January 25, 2013

Crime in my five star hotel room

Context is everything when it comes to experiences on a holiday you've paid a lot of money for.

For example. If I told you that last week I walked out of my bathroom at the stunning Royal Livingstone hotel in Zambia to find the room had been invaded and trashed what would you say? "Super" or "oh how dreadful"?

If I told you those same invaders smashed two tea cups, stole all the sugar, munched on the fruit bowl and lay on my bed stroking each other? We'd need to upgrade from dreadful.

If I then revealed that those same inconsiderate hoodlums were still in the room, still eating and breaking things, and, to add insult to burglary, barely raised an eyebrow upon being discovered - I imagine you'd be calling for this appalling hotel to be shut down immediately.

And it gets worse believe it or not.

After finally and begrudgingly leaving through the balcony door one of the criminals climbed onto the next door balcony, sat down, got comfortable, and slowly enjoyed my neighbour's rather expensive glass of red wine.

Let's not just shut down the hotel, let's shut down the entire country.

Until we unveil the context.

Scroll down please...




























You're half way there, don't give up!


























Wine-Monkey-1_600x300.jpgWINE MONKEY
(photo by my neighbour and travel editor of the Mirror Nigel Thompson)

October 24, 2012

Maps and the last mile - my chat with Geoffrey Kent



Watching Geoffrey Kent pad around the new Abercrombie & Kent store on Cheapside it's clear to see the huge amount of pride it gives him.

It's been 50 years since he founded the company in Nairobi and even longer since he caught the adventure travel bug on his first personal groundbreaking expedition taking his motorcycle from Nairobi to Cape Town with little more than biltong and a map for company. Nobody else had managed this feat before him.

Could that 16-year-old kid possibly have envisaged this glorious looking shop in the City Of London with bespoke furniture, a Sundowner bar and old chests full of specially designed canvas maps?



Actually, perhaps. Certainly the seed of the idea was there in the head of the young man in Kenya setting about building one of the biggest travel companies in the world.

Seated in the private consultation area of the shop, which opened this week, he tells me it's all about test drives.
"When I started in Nairobi 50 years ago I knew it was about connecting with the client.

"I also knew I was the best but nobody else did. I remember thinking I wished A&K was like a car you could test drive because I knew that if someone could test drive me they wouldn't go with the competitor.
"This shop is all about test driving us."



The store mixes old and new techniques including bespoke canvas maps stored in vintage chests alongside Skype video calls with local A&K experts in 25 countries.

It is staffed by 'travel curators' all of whom have spent the last three months travelling to many of the company's destinations to ensure encyclopaedic knowledge.

Kent added: "This is not a travel agency at all. This is more like an Apple shop showing off the brand. Obviously sales matter but that's only half of it."

What you won't find anywhere are brochures. Although for paper lovers the company prints bespoke brochures that can be with the client the following day. You also won't find offers on the walls even on the score of plasma screens covering one side of the shop. Instead these screens have photographs on a loop. Only two photographs at any one time so sensory overload is not a risk.



Elsewhere are photographs of many of the company's expert guides who lead trips all over the world. And pictures of the charity and community projects the operator helps in the destinations it travels to.

Downstairs one can get a full outfit and all the health advice and jabs needed thanks to a partnership with Nomad.

Kent is keen to point out the big difference between A&K and its various competitors and he sums it up with a phrase coined by the telecommunications industry - the last mile.

In that sector the phrase refers to the last bit of (in very simple terms) wiring that connects homes and businesses to the phone lines, internet etc.

It is the most important part, the most difficult part and the part that matters most to customers.
"Telecommunications companies talk about the last mile being the hardest to deliver.
"We deliver the last mile. We have our own lodges, our own ships and have 50 operating companies covering 126 countries with more than 2000 staff that actually make our holidays happen.

"There isn't a single company that nears our size globally. Other companies have got great brands and publications and presumably they deliver.
"But the key word is 'presumably' because they can't guarantee it. We can guarantee the last mile because we do it ourselves."

Kent admits he has been trying for some time to make this clear, but still thinks people do not understand what it means. He hopes the new shop and future shops in, for starters, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi, Australia, the USA, and a couple more in the UK, will help people test drive A&K and in doing so begin to understand.


Map-consultation-2_600x326.jpgAnd I think everyone who goes in will see the depth of A&K's love for and knowledge of travel.
This store is something for everyone in the industry to be proud of. It isn't a competitor for anyone in the business, it isn't a threat.

