The Vanishing Hotel: Where Has All the Service Gone – and the Butter?


After two full years of unused rooms, dwindling guests and dwindling services, hotels across Asia are turning the fairy lights back on again. Returning guests who slump in gratitude at the altar of this renewed five-star devotion would do well to review the miracles of 2022 with a healthy jaundiced eye.

As with the new kitchen trap, the art of rebooting revolves around the promise rather than the tangible goods offered. That buttery pea rolling around your dear bone china plate in an orgy of solitary ecstasy and the boasting of a branded marquee that excites smartphone shutters, is considered enough to silence dissenting murmurs.

But we remember the finest Egyptian cotton 500-thread count linens, Bose surround sound, Carrara marble that groans, “prego” every time you step on it with calloused feet, and butler service ( to open your faucets): “I know naathing…I’m from Barthelona.”

Well maybe we could do flamenco as someone explain to me why there is no master switch and only preset light combinations for ‘romance’, ‘welcome’ or ‘mood’ ? Has Covid long reduced big spenders to morons? And do hotel designers sometimes test their creations?

I may be an atypical traveler but I’ve never had my bath fired or my shoes taken away by a mysterious being with the help of a valet. I will admit that some hotel toilets have baffled me but, overall, I have succeeded with dignity and pride, even when in a luxury hotel in Singapore, the 14 kinds of “artisanal” butter from the Netherlands- Downs have shrunk alarmingly to a single sheet- Sealed Anchor Butter Pack with Morning Eggs. Have the milkmaids’ hands fallen off from overwork?

I almost felt guilty for a while but, to me, freshly baked bread without a huge slab of butter on top is just breakfast blasphemy of the worst kind.

I’ve always loved the boldly advertised “handmade” burgers and wondered if there was another way to get the job done without repeatedly running over a moose with a truck.

If you think the world is just an illusion, I suggest you start your search at the nearest luxury hole. Things disappeared from hotel menus, services, rooms, mini-bars and tables faster than you could say “Gullible’s Travels”.

The pandemic has only accelerated an ongoing trend.

After a few years of laying off staff and eliminating service (like in quarantine hotels where guests moan and bang on doors trying to escape clogged sewers, marching armies of bed bugs and hairballs threatening to start a conversation), many hotels seem to have forgotten the basics.

My friends in Hong Kong sent care packages for isolated loved ones that included vacuum cleaners. It’s DIY-and-Pay on an industrial scale.

Algorithms have surpassed the human experience. Think cluster managers rather than dedicated managers (Experiment victims equals Expense School of Management) and labyrinthine robocall menus (much more difficult than Sudoku) rather than humans on the call line. assistance.

Zero Covid-19 has arrived with its smiling sidekick, Zero Service. It was manna from heaven for the mega hotel corporations bloated and burdened by massive mergers and acquisitions in recent years. It’s a mountain of debt. This resulted, not in the pursuit of excellence to win more customers, but in getting rid of happy employees (who smile), general managers (who know their customers’ favorite scotch and favorite room) and refusal of bed.

Brands are built on the simple human relationship between hotels and their customers. Remove this and all that’s left is the disappearing hardware and ersatz decor.

The new hotel economy is a bit like the health spa model that charges you not to feed you and then offers colonic irrigation with cheap ground coffee rather than a nice cup of joe, before you sit down in bad weather. 35°C in a fan-cooled restaurant where the humidity is so high you have to swim to your table. Next, this calorie-perfect calibrated dinner of a single organic lettuce. I marvel at all the thought that has gone into this. No wonder it costs the Earth. I appreciate a level of care that slims both waist and wallets, quickly. Perhaps it is true that less is more.

For my part, I dare not venture into a fancy hotel lobby with Uniqlo who decided in 2022 to stock in Hong Kong pants with a maximum length of only 76 cm, which is 9 cm too short for me . This may reflect the exodus of exasperated foreigners from Hong Kong, or simply aim to appease menacing dwarf gangs. Is this what is meant by population decline?

So I resort to the Internet like a blushing traveler. Nothing here. Hotel websites have become minimal with boilerplate descriptions. As one mega-brand explains, “it orchestrates an experience that is expertly edited to leave only what is truly desired.” Do whatever you want with it.

Stuff disappears because some idiot in an expensive Balenciaga outfit has arrived to “arrange” your experience.

There is, however, the appeal of Asian diversity. As one hotel in Manila, Philippines says, “Enjoy a restful night’s sleep on your plush pillowtop bed.”

Its sister hotel in Taipei, Taiwan, takes a different approach: “Sleep peacefully…thanks to a plush pillow-top mattress.” Shanghai, meanwhile, is buzzing: “Sleep peacefully on cozy pillow-top bedding. We get the drift.

None mentions the type of electrical socket used by the room, nor the voltage, nor the number of sockets, nor whether the USB sockets are at the bedside, nor the size of the safe, nor the price of a beer from the minibar. . The kind of minutiae — which guests constantly ask of perplexed receptionists — just don’t fit into the larger illusion of the Cecil B. DeMille brand.

This hellish scourge of travel coagulation has been a wake-up call for the hospitality industry. It’s a horn they can ignore at their peril. Just as there’s a fine line between genius and madness, there’s a razor’s edge between brands and gibberish. Now that hotels are scrambling to welcome guests back, many have apparently forgotten their old playbook. Indeed, laid-off staff are hard to redeem, with many having moved to other less volatile sectors.

The Grand Hyatt Hong Kong is a hotel with a solid stay-to-go. Managing director Richard Greaves worked with a neat team, mixing and matching people, often in unlikely ways but with interesting results.

“The finance people help out in the restaurants, in the pastry kitchen and with pool logistics,” he says. Marketing aces, bespectacled financiers and CV-hunting HR folks have all stepped up to find out what drives chefs mad with passion. Working out of the box sparked a collective epiphany of sorts.

“It’s not about procedure, it’s about getting the right products,” Greaves told Smart Travel Asia. “It fostered teamwork.”

Good can come out of the Covid-19 downturn if hotels listen to staff and guests. It’s time to face reality. Customers who have become outcasts in the time of Covid-19 (seen as potential super-spreaders rather than harbingers of dollars) need to be retrained and staff need to be retrained for changing times.

Travelers should be held innocent until proven guilty. And CEOs need to be hired, empowered, and fired in the lobby to welcome the new faces. It’s called hospitality.

Vijay Verghese is a Hong Kong-based journalist, columnist and editor of and


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