Hotels Travel

Premier Inn: Surprisingly good, I’m really enjoying staying with them

I have long been interested in the delivery of service in a hospitality environment — principally hotels. My interest was piqued when I started providing web consultancy to a hotel staff training company when I was a student. I remember being fascinated by some of the policies and procedures required to deliver top class service. Witness, for example, one hotel chain’s approach to total guest satisfaction: They give every team member a personal budget to fix anything. So if a customer complains of not having packed the right adapter for their Mac, you don’t smile pleasantly and respond with, “awwwh shucks!” No. You get out your hotel credit card and sort it with the concierge and then delight the guest 60 minutes later. 

I also do a lot of consultancy nowadays for the Connections Luxury portfolio of events. My role there is to provide perspective, insight and some demonstrable live examples of how technology is changing (and will change) the hospitality industry over the short and long term. I also do a lot of research and blogging for the portfolio. 

So I am regularly interacting with some of the world’s top luxury brands. It’s a fascinating experience. It’s equally nice being on the sharp end of this as a consumer — because I am required to travel to some of the best places! The last Connections Luxury was at the fabulous Conrad Algarve. The next one is at the Yas Viceroy in Abu Dhabi (with a dinner at the stunningly opulent Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi). 

I write these paragraphs first to give you some context as to how I would traditionally react to a no frills hotel experience. I’m a luxury fan. I don’t mind paying for seriously good service.

I do, however, have an affinty for expertly delivered expectation. 

If you can meet my expectations — every time, and without exception (or with minimal exceptions) — then I am likely to respond positively.

Which is where I am with Premier Inn.

I’ve been having to travel regularly for the main consulting work I’m doing at the moment, principally to Edinburgh and London. Although I can commute in and out of London, the workload often requires me to stay in London to work into the small hours. 

I’ve therefore been using the big corporate account to book hotels. When I’m traveling on behalf of the client, that’s fine, that’s expensed. In London, it’s my own choice though. 

I have historically had a great experience at the Montcalm in the Brewery on Chiswell Street next to Moorgate. However the place gets rather booked up, very quickly, so it’s quite difficult to plan. 

With the current contract I’ve shaken things up. I’ve been trying out Premier Inn. 

My previous defining experience with Premier Inn was staying for roughly £80 one night in Windsor with my wife — and both of us being absolutely frozen. Not a great start. It turns out, however, that this was a Travel Lodge. I just looked it up! This does highlight the dangers of incorrect brand association. 

So with this negative (and unfair!) experience informing my expectations, I clicked on “Premier Inn” and select “book” a few weeks ago and made sure to bring a sweatshirt in my bag to stay warm. 

The sweatshirt wasn’t needed. I was pleasantly surprised. The thing about Premier Inn is that in order to achieve the returns they inevitably demand, they have to get efficient. Which means they’ve given a lot of thought to the end-to-end experience.

First, the prices — they’re generically reasonable. Book way in advance and you can often get some wickedly good deals, even in London. Up in Scotland, I often find prices in the 70s and 80s (pounds per night) which is exceptionally reasonable for the service level they deliver.

You pay up front when you check-in (unless you’ve paid in advance). They assign you a keycard that’s slotted into a bit of card that usually contains a prompt for their £6.95 breakfast. Good thinking that! There’s a little white circle printed top right for them to write in your room number. 

Arriving into the room is an exercise in expectation delivery. First impressions are universally positive for me. I’m not expecting miracles at £80/night — so when I find the place tidy, clean and spotless, I breathe a sigh of relief again. 

I’m sure problems do occur, however the operations teams at Premier Inn are clearly doing a great job to try and minimise the opportunities for failure. 

For example, there’s no little soap to unwrap in the en suite. There’s no array of frustratingly small conditioners, body and hair shampoos. No. In fact there’s nothing by the sink apart from a push dispenser on the wall for some generic soap. Job done, thank you. You therefore have a choice — if you want lotions and potions, bring your own. If you want soap (yes) then press the dispenser. 

It’s the same deal in the shower/bath — if you bring your own, great. If you don’t bother (that’s me) then there’s some generic shampoo in the shower dispense. Ideal. 

