20 years later, as a precocious marketing whizz-kid, a client invited me to lunch at its rooftop restaurant. I loved it. Everything felt special. My client was clearly well known to the staff and I left feeling altogether squiffy and rather bloomin’ splendid.
Had material matters mattered more to me, I would have felt that I’d truly made it.
Instead I chose scribbling and had no further contact with Hilton Hotels until a couple of weeks ago, when I stayed at the Watford Hilton.
Blue chip brands have two ways to go. They either hang on to the unique quality that made them what they are, or they diversify, diluting the brand into as many enterprises as might exploit a profit from the cachet of the name.
Fortnum and Mason and Waterford Crystal would be the former, while Hilton, as I discovered, represent the latter.
Every couple of months I visit my mum in London. Occasionally, when it’s not convenient for me to stay with her, I go to a hotel. Last time my usual place was fully booked, but the internet came up with a reasonable rate at the Watford Hilton.
For some bizarre reason I just love saying it:
Watford Hilton Watford HiltonWatford Hilton
It sounds so incongruous it tickles my funny bone, but as a guest it screwed with both my head and wallet and that doesn’t make for a happy man.
To be fair all the staff I met (save one who failed to see past the rules) were absolutely splendid, my room was as clean and bland as any corporate hotel, and I had no complaints, until I went to the bar.
Much as I love my family, when I return to London from the silence of rural Ireland, the hammering hum of the big city combines with my family’s need to all communicate to each other, at once, all the time (myself included), to leave me a bit bewildered by the end of the first day
I long for a barstool in the hotel and a double Jameson.
Sadly, as is increasingly the way these days, there were no barstools, condemning the lone traveller to sit at a table. That night
Tired after travelling and coming down from a fun full-on family dinner, I didn’t care.
Up to the bar, where I feel a little taken aback that my double Jamie costs £10.90, but I just want it down my neck, so I go to my table; sip whiskey; relax. Pick up the menus from the table and look at them, so I’m not staring at couples at other tables like a psycho.
Ah, the drinks.listings.
Hang on a mo. If this says it costs a fiver how come my double just cost £10.90?
Up to the bar to ask the barman who tells me it’s the service charge.
I tell him I was a barman on and off for 18 years and if a punter wanted to tip me that was great, but you don’t add a whopping service charge to a drink when you feel like it.
He says it’s on all the drinks.
I tell him that had I ordered from the floor staff, I might have left a tip. Had he proved a splendid barman, I might have tipped him too, but there is no such thing as service charge when you’re standing at the bar.
Even in the USA, where it’s customary to tip the barperson, it’s not obligatory. It’s never included in the price of the bloody drink.
The barman insists it is. End of.
Back at my table, I feel angry and an unfortunate desire for more whiskey but - ah! Over there, the Tariff sheet on the side of the bar.
That’s the legally binding document, so let’s go and see how much the Jamie costs on that.
Do wot guv’nor? One bar three prices for the same drink? They are ‘avin’ a laugh (and I can feel the Londoner rising in me even now, as my language changes) and I walk to Reception, where I tell them what’s happened.
They take the Tariff sheet down, as the bar could be closed down if they charge more than the listed prices, but while all are friendly, none of the four staff I speak to offer any kind of resolution.
I retire to my room to see if Gary Lineker will really be in his underpants.
On a table in my room is a plastic card saying something irritatingly corporate and well-meaning:
“If there’s something wrong tell us and we’ll make it right!”
So I sit and fill in their Comments leaflet and write a note to the manager, expressing the fact that despite their hocum cotton wool bunkum, I’d spoken to 4 of them and nobody had made anything right at all.
The next evening I receive a letter in which he kindly explains that my room service charges have been rescinded and that I can have a double Jameson on the house tonight.
He apologises for what he calls the “price variance” but at no point addresses the big mystery: all the other stuff was simply an administrative cock-up, but what the hell was that service charge about in the bar?
Pretentiously infected by its brand name, the place just about manages to live up to the standard of other plastic menu corporate hotels. Sadly, it acts and charges as if it is still special in some way beyond the sign over the door; a cut above.
The cost of their room service cooked breakfast?
I kid you not. That includes a 'tray charge’ but I’m not sure if service charge is extra.
Hiltons ain’t what they used to be. Class is not the word.