It's an homage to what travel is supposed to be about. It's a gentle statement to the travelling public that says: "we really love this, and we know a shed load more than you do about it."

It's a window that lets everyone who looks through it know that there are still a thousand lifetimes worth of adventures out there but to get at them you really ought to talk to a pro.

Just as Columbus did, just as Shackleton and Scott did, just as Geoffrey Kent did before getting on his motorbike - it's standing in front of a map and asking one simple question. Where shall I go?

(Although admittedly Columbus could probably have done with a sat nav.)

Kent loves maps. He insisted on them being in the shop. And I love them too. Finding my way from Wimbledon to Crystal Palace I'm happy to follow the blue dot until I'm told to stop.

But when it's time to see the world there can be nothing as glorious or exciting as unrolling a canvas map and making a plan.

Kent's view of A&K's role in 1962 was standing with a client in front of a map and helping them chart their voyage. And this truly beautiful and practical shop makes it very clear that it's still his view today.


September 18, 2012

Smoked salmon and easyJet on toast

I often get asked this question: "What makes something suitable to be written about in Aspire?"

It's a reasonable question.

This question is sometimes followed by a mildly accusatory line regarding something someone read that they don't deem to be luxurious enough to appear in a high-end magazine.

Also reasonable I suppose.

Recently, for example, someone told me off for writing about easyJet.

easyjet.jpgQuite right too you might say. What's the editor of a luxury magazine doing writing about a no frills airline?

Why does this crazy fool think that Aspire is the place for editorial on an airline that requires you to fight for unreserved (for now) seats, charges for drinks and snacks and which only offers decent leg room if you pay extra or happen to be Danny Devito.

Not that I am complaining about these things by the way. Airlines like easyJet do what they do and cost what they cost and methinks it's good value and a marvellous service. I use them a lot.

BUT. If someone told me I should fly on this luxury orange plane because it's super duper I would get off at the other end, go through security, collect my bag, check in again, re-board the plane, fly back, locate this someone and flick them in the head.

So the complainant was clearly correct and I am an imbecile. Case closed?

To my light telling off I replied: "Do you consider yourself affluent?"

"Yes," they said.

"Do you like to go on European mini-breaks?"


"Do you like to stay in nice hotels when you go on your European mini-breaks?


"Where did you go on your most recent European mini-break?"


"How did you get there?"


I proceeded to dance a little victory dance.

I don't think people make the mistake of believing luxury travel equals Champagne, caviar, gold taps and helicopter rides any more.

But some are still too quick to call an egg an egg without stopping to think about the quiche/omelette/croque monsieur/meringue (here's a hundred things to do with an egg) one could make if one were to dynamically package said egg with other ingredients.

egg.jpgDo eggs qualify as luxury? I don't think so no.

Does smoked salmon on scrambled eggs qualify as luxury? Probably, yes.

So I shall continue to write about easyJet, Ryanair, Wizz Air and any other cheap planes I can find.  

I probably won't write about eggs again. But I shall continue to eat them in a variety of different ways.


April 23, 2012

Sneak peek at Virgin Atlantic's new Upper Class Suite


Once upon a time someone sat down somewhere other than on the floor or in a tree for the first time.

The chair was born.

A little while later someone invented a machine that could fly through the sky.

The plane was born.

And when the plane people got round to creating passenger versions they quickly realised that the aforementioned invention would be well suited to their invention so popped some seats in.

Chairs on planes. Marvellous. The end.

No no no. Really really far from the end.

In all the time that life has existed there is no place where more thought has gone into a chair than on a plane. The most ambitious and slow-moving carpenter in history would not be able to take as long building a chair as the sky seat folk.

This is not down to laziness. It is due to the extraordinary value of every inch of space on a plane.
When the design team at Virgin Atlantic were given the task of designing a new Upper Class chair (Dream Suite is the official title) the instructions must have been met predominantly with abject terror. And perhaps a dash of professional excitement.

Their mission, whether they chose to accept it or not, was to build a better chair, a roomier chair, a more comfortable chair, a more useful and passenger friendly chair (marvellous so far) but fit more of them into the same amount of space.

This is the moment that I would have backed slowly and stealthily out of the room before entering run and hide mode.