There’s one ‘bath towel’, a mid-sized towel then a hand towel. They’re ‘good’. We’re not talking top quality Egyptian cotton. At least it doesn’t feel like it. They are, again, a bit generic. They are fine for the job. 

Perhaps the best feature of the Premier Inn experience is their Good Night Sleep Guarantee. That is, they’ll give you your money back if your sleep is interupted (by, I imagine, anything that’s under their direct control). This means they’ve given quite a lot of thought (either directly or subconsciously) to making sure the whole experience is geared toward this. For instance, the room front doors don’t close with a flipping great crash as many other hotel rooms do. 

The beds they’ve chosen are particularly comfortable. The bed clothing is geared for comfort. The light switches next to the bed are obvious (there’s no 5 minute hunt trying to switch all the lights off). There are two types of pillow provided. If you prefer slightly firmer, you can find those by the open wardrobe. There is a helpful little plastic sign placed on the left pillow to let you know. 

The air con/heating worked nicely and, I think I’m right in saying that all hotels offer independent room heating. At least the ones I’ve visited do. 

The shower experience, by the way, is universally positive. In my experience the water pressure is one notch below “Blow your head off” if you turn it all the way to 10. The shower controls are simple — on/off and temp. No messing around.

All of the Premier Inns that I have visited have had a “Thyme” restaurant and bar. This is one of the best features. The menu is excellent in the context of a large corporate doing its best to cater for all generic tastes. The food is, again in my experience, well prepared. I’m never expecting Haut Cuisine. At the same time I reckon the experience compares well to the likes of a TGI Fridays. Burgers, Hot Dogs, steaks, french fries, chicken-this, chicken-that. Pretty good quality. Perhaps not the healthiest choice in the evening, however if I’ve had a really busy day and eaten nothing, the prospect of a visit to Thyme is actually quite appealing. I’m sure you could order something other than a burger though 😉 

For the busier locations it’s actually worth booking a table because the restaurant is actually a genuine alternative to going out for most guests. 

Attached to Thyme is the Premier Inn bar — the Merlot is decent and quaffable. And I can get a big bottle of water to take to the room. Don’t underestimate just how important a nice selection of well executed food dishes along with a nice choice of drinks can be to your general wellbeing. 

When you combine all this into one experience, the summary for me is excellent. I’ve had my fair share of rubbish hotel experiences and I have to say the prospect of a stay in a Premier Inn is now a very positive highlight  in my schedule. 

I think the Premier Inn team has struck the right balance of efficiency, service and value.

Hotels Observations

I’ve added The Royal Berkshire Hotel to my ‘proper hotels’ list

I popped into The Royal Berkshire Hotel on the outskirts of Ascot recently. I was only there for a meeting, so I didn’t get a chance to check out the rooms, however from what I saw, the place looked immaculate and utterly luxurious. There was no standard reception desk. I reckon that’s the mark of a true, quality boutique hotel. There’s no need for a ‘shopping counter’. Instead there’s just a helpful lady at a nice big oak desk.

What really ticked the boxes for me was the restrooms. I have a barometer that, so far, has never failed in determining the quality of a hotel. It’s all about hand towels in the loos. Proper hotels — the best — have real cloth towels, you see.

Many big supposedly 5-star luxury hotels in London don’t even offer this, preferring instead to range whizzy and really noisy hand drier machines. Or paper towels. Or worse, those revolving towel things that require you to pull down a fresh bit. They’re rubbish.

It’s wonderful to use a proper hand towel. Your hands get dry immediately. No messing around.

The gents at the Royal Berkshire (by the meeting rooms) had an array of little pigeon holes below the taps, each filled with a cloth towel ready for you to use.

Pure luxury.

There’s an environmental question, of course. I trust that The Royal Berkshire has taken adequate steps to ensure basic reduction of carbon footprints in order to offset and offer this facility.

I did try and take a photo but there were lots of people around and I didn’t want to scare anybody.

The Royal Berkshire is now the second hotel in recent memory (after the Chancery Court, Holborn) that I’ve come across offering proper towels in the bathrooms.

If you know of any others, please let me know!


Quality hotels should recognise that WiFi is like electricity: It’s a required feature

So I was in Barcelona this week for the EIBTM show. I was staying in one of the ‘congress’ hotels. It’s a rather funky affair, the Porta Fira Hotel.

