious signs of poor customer service until it is too late. Three years ago my wife and boys went back to Massachusetts to visit the town we lived for 15 years before moving to New York. They stayed one night each with friends, but then Sunday night stayed in a hotel so everyone else could get back to their normal life and Lisa and the boys would have an easier exit to head home.
They chose the Coco Keys Water Resort Hotel in Fitchburg, which at the time was owned by Marriott. It was a hotel that had recently added a water park of the type becoming increasingly common, with pools, tubing areas, slides, dump buckets and so on. They had a great time – after arriving they went straight to the water park, stayed until closing, then headed to the Bistro for a late snack of wings and a drink, then the next morning they took the complementary buffet outside to enjoy.
So when we decided to extend our Cape Cod vacation with a trip back to Northern Massachusetts for an overnight visit, we made only one call – to the Coco Keys. Needless to say, things didn’t go as expected, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this! Rather than just list out everything, here are a few categories that sum up the experience:
Tell Your Customer When You are Doing Something Unexpected:
- We booked the hotel, let them know that we would have our dogs (expecting a fee and being told of one), and wrote down our information. A few days later while doing bills we noticed that our bank account had been charged in full for the hotel! A call informed us it was due to the ‘hotel/park package deal’, but we still had cancellation ability to within 72 hours of stay, which we accepted – because at least it meant that part of vacation was paid off! BUT, for a hotel this is NOT standard practice, so you should always tell your customers what to expect.
- Along the same lines, apparently our thought that everything was paid off wasn’t entirely accurate; the dog fee was due on arrival, which – again – was something we weren’t told about and was therefore a $75 check-in surprise. I don’t think that sort of thing is EVER well received.
- When we booked, the hotel was still Marriott owned, but was transitioning to Holiday Inn. The website touted free continental breakfast … which we suspected was no longer included due to some changes in layout of the area where it used to be located. We were correct. However, there was NO mention one way or the other in any of the documentation for the hotel. The official switch-over date was less than two weeks before our arrival, so it seems like the hotel could have made some effort in communicating the changes in amenities.
You Expect Customers to Obey Your Rules, So Obey Your Own Rules:
- We came from visiting friends with visions of more or less repeating the experience my wife and kids had before. We had checked in before heading to visit friends, so all we had to do was quickly change and hit the water park. All of the signs say ‘open until 9PM’ with no caveats (like some places where it will say ‘last ride at 8:45′ or whatever), which was great and gave all of us plenty of time to relax and have fun. Until my younger son and I hopped out of the outdoor hot tub at 8:45 to do one last run on the water slide only to see the lifeguards sending kids who were on the stairs back down and not allowing anyone else to go up. Then they started clearing everyone else out, so that by the time we got to the hot tub (~20 feet away) I had to tell the girl we were gathering up our family to be allowed outdoors! We were ready to go anyway, so it wasn’t a huge deal at the time. In most places the closing is flexible, and there is warning, but it was clear that here 9PM meant ‘lights out’! And again, this was different from my family’s experience on their previous visit.
- As noted, the next step on the repeat tour was getting snacks. We had checked the sign and saw the bistro was open 10PM – again with no caveats – so we headed to the room to get changed out of our wet bathing suits and then came back down. We came to the Bistro counter at about 9:25 according to ‘Verizon Time’, and we tried to place our order but were told ‘sorry, kitchen closes at 9:30′. I remarked ‘I don’t think it is past 9:30′ and pulled out my phone which was showing 9:26; I directed it towards the person working the Bistro bar, who remained impassive and suggested that perhaps the main restaurant was open later and we could get something there.
Sensing my mood shift, and before I could pretty well demand our order be processed since it was before 9:30, my wife suggested we check out the restaurant. When we arrived there (with ANOTHER 10PM sign), we met with a highly uncooperative hostess who basically tossed us a menu and otherwise said very little about whether we could get similar snacks at the restaurant – which the menu told us we couldn’t. Turns out that THEY were trying to close as well, though she never said that – what told us was that the main restaurant doors were closed right after we exited.
So when I talk about ‘following rules’, what do I mean? If you say you are open until 10PM, BE open until 10PM; if the kitchen closes at 9:30, make that explicit and clear. Most people respond much better to rules when they are clear and explicit and consistent rather than when they feel arbitrary and punitive. Had we known the kitchen closed at 9:30, we would have gotten snacks before changing. But based on the signage for the Bistro – combined with past experience – we had no reason to think that reality was anything but the stated 10PM closing.
At this point the kids were exhausted and just wanted to crash in front of the TV in the room. Lisa and I decided to go back to the Bistro to get a drink and sit and relax for a bit. Which brings us to …
Don’t Charge Someone for Your Employee’s Incompetence:
- Back at the Bistro, we took a deep breath and went up to order our drinks – Merlot and Martini. Mine was simple – house Merlot. For Lisa … she ordered a dry Vodka Martini straight-up with olives. Not as simple as wine or beer, but a very standard drink that they teach on Day #2 of bartending school … or you can just grab a cocktail book and look on page 3 of the Vodka section. Anyway, a martini is pretty much always prepared in a shaker (even if stirred), Dry means ‘use extra dry Vermouth’, ‘straight up’ means with no ice in the glass, and ‘with olives’ means … with olives.