Impossible. Ridiculous. Silly. A child with a round peg and square hole could tell you this.
But, it turns out, it isn't silly or impossible. I know this because the airline kindly invited me and a fellow journalist from the Sunday Times to have the first peek at these magic seats on the new A330 aircraft (Miss Sunshine) before its first trip to New York JFK International Airport on Saturday (21).

It's important before I tell you more to take into account that the people who designed the current Upper Class seat weren't given free rein (or reign, both are fine) to throw the chairs around the cabin willy nilly without a care in the world. There were no gaping holes of space left empty in the pursuit great Fung Shui lines.

They were given the same instructions as the people behind the chair I'm unveiling today. As many chairs as possible, but make them super duper. It was those folk who invented the fishbone formation that the airline patented and owns. Clever folk - so trumping their work is a spectacularly difficult task.

And that is why is has taken four years. Four years. And lordy knows how many people hours. There was a shortlist of six concepts, slowly whittled down over time and alterations and finessing have been thorough.

It's also worth knowing that these design folk don't lock themselves away and emerge one day with the perfect chair. Endless interviews of everyone involved to get opinions and perspectives from as many places as possible take place. Right through to the maintenance men who have to fix the chairs when something goes wrong that led to the chair being built in four sections and therefore easier to maintain.

And then when a prototype was ready the airline's most frequent Upper Class flyers were invited to spend the night on one of the chairs in a large shed. An invitation that is rarely refused by the way such is the excitement around new chairs on planes.

It took about 30 seconds for the first issue to arise and it goes to show that however clever a designer is and no matter how hard they work to get into the mindset of a customer, there is simply nothing more useful than sticking a frequent flyer in the chair for the night.

The troublemaker was a woman with a Mulberry bag. The issue was the foot rest. When testing took place it was a thin solid base with a larger head. Imagine a mushroom. It is now a hollow ottoman with a fold up lid. The reason for the change is that the lady in question went to put her handbag down and could find nowhere she liked the look of to pop it. Out with the mushroom, in with the hollow ottoman. 

When the chair had been tested and retested and retested again it finally made its way onto a plane.

Walking onto the plane the first thing everyone will see, irrespective of whether they are turning left or right, is the bar. A beautiful bar that doubles as a 'welcome to the plane' area and looks like it's made of solid stone (it's actually a thin stone coating).

This is the view that will greet everyone who gets on the plane. Time to cry if you're not turning left.

It is the longest in the sky at 2.7m and is framed by light. Before explaining the light mood system one of the designers turned to me and said he'd read a blog post in which I'd been dismissive of lighting mood menus and asked me to bear with him while he demonstrated what a moron I am (my words, not his, he was very polite).

I did bear with him and he successfully convinced me that lighting mood menus are actually a marvellous idea on board (still not keen on them in hotel rooms though). Whether you are dining, snoozing, partying or in full pyjamas and duvet mode there is a lighting mood to suit. And it's extraordinary how different the cabin looks at the flick of a switch.

Finally I sat down. And lay down. And played with the onboard entertainment and tried to break things and find potential issues or c*ck ups. But I drew a blank. To quote a girl sat next to me on the tube this morning the seat is "totes amazeballs."


The chair, like the old one, is essentially two pieces of furniture with very high end leather upholstery on the chair and then when it is sleep time it folds over and a bed emerges. The research suggests people don't want to sleep where they eat or where someone else has slept so fresh bedding goes down and you don't have to worry about the personal hygiene of your predecessor.

It's the longest fully flat bed in the business class arena at 7ft 2inches and in chair mode the width has increased by 1.5inches and it reclines up to 50% more than the current seat, designed with shorter flight snoozes in mind.

Chair becomes the longest business class bed in the sky

All this and somehow there are four seats in each row (there were three before) and all still have isle access. This is thanks to an "asymmetric herring bone" and something else I don't fully (or even partially) understand to do with g forces and safety regulations and magic.

Asymetric herring bone and magic combine

Below are a list of other features the Virgin Atlantic people are rightly proud of.
But before I sign off I must make a conclusion or three.

The first is BRAVO! Marvellous chair.

The second is that the people who designed this chair are a lot cleverer than I am.

And third is a suggestion/warning. If you find yourself sat anywhere near me on a Virgin Atlantic flight do everything in your power to avoid eye contact and refuse point blank to engage in conversation with me or else I will bore you to self harm with chair chat.