When I checked in, the helpful chap behind the desk asked if I’d be wanting to use WiFi. This is normally the point at which they then ask you to part with something like 100 EURO for three days connectivity. To my delight, the chap just handed me a piece of paper containing some WiFi credentials.

When I got to the room, the first thing I did was activate WiFi on my iPad and then signed in.

Who else does this? I’m sure I’m not alone.

Anyway, I was a little annoyed at the rather strange ‘tower@hportafira’ username — if you’re going to use the ‘at’ sign, why not go for a full email address? That irritated me the whole week.

This is because EVERY FLIPPING TIME my device(s) rested, the WiFi connection would drop and I’d need to login again.

I don’t know specifically how WiFi connectivity works with my iPhone or iPad. I don’t care. I really don’t want to spend the time to learn, either. Suffice to say that, at some point, the iPhone recognises that once I’ve put it down and left it alone for a few minutes, it doesn’t need to keep connectivity open. So it shuts down the WiFi connection. Normally the WiFi router on the other end will remember the device identity so that when I pick up the phone a few moments later, it’ll log-on to the WiFi seamlessly.

Not at the Hotel Porta Fira in Barcelona, unfortunately. Their system forgets you every time.

I really do wonder when modern, business hotels are going to finally understand that WiFi is like lighting. I just need it. It’s not a question. It’s not an ‘if’, it’s not a nice-to-have. In order to avoid any annoying exceptions, it has to be as seamless as switching on a light.

I can live with a sign-on process once during my stay. Or once per device. But that’s it. That’s the limit.

I don’t mind a fee. Hotels have to make their money, yes — and I want the service to be highly reliable. So a sensible fee for a few days is ok. But don’t bill me for multiple device accesses. And invest in some decent infrastructure so that the average throughput to popular internet destinations (e.g. Apple/Google) for each user is at least 350-400k/second down and at least 200k up.

And don’t, on any account, implement a system that needs me to login 16 times an hour.

I’m off to add a TripAdvisor entry about this.

On the plus side, the shower in my room was one of the best I’ve ever experienced (beautiful monsoon style with a gauge that goes all the way up to ‘very hot’) almost rivalling those at Barcelona’s Hotel Olivia on Plaza Cataluña.

Hotels Technology

The Chancery Court Hotel: It’s all about the towels

Pictured above is the rather wonderful Chancery Court Hotel on High Holborn in Central London. I used to have an office on Kingsway just round the corner from the hotel. A few days after moving into the office I decided to host a meeting in the Chancery Court’s bar — I presumed it had one. I thought it would be a little bit nicer than the rather boring meeting room in the office. I wasn’t wrong. If anything, it was way, way better. Indeed, the bar had a dedicated area that — if you visited regularly — you could use for meetings: Two massive green leather Chesterfields facing each other. It was fantastic. I began to hold all my meetings there, occasionally popping through to the Lobby Lounge for lunch or breakfast.

At this point back in 2006, the Chancery Court was a Renaissance Hotel — one of the Marriott’s super-brand hotels. It was most certainly deserving of that status. Indeed, I regularly found the other hotels in the Renaissance chain wanting compared to the Chancery Court.

One of the key quality benchmarks for hotels that I established around this time was towels-in-the-public-bathrooms. It had taken me a while but I began to notice that only the best hotels I visited had real towels in their public bathrooms. Little ones rolled up, for example. Or placed in a nice pile by the sink. It made the experience so much nicer than paper or the noisy dryers. I know it sounds silly but I really did prioritise going to the Chancery Court because of this.

I’m always constantly surprised by the lack of proper towels in other supposedly super-high-quality hotels. I recognise that there’s probably an environmental factor to consider here.

I had a look through my Flickr archive and located this photo (4pm, February 26, 2006 according to the timestamp!) that I took for a personal blog post on this subject. This photo illustrates how the Chancery Court used to do it — I haven’t been into the hotel recently to verify it’s still similar though. I wonder if they’ve swapped to paper towels? I should also point out that the last time I stayed there (about 6 months ago) the hotel was about to undergo a change of management away from Marriott to — it looks like — a privately owned and managed hotel. I have to say, I’m liking the smooth new website.

Have you been to a hotel that has proper towels in the public bathrooms? Surely this is the mark of a top class institution?