Unfortunately the Holiday Inn decided to have a bartender at a full-service bar in a fully booked hotel who neither has knowledge of drink preparation nor the resources to figure it out. He interpreted ‘straight up’ as ‘only put vodka in the cup’. The olives part he got, but when I mentioned to Lisa that he looked about ready to serve her a cup of vodka she tried to help; he asked what type of Vermouth (which had been addressed in the ‘Dry’ part). and then he prepared to try again. He was still working directly in the glass, but to me it looked like he was mixing at a 1:1 ratio (again, basic recipe is 3:1 Vodka to Vermouth). Lisa tried to correct him, but the deed was done. He asked her to taste his concoction, and it was the WORST Martini she had ever tasted without exception. Mind you, this is a $6.50 cocktail! And while I know that isn’t terribly expensive for some places, it’s not like we were at home playing with $1 of booze.
Fortunately he didn’t have a problem starting again – without charging us for the drink we returned; this time someone also fortunately told him to use a shaker. But UNfortunately he neither listened to our advice, nor did he consult a mixology book – so what he delivered had a 2.5:1.5 ratio – better, but still not correct. Lisa took a taste and pretty much said ‘good enough’, and now – more than 20 minutes later – we sat down. As she said, it was ‘drinkable’, but still the SECOND worst Martini of her life. And though we enjoyed just sitting together, we were stuck with a bill of $15 for the privilege of trying to teach a bartender who didn’t listen to make a drink he should have known how to make before working a bar!
Tell Your Customer When You are Doing Something Unexpected … Again:
- As mentioned, the hotel was no longer offering free continental breakfast, something we had surmised but that remained to be confirmed when we got off the elevator in the morning. The Bistro had a few items, but given the number of fruit flies we saw the night before, and how everything sitting out in the morning had been sitting out the night before … we headed for the restaurant, which was pushing the buffet. Now in most that serve a buffet, the waiter carrying juice to your table is just part of the buffet – or a separate charge if you go a la carte. Same for coffee.
Again, I can’t fault the restaurant for my failure to ask, but given the rather casual (i.e. skimpy) pour job, I assumed things rather than confirmed. And like so many times already, the hotel staff seemed instructed to provide no more information than that which was explicitly asked. So three of us got coffee, three got juice, and we all opted for the buffet since the a la carte options were quite pricey. Aside from being very small, most of the buffet was obviously store-bought in bulk (pastries, etc), and even though days later – we continue to laugh about it being the worst bacon we’ve ever had – it was tough to the point that Lisa worried for her cap. Needless to say, when we got the $75 bill (for four Holiday Inn buffet breakfasts and found out that NOTHING had come with the buffet, we were less amused.
I really cannot fault the Holiday Inn that I didn’t ask, but then again – the buffet wasn’t even listed on the menu! How could I have discerned from the information provided what was or wasn’t included? But I look at it this way – I had expected to have about $50 in check-out costs from a late night snack for all of us, and instead I had to sign for more than $175 – and of course we never got our snack! It felt like an extremely poor value for our money, which leads me to …
Making Customers Feel ‘Nickel & Dimed’ Won’t Earn Repeat Business:
- After Lisa and I had been sitting with our drinks for a bit, the boys texted us, and we told them to come down and join us. We had already bought them each a 20 oz. soda, which cost a pricey but not unexpected $2.50 each. We asked them if they wanted a bag of chips or pretzels from the ‘market’, and when they grabbed the vending machine-sized bags we were charged … $2.50 each. In the morning we contemplated getting water bottles, but they cost … you guessed it … was $2.50 each! We decided to wait for the rest stop on the Mass Pike, where we got 2x the water for $0.75 less per bottle!
When The One Helpful Person You Meet Is Unsurprised by Your Complaints … It Isn’t a Singular Incident, It Is Systemic:
- A very nice young woman named Amanda helped us check in and get everything we needed … and she was also on duty when we checked out. While she did try to explain the bartender’s inability to make a drink because he was new (which honestly shouldn’t matter, as again the issue wasn’t lack of knowledge but how he dealt with it), she was unsurprised by anything we had to say about anything, though quite frankly there wasn’t anything she could do about it. She was the singular bright light in an otherwise dismal customer service experience – and all she had to do was give us keys and take our money.
I cannot help but feel that the business model Holiday Inn is operating under is distinctly different from Marriott. Whereas Marriott’s was more like a standard hotel with a water park package tacked on, designed such that those with no water park interest could still get a pleasant hotel experience, Holiday Inn seems to be working from the perspective of ‘gouge them while you can, and assume they’ll never return’. As a business traveler, I would never accept this treatment; I have been to places all over the country from different hotel chains and never dealt with such unaccomodating behavior, such a blatant disregard for opportunities to maximize the customer experience, and such a totally unbalanced approach to maximizing cash flow regardless of impact on return visits and word of mouth.
Speaking of word of mouth, when people have a lousy experience, there is often the question of ‘what can *I* do’ other than not go there again? Well, in the age of social media, there is a lot you CAN do. I have already added a ‘tip’ to Yelp, and I plan a full review. We are going to do a review on the Holiday Inn site, and pretty much every other place online where we can voice our opinion. We know a number of people who moved away from Massachusetts when the economy tanked prior to the rest of the country, and most have made at least one trek back in the last five years with more visits planned. We have already gotten the word to some friends that ‘this is not the place you remember’, and told them that it is simply not a good value at this point.
Of course, Holiday Inn can change all of that, and like any company that has taken a good situation and ruined it – I hope they do. But as I have detailed here, it is much more than just not having worn-through desk chairs in guest rooms (yes, they did), or only managing to clear the trash out of elevators at least once in 24 hours (again, sadly yes). Those are ‘nice to do’ items, but when you have a homogeneous attitude and customer treatment across the entire staff of an establishment – especially when it has shifted with new ownership and management, it tends to indicate that the poor situation is there INTENTIONALLY. And that simply won’t do.
On the other hand … the experience made us very much want to get out and go home!