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

There’s no place like home for the holidays? For discerning travelers, not so much

And so the season is upon us, and the discerning travelers are preparing for Christmas – at home? Yes, at home for the first time in many years. Most people would think that wasn’t so odd – they spend the festive season out-of-town with relatives every year. We, however, usually spend it in a hotel. And what’s more, we like it that way!

London is dressed for the holidays and for our Christmas last year.
London is dressed for the holidays and for our Christmas last year.

This time last year, we offered you Travel for Christmas? You bet! where we explained how this seemingly odd situation came to be, and gave you a few tips for spending the holiday season far away from home. Two years ago, we shared our story A Merry Christmas Cruise, the most memorable Christmas experience we ever had as a family. But last year’s Christmas season was so memorable, we have to share a bit of the story with you.

As far as we are concerned, there is no place like a big city for the holidays! Last year that big city was London, and merry it was! Here’s how it happened…

Early in 2013 our son, the twenty-something performing artist decided to leave his long-term contract with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo to return to his original roots: musical theater. An accomplished dancer and singer, he decided to start at the top: he would move to London and audition for the West End. So he did, and so he debuted in the West End at the Savoy Theatre in the revival of Cabaret in the fall of last year. So, where would the discerning travelers spend Christmas? In jolly old London, of course.

We checked into the Marriott Park Lane just before Christmas to find ourselves surrounded by crowds of people all celebrating the season. Children were having their photos taken in front of the glittering Christmas tree in the lobby; parents were enjoying a festive cocktail in front of the roaring fireplace. All this seems so normal – but most of these people were from the Middle East, and few of them were even Christians. As we have always said, the Spirit of Santa Claus transcends any religious affiliation at this time of year! They were having fun.

Who could mind a rainy Christmas evening if you can spend it in London?
Who could mind a rainy Christmas evening if you can spend it in London?

And so were we. Two days before Christmas we treated ourselves to an afternoon of the English National Ballet’s Nutcracker. As anyone who knows us, or reads us regularly will know, The Nutcracker has been the cornerstone of many a Christmas season – just ask anyone with a child who is a ballet dancer. We had seen son Ian in many performances of the National Ballet of Canada’s Nutcracker from the time he was 11 years old until his second year with the company at the age of 20. The English National Ballet’s was lovely – wonderful dancing, the beautiful Tchaikovsky score and the traditional story. Even at that, though, it had little on the NBoC’s spectacle that has something for everyone – even those who (horror) do not appreciate ballet as a form of entertainment. But we had a memorable afternoon, imbibing champagne at the interval and enjoying a traditional holiday treat.

On Christmas Eve we made our way up the street to the Marriott Grosvenor House to eat (one thing we know to be true: you can always find an open restaurant on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at a lovely hotel!). Upon our return to our own hotel room after a wonderful meal, we found that Santa had left a stocking filled with chocolates on our door knob (thanks, Marriott elves!).

Marriott elves helped Santa Claus last year!
Marriott elves helped Santa Claus last year!

The next morning found London at its best – empty. What a treat to take a walk along the storied streets with hardly a living soul about. We didn’t mind the rain at all.

Later we repaired to the dining room for some live entertainment and a stupendous Christmas meal that included turkey with all the regular trimmings and a few surprises.

Having someone else madly shop for groceries, plan the day to the letter, sweat over a hot oven, serve up meals for everyone may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but it is ours. That said, we are looking forward to Christmas here on the bay this year. Then a mere four weeks until we head to the South Pacific. We wish a wonderful holiday season to all our regular readers– and those who happen by.

The ups and downs of travel loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?

The Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay in California is set on a rugged bluff overlooking the Pacific and is part of Marriott’s loyalty program. We stayed here last year.

We’re just back from a brief summer holiday.  As usual, we traveled via our usual airline (in whose loyalty program we have been ‘gold elites’ for the past several years) and stayed for a few days in our usual hotel chain (in whose loyalty program we hold ‘platinum’ status – ostensibly much better than gold status).  We also spent several days in another brand of hotel.  This coupled with travelling at the peak of the summer season (is it not possible to prepare for the inevitable airport security screening even if you don’t travel often?) has led us to a few interesting observations and questions about airline and hotel loyalty programs.