Virgin Upper Class Dream Suite facts:

• A new window has been built into the wall of each suite, giving them more light and space but its opaque design offers the same levels of privacy.

• Each suite has a 12.1 inch touchscreen monitor with a touchscreen handset loaded with a brand new entertainment system called JAM. It's been consistently rated excellent by more than 80% of passengers.

• Each suite with a handy new flip down cocktail table and push panel armrest, plus a new fully adjustable reading light and a much more conveniently located headphone jack.

• The new passenger control unit still has lumbar support plus clever firm touch buttons to prevent accidental activation.

• There's more storage than ever, with a new literature pocket and two ottoman storage solutions.

• Laptops can be powered throughout the flight with in-seat power supply compatible with most international plug types.

• All of the A330 aircraft have the AeroMobile system installed so that mobile phones work on board.

• With the new technology hub, passengers can connect their smart phone, USB stick or tablet to JAM, watch, read or listen to their own content, plus charge their device. .

More destinations will be added as the rest of the A330 aircraft join the fleet throughout 2012, and new 787 aircraft from 2014. 

To learn more about the new chair go to http://www.vsflyinghub.com


March 30, 2012

I'd rather you threw the hot stones at my head

When we created Aspire I was part of a one-man campaign group whose sole purpose was to try to avoid mentioning the word luxury.

I felt it at best a little dull, at worst redundant, pointless and deeply unhelpful.

Telling someone something is luxury is as banal as telling them something is fun, I argued.

I think it is fun to lie on the ground, squeal the opening bars of the Disney animation The Lion King and watch my mother's bichon frise Hugo go mental before leaping on my face to make it stop.

Hugo: Doesn't share my sense of fun

You might not think that sounds like fun. I'm not convinced Hugo enjoys it and I know my mother finds it a little irritating. But few things amuse me more.

Some people think it's fun to keep allotments. Others enjoy wearing skinny jeans and staying up late. My younger brother (thespian, 26) enjoys Billy Ellioting around the house while wearing Pokemon pyjamas. I do not. But I am more than content for everyone to pick their own fun and crack on.

Luxury is the same kind of word. When I'm told something is luxurious my first reaction is to scoff. Internally scoff of course. Externally I nod and appear agreeable like the two-faced, spineless kowtowing panda I am. I like to save my venom for the internet where nobody can find me.

Here are some examples of 'luxuries' I don't like:

Hot stones on my back. This treatment sits between Chinese water torture and flaying on my list of things not to do. And yet many 'luxury' hotels offer it and many 'luxury' consumers want it. Good for them, I genuinely hope they and the stones will be very happy together. You may as well hurl them at my head.

No locks on the room door. A charming boast from some hotels that demonstrates friendliness, community spirit, safety, and an attitude that says: "we're too luxurious for crime." This announcement at check in always threatens to blow my thin and fragile veneer of cool. Will I go along with this new-age luxury hippy trust vibe and spend my stay secretly worrying? Or will I be the one square, key-obsessed, paranoid fuddy-duddy with trust issues who ruins everyone's fun by demanding a lock. I've heard people rave about this feature. They consider it a genuine luxury. It makes me feel a little unwell.

No televisions. I hate not having a TV in my hotel room. I hate it almost as much as I hate people who announce at dinner parties that they don't have a television because they just read books and meditate. Television is not crack. As an adult with a brain I can decide whether or not to turn it on. It may be that I don't watch it at all while away in which case it does very little harm sitting quietly in the corner. Equally it may be that it rains for two hours and I'm tired and I want to watch a film or sporting occasion.
But. Some people like not having one and it is a luxury USP I have seen successfully waved around by hotels plenty of times.

 Of course context is important. Those same keyless, high-end hippies would have an aneurysm if presented with an open-door policy in some destinations.

And there are occasions when I would delight in not having a television:

"Sorry Mr Murray, you can't watch television because we are in the middle of the rainforest sleeping in tents and there is no electricity." Hurrah.

"Sorry Mr Murray, we do have plug sockets but decided to not fill one of them with a television because we think watching television is an evil holiday pastime." Boo, hiss. 

A television free accomodation option

Since joining the world of high end travel I've been talked to about luxurious spas, rooms, restaurants, meals, drinks, decor, smells, loos, pools, kids clubs, chalets, villas, planes, chairs, tables, grass, televisions, walks... etc etc.

