God bless America

Those of you with nothing better to do than read these columns will recall that last time I was recounting our recent journey to the United States. We had just departed Vegas for Washington when I ran out of my allocated number of words so here’s part 2.

Washington turns out to be the American version of Canberra in many ways. Historical, full of public monuments and to some degree soulless. An atmosphere of itchy trigger finger based security pervades the place and this tends to keep the mind focused on not accidently trespassing anywhere.

The city’s many hotels are focused on tourism based guests and demand driven by the political process. To this end many of the hotel lobbies resemble small clubs where political operatives can come and go from private meetings while staying out of the public gaze. The hotel operators have long ago worked out who their guests are and cater accordingly.

Rack rates reflect guest demand and budgets with tourist rates at one price point and well-heeled lobbyists at another.

Certainly in Washington the black art of real time rate and vacancy management is alive and well. Talk to hotel managers and they have their typical guest profiled down to the nth degree with targeted marketing, special offers and sophisticated conference and meeting pitches all forming part of a process that appears to have been fine -tuned over many years. Not sure if they still offer a break in and burglary service at the Watergate Hotel but I suspect not.

We took our leave from Washington via rental car and discovered that they have an interesting process for car hire with some companies in the states. Months ahead of time you book and pre-pay for the specific make and model of car you want. Then you turn up at the rental office, join a queue that stretches down the street for a block, wait two hours in line and are then told there is no car for you. Basically they run a first in, best dressed business model that pretty much ignores the booking request of the client. If you’ve seen the Soup Nazi episode of Seinfeld this is the car rental version. Yes, you could wait for someone to return that sort of car but that could be today or maybe not so in the end you take what you are given and drive off into the sunset. Not a great business model and one I will avoid at all costs in the future. Hopefully the power of TripAdvisor will warn other potential victims.

Speaking of TripAdvisor, we noticed an interesting trend in the states. Hotel staff carry business cards with their name and the TripAdvisor site details for the property. If you compliment them on their service they give you a card and ask that you put something on TripAdvisor and mention them personally. Apparently managers have come up with the inspired idea to reward staff with bonuses if they achieve a positive TripAdvisor review for the property.

Of course, complimenting staff on service is only half the game. I am yet to fully reconcile my view on tipping but one thing is for sure, with a few exceptions tipping seems to be driving a level of service professionalism in the States that we simply don’t see here in many accommodation and F&B businesses.

Of course, one would think that as tips are basically propping up a disgracefully low minimum wage that business owners would pass the cost saving on to consumers. No such luck! In most cases the customer subsidises the businesses wage costs with tips and still pays top dollar for the room, meal, beverage or whatever. Oh well, when in Rome as they say.

We spent some time in Asbury Park NJ on account of this being the area where Bruce Springsteen paid his dues. Stayed in a resort that caters to the holidaying NYC gay community and trades strongly while other accommodation businesses in the area find it pretty tough. The guys who own the resort saw a market niche opportunity years ago, acquired the property and have not looked back. The service was great and the room presented well in an area not renowned for up market accommodation options.

It was a bit cold and a bit quiet but apparently the New Jersey boardwalk goes off in summer.

Speaking of cold we decided to have a few nights at Newport Rhode Island and ended up staying at the Newport Harbour Hotel, right on the water where the America’s Cup boats were moored in 1983. Turns out you get a very cold reception if you walk into a yachting souvenir shop in Newport and ask if they can sell you a Boxing Kangaroos flag. No sense of humour the yanks! Turns out they still don’t talk about 1983 and in fact the history of the New York Yacht Club brochure that I read made no mention of the loss to those upstart Aussies.

Having said that, in all other respects the locals are wonderful hosts and very friendly. The staff take the time to remember your name and help out in any way they can. Must be the tips you think. Maybe, but even with the tipping system I find it hard to believe that these people could fake sincerity to this level. You have to be an ex-banker broker to do that.

Anyway, we left Newport and drove to Manhattan for a five-night stay at the famous (or infamous depending on your view) Park Lane Hotel. The property was originally owned by one Leona Helmsley with whom I share a birthday but hopefully not a personality. She was known as the Queen of Mean and would sack staff for the most minor indiscretion. Have a look on Google for the full story.

Anyway, the property has a cracking view of Central Park and the rates are reasonable. A chat with hotel staff reveals that a recent business review has led to a serious drop in staff numbers and it showed in the check in service and general demeanour of the remaining staff. Given the location and quality of the property I can’t understand why management would employ a strategy of reducing staff and service when the property could have demanded a higher room rate. Very odd.

Finally, throughout our travels in the land of the free, the managing director took every opportunity to quiz people about what they knew of Australia. The end result was pretty much as expected. They know bugger all about Oz and, if our tourism marketing dollar is gaining any traction in the States, we did not see the slightest evidence of it. Pity, because putting bias aside as best I can we have a substantially better product than they do.

PS : If you ever decide to rob a bank and need a getaway driver I will send you the name of the bloke who drove us to JFK Airport in a New York yellow cab. Wow!

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