For years now, or ever since the advent of the travel blog, travel writers have been weighing in on these loyalty programs, and this includes polls about the best frequent-flyer program and the best hotel loyalty program.  There are also myriad awards for the best of these programs.  The trouble with these polls and awards is the same problem exhibited by those readers’ choice awards we have discussed before in relation to cruises: that is, anyone rating the programs probably doesn’t have experience with more than one or perhaps two such programs, so how can there be any kind of useful comparison?  No, it’s a matter of trial and error for the discerning traveler when selecting and participating in these loyalty programs.  We’ll use our own programs as anecdotal evidence.

We’ve both been loyal Air Canada Aeroplan members for well over 20 years.  Our reasons for selecting this program are the following:

  • Our air travel inevitably begins or ends in Canada since that’s where we live.
  • Air Canada, despite its many detractors, is a safe, solid, clean, reliable airline.
  • Air Canada belongs to Star Alliance which is both the oldest and largest airline alliance in the world.  This means that we can get to practically anywhere in the word and still earn Aeroplan points.
  • We believe that you should never set foot on an airplane without being a member of its loyalty program – you should earn points on every trip on the off chance you ever accumulate enough to get some of their perks – which we’re getting to.
Whenever you travel on a cruise line, you are either automatically enrolled in their loyalty program or offered the opportunity to join. Their ‘perks’ require a completely separate blog post!

We have also been members of the Marriott hotel chain’s loyalty program for many years.  Our reasons for selecting this program (although we do belong to others for those odd occasions when there are no Marriotts around or we want to try a new experience) are as follows:

  • We ended up at a Marriott in down town Toronto one time many years ago when our first-choice hotel was fully booked.  The staff at the Eaton Centre Marriott on Bay Street was so fabulous that we never went back to our old favorite.  From the time when our then-eleven-year-old son started training at the National Ballet School until he graduated at eighteen (five years ago) and beyond, we have stayed there seven or eight times a year.  We have also stayed at Marriott Hotels all over the world, and their staffs never cease to amaze.  They must know a thing or two about staff training and nurturing!
  • What we’ve learned since then is that it’s easy to redeem Marriott points and we’ve done so happily for many years.  They have been particularly handy when travelling with an adult offspring or two to cover the costs of the extra rooms in expensive cities (like Paris!).
  • As above, we believe that you should never set foot in a hotel that is part of a loyalty program without being a member.

All of that being said, we have lately begun to wonder about the erosion of the so-called perks that follow from being a loyal member of such a program.

Just last week as walked through the terminal at Pearson International Airport in Toronto we were accosted by an American Express sales person who wanted to ‘sell’ us his credit card.  One of the perks he mentioned was access to Maple Leaf lounges, the lounges owned by Air Canada to which we have access as gold elite members of Aeroplan.

Then, as we entered the concierge lounge at the Toronto Marriott for breakfast to find there was hardly a seat in the place, we wondered about this perk, too.

So, we asked, when is a perk not a perk?  Our answer is simple: when everyone has it.  And so this is our conundrum with these programs.  So many credit cards have especially airline perks like lounge access and priority boarding as ‘benefits’ that it seems there is almost no one left who doesn’t’ have these ‘perks.’

If you’ve ever been in an airport business-class lounge when there have been several delays or cancellations, you know that it’s like the black hole of Calcutta.  We had the most dreadful experience of these lounges several years ago in Frankfurt (the Lufthansa lounge).  We had actually paid for our business class ticket, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of everyone else in there – and we’ve been in in there under those circumstances ourselves.  How do we know they weren’t flying business class?  Because when you get on the plane with everyone else who has that perk, you can see where they’re sitting.

And of course there’s the priority boarding ‘perk.’  Over the past two or three years, it has become increasingly clear that half of the travelers today seem to have this perk.  Have you seen the race to the priority lane the minute they make the boarding announcement?  This is, of course, really a race for bin space.  There’s nothing worse than being last on the plane only to find that you may have paid top dollar for your seat but there is no bin space left for your measly little carry-on bag since someone has stuffed an enormous wheelie above your head.

Our message here to airlines and hotels: Before you offer someone a perk, you better make sure it really is one!