Thursday, September 29, 2011


The Hyatt Regency Birmingham – Or the Tony Blair Hotel?

Were you at Liberal Democrat Conference last week? What did you make of your hotel? And particularly if you were staying at the officially designated “Conference Hotel” – are they all that? In the absence of the Hyatt Regency Birmingham offering a feedback form on checking out, I’ve been having a think about it this morning, now that I’ve more or less recovered from Conference a week later. Does competition keep these massive hotels to good service and prices? Or do they know we’ll block-book and charge us through the nose…? Yes, you’re right, it’s not a toughie, is it?

Lib Dem Conference is always a strange time of year for me. Sometimes I get to make a speech, sometimes I don’t; sometimes I get to meet up with lots of old friends, sometimes not. I used to be hyperactive at these, crashing on floors and getting by on little sleep or food; my ill-health these days means I’m more likely just to get to the bits I can and collapse in our hotel room for most of it (most days I usually don’t get out at all, let alone feel I should be out all the time at Conference). So I felt a bit embarrassed when friends would occasionally tell me how well I was looking: I couldn’t help wondering how low a bar I’d set in their expectations. Does ‘looking healthy’ mean ‘fat, and not about to throw myself out of the window’? Ironically, I wasn’t well enough to totter over to the next-door Conference Centre for George Potter’s outstanding debate on the crapulent ATOS Work Capability Assessments that I’m stressing about waiting for. But being able to keel over in a hotel room all day is one of the endless things for which I’m grateful to Richard: it’s our one week a year at a ridiculously expensive hotel, and being unconscious in it at any time of day is a vital perk.

Or trying to be unconscious in it at any time of day, at least. I don’t know what you made of it, but while there are many things to admire about the Hyatt Regency Birmingham, having your door knocked on five times a day isn’t one of them. Or, in several case, not knocked on and just barged in. It’s not the staff’s fault, but hotel policy; make your bed? Vacuum your room? Measure your mini-bar? Turn your bed down? Clearly, some manager decided that customers would want solicitude, and to prove it must be interrupted every five minutes. But it comes across less as care than as intrusively frantic box-ticking whether we want it or not.

On the bright side, the hotel room itself was a good one – nice to look at, spacious (I won’t say airy, as it was the ninth floor and the windows were sealed), plenty of furniture and even (always the thing you notice) easy to get the shower to the right temperature. And a proper gush rather than a feeble dribble, too. Its biggest idiosyncrasy was the speaker in the bathroom, which whenever you turned on the telly would activate at a constant volume, whatever you did to the TV itself, and ironically had much clearer sound quality than the TV’s own speakers. Which meant that you could hear most programmes better when you couldn’t see them.

I quite liked the desk, too – handy for your laptop. But no points at all, Hyatt Regency Birmingham, for the wi-fi. Yes, it worked – albeit by having to ring down every day for a new multi-part special code – but when you’re a hotel that’s already charging such a ridiculous daily rate, £15 a day on top for wi-fi is taking the piss. Why do we put up with it?

And then there was the food. The hotel lobby looks elegant enough when you go in in the middle of the day… But try it in the evening, when it’s a badly-designed bottleneck, a seething crush with the restaurant plonked in the middle of it. Whoever thought of that one?