Who decides? Is there a stamp-wielding committee somewhere slowly working its way through a pile of things looking for luxury status? Or can anyone, anywhere, at any time just decide that something is luxurious and voila.

I wish it were a little more scientific. I wish luxury was a little more like a 25 metre swimming badge. A 25 metre swimming badge doesn't cause confusion and debate. If you've got one sewn proudly onto your Speedos then everyone knows the score.

David Hasselhoff wears Speedos and was once awarded a 25m swim badge

So where is the luxury badge? Is there such a thing and if not then why not? As a youngster I put faith in the star rating system for hotels but having travelled a bit now I know it to be a nonsense that really ought to be scrapped.

In truth, there isn't one. And there never can be for the same reason that there can never be a fun badge. It's all a matter of opinion. And in different contexts the same thing could be deemed a luxury or an absolute disgrace by the same person.

I didn't win the fight to have the word luxury nowhere near Aspire and that was the right decision. There isn't another word that quickly and sensibly gives you a ball park idea of what kind of travel we are talking about. It is useful but I believe it is good practice to be a little more imaginative when talking about travel.

Simply sticking the word in front of 'hotel', 'ship', 'chalet', 'resort' etc doesn't make it so.
Tell the punter you have no locks, no TVs and hot stones. And let them decide if those are luxuries.


February 28, 2012

Don't kill these words - or the puppy gets it

I have a bone to pick.

It's a words-based bone. The three words in question are 'unique', 'authentic' and 'experience'.

The reason I am picking said bone is that I can't move without reading or hearing these words and I want it to stop. I want it to stop because there's a danger that I might become angry and the last time anger temporarily replaced my famous joviality I was mean to a puppy.

Mean to a puppy. Words mean, not sticks and stones mean, but the puppy looked hurt.

A puppy, hurt by mean words

Rather than register this bone without evidence of just cause I conducted a brief inbox experiment.
Earlier this month, in a rare moment of common-sense fuelled creativity, I created a sub-folder entitled luxury news in which I file luxury news.

There are, at present, 842 emails in this folder and thanks to the wonders of search I quickly ascertained that 101 contain the word authentic, 276 contain unique and 473 experience. 48 contain all three in one sentence.

Incidentally the word 'irrigation' appears in three, 'pineapple' in six and 'nestle' in 37. And, extraordinarily, 'the' is present 833 times meaning nine entire press releases managed to get the desired message across without using 'the' at all.

Sadly I cannot search my phone and face to face conversations for numbers of mentions with such ease but if you are willing to take my anecdotal word for it then read the next sentence, if not then skip it.  All three are mentioned a lot.

The last thing I want to do here is sound like a word snob, I'm really not.

Exhibit A: A recent visit to a Swiss fondue restaurant. One person (let's call him Jeremy), said to another person (let's call her Dorothy): "how are you?" Dorothy replied: "good, thank you Jeremy," and Jeremy re-replied with a patronising lecture on the meaning of the words 'good' and 'well'.

Were it not for me introducing my molten cheese to Jeremy's arm the lecture may well still be going.

I burned Jeremy to halt his pedanticness so you see I cannot possibly be a word snob. Plus I don't spell good or understand apostrophe's'. 

I am, however, displeased by word murder.

My fear is that these three wonderful words may go the way of 'fantastic', 'nice' and 'Nick Knowles' into pointless purgatory when they should be living in the lovely literary Elysian Fields of such greats as 'pomp' and 'calamity'.

The fantastic and nice Nick Knowles

'A hand-picked collection of unique hotels' is as useful a sentence as 'a hand-picked collection of unique fingerprints'.

'Fulfilling travellers' desire for authentic and enriching luxury' is as useful a sentence as 'fulfilling dogs' desire for authentic and enriching pig's ears'.

And 'a truly natural opportunity to enhance one's sense of wellbeing with a unique, authentic experience' is as useful a sentence as 'Blah blah blah nonsense vomit'.

Below I have copied and pasted the three words and their Oxford English Dictionary definitions. I'm going to print it, jazz it up with stickers and glitter and affix it to my cork board to remind myself not to ruin them.

My hope is that agents, hoteliers, marketers, pr specialists, operators and anyone else who uses words to tell other people about holidays will follow my attempted lead, use words sparingly and try to make each sentence useful. If I was buying a holiday I'd buy it off the simple wordsmith not the hyperbole bludgeoner.

