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May


Fawlty Towers-sur-Seine

Thu, 19th Mar 2015

The good news, sort of, in this story is that it demonstrates why technology doesn’t work without humans. Hurrah. The bad news is that that doesn’t stop people from trying to do just that – and thanks to new technology they can get away with the dismal results for quite some time.

As you can see from the website, the Park&Suites Prestige hotel is a smart-looking new hotel in the business district that has sprung up around the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the French National Library, in Paris. The rooms are compact and full of self-catering gadgetry to minimise the need for staff – a Nespresso machine, microwave and micro-washing up machine. They’re neatly designed (I took a couple of admiring photos). But in the room we occupied a couple of weeks ago the blind didn’t work, which mattered since the room was overlooked, and there were no instructions, so we phoned the desk. Or we would have done, except the phone was dead.

Without fuss, the receptionist moved us to another room. (We later decided she was unfussed because she was so used to doing it.) At that point it was time to go out to eat. Next morning, we discovered that there was no hair dryer in the bathroom, as promised; in its place there was a loose piece of plastic covering the wires that it should have been connected with. To cut a long story short, by the end of the day we had counted seven things missing or not working in the room, including the TV, which a technician came to fix but couldn’t. The heating in the large and glacial breakfast room had also broken down. If we could have eaten breakfast wearing gloves, we would have.

The bed was comfortable, the room clean and warm, so we weren’t seriously inconvenienced by the shortcomings – the catalogue of failure became almost comical. All that was lacking was a hotel manager called Basile. But €140 a night, supposedly a special ‘university rate’, was less funny, and even though the four-star status claimed was indeed a joke, it was a poor one. Even in a one-star establishment you’re entitled to expect it to fulfill its side of the contract.  As it was, a glance at TripAdvisor confirmed that our experience was by no means unique, and among some satisfactory reviews were others that were almost unprintably rude.

Hence the first inescapable conclusion. It’s all very well designing a business to run with minimal staffing, but you still need someone in charge who cares. In fact you arguably need the human and management element even more.

So how do they get away with it? The answer is, confusion marketing. Looking at TripAdvisor, we made a disconcerting discovery. The ‘spot’ price for our room the night we were staying was not €140 but €99. As the young woman on the front desk confirmed, as in the case of airline or Eurostar seats, there is no ‘normal’ price for the rooms – it varies according to demand and timing. When we were offered the university rate for an extra night we naturally assumed it was the best available. But no: the university had done an annual block deal with the hotel at the fixed rate of €140. And no, although she accepted we should have been offered the lower rate, she was not empowered to make a refund, even taking account of the additional litany of failure. We’d have to write in for that.

So this is a small but comprehensive market fail of the sort that is just not supposed to happen in this day and age. To work for a customer, technology still needs a complement of human brain and affect – sympathetic management, in fact. Here, when technology went on the blink (as it does), humans weren’t empowered to put things right either literally or figuratively. The vaunted price transparency and thus informed choice supposedly enabled by the internet – customer empowerment – was an easily manipulated sham. If, as seems likely, Park&Suites had done similar block deals with other inattentive organisations in the area, the disconnect is complete and accountability reduced to nil: individual customers can rant and raving all they like on TripAdvisor or Twitter without making the slightest dent in the hotel’s monumental indifference. Never mind new technology: the old principle of caveat emptor still applies. And no, we wouldn't recommend you staying at this hotel.


 

 


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