When a reservation is not a reservation: On the ‘keeping’ of reservations

This is a story about reservations. It’s about what they are, why discerning travelers make them and why it’s a problem when a hotel, car rental agency or – in the case of this particular story – restaurant doesn’t seem to have the same understanding.

Before we begin, though, let’s have a bit of a primer on what a reservation means, and no one says it better than Jerry Seinfeld in the old scene “The Car Rental.”

Unless you’re fond of those spur-of-the-moment trips where you’re happy to just get in the car and go, every travel experience starts with a reservation of one sort or another. There are different kinds of reservations.

When we “reserve” an airplane ticket, we have about ten minutes to complete the transaction and pay. In these cases, we expect the reservation to be “held” because we have a fully paid ticket which we expect to form a contract for the airline to carry us where we plan to go. Well, it does – but not always in the way that we might have liked. Have you ever been “bumped” on an over-sold flight? The airline still has the obligation to get you to your destination, just not necessarily on that flight.

We make hotel reservations without paying up front. However, in most cases, they require a credit card to “guarantee” the reservation. This is their guarantee of payment, not your actual guarantee of a room. If you fail to show up, they will charge you the first night’s fee. If you arrive and they have no room for you, you have little recourse. We all hope this won’t ever happen, but it can.

Years ago we were flying to London for a European tour with our then ten-year-old son. It was an overnight flight arriving in London around 6:30 am. We had been through this before, arriving at a hotel and having to stow luggage for hours while we dragged our jet-lagged selves around until we could check in. This time we thought we were smart. We booked the hotel room for the night before so that we could have the room the minute we arrived – albeit late, but we had a reservation and knew we’d be paying for the room. It turned out that the hotel took our reservation, charged us for the night and promptly sold the room to someone else. When we arrived they had no room for us – not even the room we had paid for. Naturally we were not happy. So this brings us to our most recent “reservation” issue.

marriott san diego waterfront
The Marriott Marquis on the San Diego waterfront. Roy’s is right along here.

Three weeks ago we found ourselves in downtown San Diego for a few nights. We’re great believers in Open Table for finding interesting dining spots, and love the ease of use and how happy we’ve been with the results. So we went on Open Table and booked a dinner reservation at Roy’s.

 

One of the few fine dining spots on the San Diego waterfront, Roy’s is also “conveniently located at the Marriott Hotel”[1]. Since Art is a lifetime Gold Marriott and we carry a Marriott credit card when we travel in the US (no extra exchange fee and extra Marriott points are among the features), we were delighted to make this reservation and looked forward to it. We were set for 6:45 pm.

We arrived at Roy’s at 6 pm so that we could enjoy a pre-dinner drink at their lovely bar. We checked in with the hostess who said she’d be along to get us in due course. We enjoyed a gin and tonic in the bar watching people come and go to the dining room. By 6:50 pm we had not been summoned so we paid our bar bill and went back to the hostess stand where we received some surprising information.

“Oh,” she said, “there is no table available.”

“Excuse us? We have a 6:45 reservation,” about which we informed the hostess on our arrival 50 minutes earlier at 6 pm, at which point a manager presented himself. No table at present; no table in the foreseeable future (foreseeable in our view being the next five minutes).

We indicated to him that we make reservations so that there can, indeed, be a table available at the appointed time. He had the audacity to stand directly in front of us, beaming from ear to ear in the smarmiest of ways and said, “We have lingerers tonight.”

Well, need we say it again? But we did inform him again of the purpose of a reservation. We might have even mentioned the Seinfeld scene. He stood there smiling. No table.

It is true that restaurants cannot always be assured that the tables will empty at the time they expect them to, but they also have an obligation to the patrons who make reservations. This is a management issue.

The thing that was most infuriating about this whole scenario was not the unfulfilled reservation, rather it was the attitude and arrogant nature of the manager who stood in front of us grinning like a Cheshire cat. Good customer service practice would suggest first apologizing, indicating when a table might be available and offering us a free drink, or the like, while we wait. None of these things happened.

Roy’s advertises itself as being “at the Marriott Hotel” and the Marriott Marquis Hotel web site lists Roy’s under their “dining at this hotel” which, regardless of whether the Roy’s employees are Marriott employees or not, clearly associates the brand with Marriott. Based on our many years of Marriott stays, the customer service mentality displayed that evening did not do Marriott proud. They should be ashamed of their association.

So, what did we do?

We said good evening and turned on our heel to seek another place to eat. We were rewarded by finding Sally’s just a short way down the boardwalk. Sally’s had a table and treated us wonderfully.

To add insult to injury, the staff at Roy’s indicated to Open Table that we were no-shows for our reservation, a situation that we never would allow to happen. Thankfully, Art was able to straighten things out with Open Table, but it seemed like a bit of a slap from Roy’s. We had indeed, shown up for our reservation. Roy’s, as Jerry would have said, knows how to take a reservation, they just don’t know how to keep a reservation – which, as we know, is the whole point of a reservation. Shame on them.

[1] Exact wording from their web site: https://www.roysrestaurant.com/locations/ca/waterfront

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The ‘authentic’ travel experience: The travel snob’s last stand

Autumn in Bar Harbor, Maine
Autumn in Bar Harbor, Maine

We’re not sure about everyone else, but we are sure about ourselves when it comes to travel: we are very particular about the experiences that we have, and we are suspicious of those who take the view that you can’t have an ‘authentic’ travel experience unless you somehow suffer. What nonsense!