In a previous blog post I lauded the simplicity of a room with a view. Not an enriching abode with an authentic sense of place offering the unrivalled experience of regarding unique vistas.

Let's not stick knives in all the good words until they are dead.

Unique: being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.

Authentic: of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.

Experience: practical contact with and observation of facts or events.

December 2, 2011

Pics: 5 amazing places to take travel photos, and how a pro shot them

If you flick to page 25 of December's Aspire magazine, you'll find professional photographer Sarah Coghill recommending some of the best places in the world to take a camera. We couldn't fit enough of her in, so here's a longer, illustrated version...

See more of Sarah's travel photography at whitelightgallery.com.

For culture - West Bhutan 

You'll never forget the smiles in this predominantly Buddhist kingdom. Tourist numbers are limited, and photographic opportunities abound: unique dzong architecture, monks in crimson robes and hand-painted houses. No trip is complete without a visit to the Tigers Nest monastery, perched on a cliff edge in the Upper Paro valley.

For people - Huilloc, Sacred Valley, Peru

The people live at 12,000 feet above sea level, and have permanent red cheeks from sun and wind exposure. The women's distinctive hats identify their village, and they're expert weavers, making colourful textiles from alpaca wool. The children love to have their photo taken, squealing with delight when they see their image on screen.

For landscape - Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia 

Rainfall turns these salt flats into a huge mirror. The sky and clouds are reflected and the horizon disappears - you feel as if you're driving into a tunnel of sky. Use the situation to play tricks with perspective and take amazing reflection shots.I t looks like heaven on earth, and may, as in my case, reduce you to tears.

All-round shooting - Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo has it all: centuries-old tradition meets cutting-edge tech, neon-lit streets meet Shito shrines. Visit Mount Fuji and Hakone national park for landscapes, or take the bullet train to Kyoto for temples and geishas. A flight to Hokkaido brings you to unspoilt countryside and that most popular of Japanese wildlife shots: red-faced snow monkeys bathing in hot springs.

For architecture - Krakow, Poland

Krakow's Old Town has one of the most beautiful city squares in Europe. For a contrast, venture out to the Nowa Huta district, constructed as a model Stalinist city. Another must-see is the 13th-century Wieliczka Salt mine, where a staircase spirals down to a maze of passages, chambers and statues, and an entire chapel carved out of the rock salt.

Sarah Coghill has worked all over the world for both corporate, private and editorial clients, and is a contributor to Food and Travel Magazine.

October 28, 2011

A room with a view and light switches

Henry Ford once famously said: "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse."

henryford.jpgInstead of a faster horse he gave them the Model T and the rest is stuff that happened in the past.

Although the bill for the broken power steering on my Ford Focus isn't in the past Henry, it's very much in the present and I really don't think it should have broken on a three year old, very carefully driven, automobile.

But anyway, the Model T thing was clever so we'll focus on that for now.

Mr Ford's point was that the customer is not always right and he/she does not always know what he/she wants.

A lot of customers are stupid, unreasonable, ill-informed or a little bonkers.

Many more are perfectly nice but haven't got the imagination to look at a horse and wish it had four wheels, an engine, a pair of headlamps and room for a couple of pals and a picnic hamper in the back.

Mr Ford's quote popped into my head while reading the coverage of the sad death of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

When asked by a reporter what market research went into the development of the iPad he replied: "It's not the consumer's job to know what they want."

This is the kind of sentence I wish politicians would come out with rather than the panda-inspired affliction of asking people to follow them then enquiring as to where they might like to go.

And one day I'd like to hear a hotelier say it.

Hotels love speaking to their customers to ask them what they want then proudly boast that they have responded to their guests' desires.

And occasionally something 'innovative' is announced.

Much of my time is spent talking about, writing about or having a look at ever so slightly different permutations of expensive places to stay that aren't your own house.

The elephant in almost every room discussed or viewed is that essentially they are the same.

There is a bed, there is a bathroom and there is a roof. The rest is square footage, light switches, thread count and marketing.

Game-changing innovation seems to be thin on the ground.

To avoid discussing said elephant, the phd in talking s h 1 t e was developed in order to allow reasonable human beings to meander around such things at length without running out of words to say.

This manufactured breeding ground begats phrases such as 'sense of place' and 'elegant sanctuary' and the need to select a lighting mood rather than make simple decisions about which bulbs to illuminate.


"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good."
God knew we didn't want lighting mood menus ages ago.


