Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Hotels with Chinese characteristics

On my recent travels in the southern half of China, I was struck by the degree of homogeneity Chinese hotels seem to have attained these days. When I had a job that involved a lot of business travel in China 5 or 6 years ago, I found there was a great deal of variation in quality between hotels at the same price point and star rating, but now.... it's remarkable how very nearly identical they all are.

I assume the star rating system imposes certain rigid requirements for the facilities required at each level: for instance, the provision of a hairdryer now seems to be de rigueur for '3 stars' (although some hotels will conceal them in obscure drawers or cupboards to try to restrict the amount they are used). The only unique extra I encountered on my latest trip was at a hotel in a small city in eastern Guizhou province, which had a set of electronic scales - though they were well hidden in the bottom of a wardrobe, and didn't have any batteries in them. At a wedding party in a similarly out-of-the-way lower-tier city last year, my friends and I discovered that the only difference between the 'standard' and 'superior' suites was the provision in the latter of an electronic mah jong table (they are rather fascinating contraptions: there's an elaborate mechanism for automatically shuffling the tiles between games). Such eccentricities are, it seems, becoming rarer and rarer. Most hotels are eerily identical in almost every detail - two complimentary bottles of water per day, the same number of towels in the bathroom, the same leather wallet for the TV remote control, the same collection of non-complimentary products on offer (playing cards, pot noodles, Evian water; condoms, 'senior pants', and the 'magic towel'). The only differentiating factors we still find seem to be in-room Internet access (often advertised on travel websites as a generally available facility, but in fact usually a premium extra) and international cable TV (never more than a handful of English channels, but it does make such a difference on the rare occasions when you find this - a brownie point here for Green Lake Hotel in Kunming, and the Crown Plaza in Kaili [It is spelled like that on its business cards; not sure if that's a typo, or if it is a knock-off Crowne Plaza!]).

Yet, while this greater consistency of standards should probably be seen as a positive step, there is another kind of consistency that is even more ubiquitous, and rather troubling: a consistent shoddiness in the standard of fittings, in the level of maintenance and cleanliness - a consistent lack of attention to detail.

In almost every Chinese hotel room - at least, at the 3- and 4-star level* and below - you can expect to find the following.

1)  Appallingly dirty carpets. China is an unusually dusty, grimy country. And vacuum cleaners are still uncommon here. But jeez, you'd think some of these carpets had never been cleaned since the hotels first opened. You almost suspect there's a specially designated team of staff who go around trampling grime into the carpets to give the impression that the hotel has more custom than it does. Certainly, there doesn't seem to be any system in place for regular shampooing or periodic replacement of carpets. And they're always a pale beige colour, which does tend to highlight their grubbiness.

2)  Chipped, broken or completely missing bathroom tiles. 

3)  Faulty electrical outlets and equipment. There's almost always at least one powerpoint that doesn't work, and it's quite often hanging off the wall with the wires exposed. You can expect at least one of the light-bulbs to be blown, and to be unlikely ever to be replaced. I have quite a few times seen electric kettles with huge holes in the insulation on their power cords exposing the bare copper wires within.

4)  Smelly drains. This is a problem anywhere you go in China - but you would think 4-star hotels would have found a way to address the issue.

5)  Wonky heating/air-conditioning. Often far too noisy to be used at night, and of limited effectiveness anyway. Invariably switched off by staff, often in cunning and unexpected ways - like turning a thermostat concealed inside the control unit down to 15 degrees, or switching the setting over from 'Warm' to 'Cool' in the middle of winter (and perhaps vice versa in the summer). Now, energy saving is all very laudable, but... do you really need to do this every time a guest leaves the room??

6)  Airing rooms and corridors by leaving windows wide open - even in the middle of winter. All three of the hotel rooms I stayed at in eastern Guizhou were absolutely bloody freezing upon my arrival. One of them obstinately declined to warm up at all, obliging me to wear just about every piece of clothing I'd brought with me to stave off hypothermia in bed.

7)  Cleaning staff who call at ridiculously inconsiderate hours, and/or ignore 'Do not disturb' signs or your requests to go away. I mean, really, why the f*** would anyone think it's a good idea to try to make up a room at 6pm, when a guest has only just checked in? Or at 8am, when they're getting ready to check out?

8)  Cleaning staff who 'tidy' stuff away unnecessarily - including a guest's personal possessions! I complained last week about the maid who removed my shower mat from the bathroom while I was at breakfast, and stored it somewhere very hard-to-find. At another hotel, a maid actually stole one of my own towels from me (karmic payback, I suppose, for the countless millions of guests who have stolen hotel towels over the years). It was white, yes; but it didn't look that much like this hotel's towels (it had a fairly conspicuous blue thread around the border, rather than being pure white) - and it was in the bottom of my case.

9)  Failure to clean under the beds - EVER. You really don't want to look under the bed, because there is some nasty shit down there.

10)  Crappy, broken, or seriously worn furniture. Armchairs in which the stuffing of the seat has completely collapsed, upright chairs that sag and wobble because of loose joints, sofas stained or worn shiny by years of use. Not quite as bad as the carpet, but sometimes running it close.

And the food is usually pretty lousy too....

*  The star-rating system for Chinese hotels seems to go up to 7 rather than 5; and very few Chinese-owned hotels achieve the highest rating (but the foreign chains are not immune to these problems either: I've encountered many of the same faults in a Crowne Plaza and a Ramada and a Best Western). Hence, it is generally suggested that a Chinese rating is two stars above its equivalent in the West. I suspect this in fact understates the disparity: I think the shakiness of basic quality control indicated above would preclude most Chinese hotels from getting any stars at all under much more rigorous Western assessment schemes. Not that they're really all that bad. Most 3- and 4-star Chinese hotels, and even a few 2-star ones, are acceptably clean and reasonably comfortable, and are pleasantly inexpensive. But a true service culture has barely begun to evolve here yet.


JES said...

I wonder what Western reviewers at online sites like say about some of these places? They sound ghastly.

On our recent trip to NJ for a niece's wedding, we were invited to stay at the "official" hotel for guests of the wedding, for a reduced rate. We read online reviews, though, and within a half hour had booked a room some 20 minutes (12-15 miles) away. A wise decision, according to testimony of the bargain-hunters.

Froog said...

I think the great majority of Chinese hotels have almost no foreign guests, and so never get reviewed in English.

The ones that do enjoy any significant amount of custom are probably drawing internal business or tourist travellers from among the expat population like myself. The pre-eminent online travel agency within China is called Ctrip; you can find some English reviews in their hotels section.