What does it mean to be authentic anyway? Well, the dictionaries suggest that it has to do with being real, genuine, or not fake. When it comes to travel experiences, what makes something authentic (and why do travelers these days care, anyway?)? The latest craze for visiting slums in third-world countries is one of the more puzzling approaches for authentic experiences that we’ve seen.

Some travel writers seem to think that staying at a ‘quaint’ property is more authentic than staying at a ‘grand’ property, but who is to say that quaint is any more authentic (read: morally superior), than ‘grand’? And what about dining? Is it more authentic to eat street food in India or to dine at a high-quality Indian restaurant? Perhaps the risk of dysentery is what makes a dining experience authentic? Well, we think that’s just travel snobbery. Take a recent experience we had in New England.

As we love to do in the fall, we took a few days earlier this month to take in the fall colors in Maine and New Hampshire. Having not set foot in Bar Harbor, Maine in decades, we decided that it would be a good place to spend two days exploring the countryside and Acadia National Park (we suppose that a national park is authentic?) As we usually do, we sought out the fine dining experience in the village and found ourselves at a little spot called rather unexpectedly, Havana. What in the world were you doing in a restaurant named for the capital of Cuba in the middle of the Atlantic seaside in Maine? you might ask.  Surely that couldn’t be an authentic Maine experience. Oh, but it was.

You see, that restaurant is owned and operated by a local restaurateur with a flair for the sophisticated. With an extensive travel background and a true respect for dining (not eating as we’ve discussed before), Havana’s proprietor with whom we chatted for a while during and after our dinner, has for the past 15 years been committed to “…serving local and organic meats, produce and seafood. [They] consistently search out New England farmers and fisherfolk to purchase products that are not only great tasting, but great for the environment and local economy as well…”[from their web site]. In addition to this, they have their own urban garden on a reclaimed urban plot. What’s more, this commitment to the local and the sustainable hasn’t gotten in the way of serving outstanding food accompanied by a wonderful, thoughtfully selected wine list.

Havana Restaurant (photo credit: Havana web site)
Havana Restaurant (photo credit: Havana web site)

An authentic Maine experience? Of course. Eating freshly steamed lobster at a newspaper-covered picnic table might constitute what most travel snobs would define as authenticity, but there’s more to being authentic than the cheaper, lower-level experiences.

There is nothing inauthentic about being comfortable and happy while travelling. It’s authentically wonderful to have the privilege of making a choice. Be discerning about your own experiences and never be defensive about your enjoyment of your travel experiences.

Visit Havana online at www.havanamaine.com.

The Fairmont Algonquin: A fading lady

The Fairmont Algonquin in St. Andrews-by-the Sea, New Brunswick

It’s been a long time since we got behind the wheel of our car and headed out on the open road – instead of to the airport – for a travel getaway.  But autumn came upon us, and the thoughts of a foliage tour took over our good sense and we headed toward northern New England.  Along the way we stopped in St. Andrews-by-the Sea in New Brunswick, home to one of the grand dames of Canadian hotels: the Fairmont Algonquin.

Originally opened in 1889, the Algonquin Hotel was one of Canada’s first resort hotels.  Built by American businessmen, it was taken over by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1903.[1]  The hotel eventually made its way into the hands of the New Brunswick provincial government in 1984.  The Fairmont Hotel group currently runs the hotel (and has for a number of years); however, that relationship comes to an end on December 31, 2011.  Our recent stay there provided us with several clues to the answer to our question: why is Fairmont not renewing its contract to run the historic property?
We might be wrong, but we’d have to wager a guess that it has something to do with the Fairmont brand and that this property doesn’t live up to the brand expectations of its clientele.

Evoking a bygone era of travel

These discerning travelers booked themselves into what is called a medium suite located in the main historic building.  The two-room suite was quaint as expected (although not the kind of décor we are usually drawn to), furnished with what appeared to us to be either antiques or cast-offs from an estate sale.  Although everything was sparkling clean, when Art walked out of the bathroom for the first time he said, “If Ian [our 22-year-old son] rented an apartment with a bathroom like that, we’d think he lived in a slum.”  It had not had benefit of a renovation in at least 40 years.  Need we say more?

The main rooms of the hotel and the grounds evoke a sense of eras past when travel was more leisurely, and activities to while away the time were more gentile: reading, strolling, sitting in Adirondack chairs in front of wood fires in the evening.

The real highlight of the stay was our anniversary dinner at the hotel’s main dining room, The Library.  The day happened to be Canadian Thanksgiving and the chef was offering his version of the traditional turkey dinner, finished off by pumpkin crème brulée that was exquisite and worth every last calorie.

What will happen to the hotel after the Fairmont folks pull out is anyone’s guess.  We did ask several employees who indicated that it will definitely remain open, but there was no word on who would be managing it. We only hope that the new operator has deep pockets, because this fading lady will fade off the radar of discerning travelers everywhere without the makeover she so desperately needs – and deserves.

the creepy corridor
The creepy corridor: Like a scene right out of "The Shining"