But eventually the bespoke furniture chat runs out and hotels must differentiate or die (according to many, although i thoroughly disagree).

This leads to weird conversations such as one I had while exploring a hotel in Dubai not long ago.

Upon entering the spa the marketing manager volunteered a USP.

I hadn't asked for one but she clearly felt like she wouldn't be doing her job unless she had a go so rather grandiosely announced that after a treatment the guests had the option of showering inside OR outside.

As you can imagine I took a seat to process the information.

The other popular way to 'differentiate' is customer service.

Naturally hoteliers are enormously proud of their staff and therefore believe they have the best people working in their hotel.

And more often than not within this sub chat comes the claim of unique clairvoyant ability of the humans working that hotelier's particular pile of five star bricks to anticipate a guests every desire.

No doubt many of these hotels do have excellent people. But to attempt to differentiate in this way is comparable to an X Factor contestant trying to differentiate themselves by stating that singing is their life and winning would be a dream come true.

My rather laboured point is that hotels do not need to be different for the sake of it. Affluent travellers expect their rooms to be marvellous but free of irritatingly over-orchestrated technology and style at the expense of practicality (which maniac invented glass bathroom walls for example).

Guests expect the staff to be brilliant so there's no point boasting about it. You may as well boast about your chairs having four legs.


If the hotel is naturally different thanks to being set in an old monastery or on top of a tree then that's wonderful.

If a member of staff can actually read people's minds then by all means stick that on the marketing material.

But if it's just a lovely hotel with super art, great food and well decorated rooms in a great location then be content, chill out and let the guests enjoy themselves.

This isn't to say that I don't want a Henry Ford or a Steve Jobs to think of something extraordinary that never would have occurred to me because I'm not particularly bright.

I can't wait for it. I can't wait for the day I look at people whose hotel rooms have a bed, four walls and a light switch as if they are Sony Walkman carrying, typewriter tapping, horse-riding lunatics.

Until then if you need me I'll be on a four legged chair in a room with a view.

July 27, 2011

Don't be mean to people who write about nice hotels please

I did something for the first time last week. It was unplanned but I couldn't help myself. The urge took me and before I had time to stop and have a little think about what this would mean it was done.

I left a comment on a website.

The website in question is one of my favourites, the Huffington Post, and if you don't already look at it every day then start now. Unless you would rather not. This is just a suggestion. 

It is my first port of e-call in the morning and on the morning in question I saw a blog post from a man called Paul Carr who describes himself as 'a British author and columnist, currently living in exile in hotels around the world'.

This particular post was entitled The Ten Most Annoying Mistakes Made By Luxury Hotels.

As a regular in such hotels this struck me as something I should read. If you would like to follow in my eyeball footsteps then pressing here will do the trick.

While reading the piece I, predictably, agreed with some points and felt less annoyed by others.

The newish fad of glass being used as walls in preference to non see through materials between bed area and bath/loo area is one of the most silly and unhelpful uses of glass ever.

And I'm a fan of glass, a big fan. I can't get enough of it. I drink out of it almost every day, often I survey landscapes through it while being unaffected by the weather and as a special treat I'll watch You've Been Framed snippets of people running into it


An excellent example of glass being used sensibly

Poor plug placement also makes me angrier than it should. In fact, if any hoteliers read this and are considering building a hotel then please, pretty please, for the love of whatever you love, place a couple of easily accessible plugs by your bedside tables.

However, it was not these that caused me to rant in the comments section. It wasn't any of the top 10. It was the comments section itself.

This poor chap was subjected to a torrent of abuse for daring to write anything critical about luxury hotels when more important things are happening in the world.

An example comment comes from someone called 'farmerlady' who is 'really a blonde - so there'.

I'm not sure what the blonde thing is about but my powers of deduction tell me she is almost certainly female and works within the farming industry.

Here are her thoughts: "I am sure with unemployment and poverty at record highs, we all appreciate a cunning article by a really wealthy British guy on how $300 a night luxury hotels fail to please him. Most tone deaf article evah."

I'm not an enormous fan of that particular spelling of ever but I barely noticed it such were my irritation levels. And these levels grew and grew as I read on - scores of people made similar points and all seemed to think their point was valid.

It isn't valid. It's idiotic.

This article was in the travel section of the site and was labelled very clearly. Anyone not interested could easily have avoided it.

To complain about its content is comparable to walking straight past a 'WARNING - BIG HOLE AHEAD' sign, jumping into the hole and then whinging about being in a hole.

By all means tell Paul he writes badly or that his 10 points are silly or even that you don't much like his haircut. 

But to chastise him for writing about something other than poverty or unemployment is to chastise everyone who ever does anything that falls outside that which is vitally important.

Of course this piece doesn't tackle a vital issue but if everyone only wrote about the really important stuff then oh me oh my would reading become dull.

And what of those people who like to travel to nice hotels, must we not write for them? Should all reviews of posh hotels simply tell readers just to be pleased to have a roof over their head?

Should travel agents, hoteliers and tour operators throw away their brochures, forget their expertise and opinions and instead offer clients 'somewhere to stay that costs a lot of money, you lucky people, so if you complain about anything it means you don't care about starving Africans'?

There's a comments section on here which you are very welcome to use farmerlady. But if you must be mean please be mean in a constructive fashion.

June 23, 2011

Is three the magic number?



At the risk of sounding like a stoned teenager deja vu is really, like, weird man.

Especially if that déjà vu lasts four days and three nights.

Avid Aspire readers will know I spent eight days on Seabourn Sojourn's inaugural Caribbean voyage late last year during which I gave the crew a thorough testing by deliberately becoming so seasick that I needed 24 hour love and attention.

Last week I hopped onto Sojourn's identical twin sister, Quest, which was officially named on Monday by Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow's mum). An altogether more purposefully named vessel this one. Quest evokes StarTrekian images of exploration, Sojourn more of a gentle pootle, perhaps sporting a Panama hat.

And then there's the third of the identical triplets, boasting the grandest of all the names - Odyssey.

Line these three up and forget for a moment that cruise ships do not begat one another and even their own mother would fail to tell them apart.

Granted a geek of epic proportions could find a mildly altered door arch or a slightly different sized 17th flippityjibbit in suite 706, but for those of us who enjoy such pastimes as having friends or leaving the house - identical.

The déjà vu was incessant, and at least a dozen times my befuddled brain decided it was still cruising round the Caribbean rather than the Med.

Seabourn-Square2.jpgSeabourn Seabourn Square on board Seabourn Quest. Or Sojourn, or perhaps Odyssey.

The question this raised, readers, is - is it a good thing that the ships are the same?

I can't decide..

Seabourn's president Rick Meadows told me it is a good thing. Apparently customers enjoy the familiarity of the ship while exploring unfamiliar destinations. And for agents it makes it easier to learn the product.

But, as pleasant and as trustworthy as the finely moustached American is, he's bound to think it's a brilliant idea.

One must assume a clever person, aided by lots of other clever people, decided to take the Dolly the sheep approach to ship-building back in 2005 when the sisters were announced.

In fact faith in the concept is even longer standing - the lines other three ships are identical to one another too.

But there's a nagging pixie sat on my shoulder poking me with a small stick while whispering words like 'unique', 'bespoke' and 'tailored'.

And the pixie has a point - luxury clientele and cookie cutter product do not traditionally go hand in hand irrespective of how beautiful those cookies are.

And they are beautiful. And impressive, and well designed, and brimming with quality features, and so and so forth. But explore one and you've explored them all.
However. And this is a sizeable however. This big:

So often in the land of luxury, marketing messages and those people tasked with spraying those messages bang on about the uniqueness of their product and how it is shaped to fit round each individual client.

Nonsense of course (excluding uber uber luxury for the super rich that tends not to be marketed out loud anyway) but for as long as I can remember the marketers needed to say it and customers needed to hear it.

The bulk of luxury holidays and experiences are often special, but rarely unique.

Seabourn has placed this marketing merry go round elephant in the middle of room, painted it pink and wrapped it in fairy lights.

The ship is so good they made it three times. And they make no apologies for it - the huge variety of itineraries offers quite enough choice and tailoring in their view. 

A companion on board upon whom I bestowed my tale of déjà vu nodded, told me to look out the window whenever confusion hit then sauntered off in the direction of the cookie-cutter spa with a glass of cookie-cutter Champagne in hand.

And conveniently she also had a cookie. I don't know if it was a cookie-cutter cut cookie though.

It could be my companion is right and I'm worrying about nothing - it has happened before.

But do take advantage of the convenient comments spot below to share your thoughts on the triplets please.

Unless you're a stoned teenager - the comments section is not for you.