The first night, we arrived late and knackered after much traffic, and checked out the hotel menu online. And didn’t it sound good? You can see it yourself. Seared Hand Dive Scallops with Cauliflower Puree and Smoked Bacon… Flaked Ham Hock Roulade with a Pea Panna Cotta… Duo of Welsh Lamb, Mini Roast Rack, Slow Braised Shoulder with Bombay Potato, Humus and Tzatziki… Pan-Fried Breast of Free Range Chicken with Root Vegetable Dauphinoise, Creamed Savoy Cabbage, Black Pudding Puree… Well, we thought, it all looks pricey but sounds very good. We’d like to try several of those. Such a pity that, on going downstairs to the restaurant itself, we were presented with a much more limited menu that had precisely none of the dishes we’d picked out upstairs. So we both settled for the pork belly, which was rather nice, and almost (but not quite) what the online menu promised. Going back a course, though, Richard wasn’t impressed with his tiny starter – and both of us laughed when they generously presented us with complimentary samples of the soup of the day. Now, it was nice enough, but rather difficult to get at: hilariously, the spoons – teaspoons, not dessert spoons! – were larger than the tiny serving thimbles. And as we’d arrived late, the friend we called up had already eaten, so he just joined us for a drink – and after he only ordered wine, the waiter pointedly ignored him. Not even a thimble. And they did their best to chase all of us out as swiftly as possible, pouncing and removing plates and glasses the second we’d finished (even if we’d wanted to scrape them). Now, it wasn’t that late, and they were three-quarters empty – so there was no excuse of needing the tables, nor of waiting for us to be the last to leave. It was just rude. Other people might have complained; I’m afraid we’re British enough that Richard just tutted and didn’t leave a tip (the bill being outrageous enough). We didn’t eat there any other evening.

Then there was the breakfast. Not the best buffet breakfast I’ve ever had, but not the worst; the sausages were good, which was handy as there was a choice of only one type, but I quite like different types of egg for variety. No, it was just the same mound of uninspiring scrambled egg all week. Well, I say all week; we stayed an extra night to recuperate, and discovered that the Lib Dems had it good with the egg. The morning after, with barely a tenth the number of people down to breakfast, it was clear how milk-based the “egg” really was (at home I make it only with butter), and that they’d added more egg to it to meet demand through the week. On Thursday morning, it looked vaguely the same, but was clearly the starting batch and tasted of nothing but milk. I prefer my scrambled egg to taste of scrambled egg, not rice pudding, thank you.

So what was your experience of your Conference hotel? And if it was the Conference Hotel, why do we let them get away with it? Expensive, intrusive, finding a hundred little ways to charge you extra, replacing customer service with box-ticking that treats us all as ‘throughput’ to be discharged rather than the people who pay their wages… That all sounds very familiar. The Hyatt Regency Birmingham felt less like a hotel, and more like a New Labour theme park.

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The food for the fringe meetings was yummy at the Hyatt. I have to say though, if we were staying there and we had had your experiences, I would have kicked up a right old stink. I WORK in a service industry, I KNOW there's no excuse for this, especially not at the sort of prices you pay there. To an extent I have some sympathy for the box-ticking door-knockers, but for the behaviour of the wait staff there is no excuse for whatsoever. Not only would I not have left a tip (which is almost unheard of for me, as I know how valuable tips are when you're on wait staff wages), but I would have left a note explaining WHY I hadn't left a tip.
Thanks! Wish I'd gone to their fringes now ;)

Sympathy for the door-knockers from me, too; I hope I absolved them above. Had an interesting conversation at one point with the woman who 'did' us - her politician and star stories of who was a git. Reminded me of my young days working in restaurant when I was sent to take over waiting on a TV star who was such a *** she'd made my fellow staff cry...
Well I stayed in a boutique budget which I guess means there was no food, apart from a vending machine and a coffee machine. And no window. But otherwise clean and smart so that was OK. Budget? Hmmm.

But it sounds like the old adage that the more you pay the ruder the staff are. One day I will open a cheap hotel with rude staff which will seem like an absolute bargain.
The Dignity in Dying fringe had amazing cheesy dauphinoise potatoes...

Joe, I suppose that the more you pay the more likely it is that "service charges are included" and so the wait staff feel they don't need to earn tips.

* shrug *

I just physically couldn't behave like that.
I was in Crossroads Motel - or at least it felt like it. The Millennium Copthorne hadn't been refurbed since the soap's heyday.

But I suppose the bed was comfortable, which given the limited time I spent in the room was the main thing.
I was in the Crowne Plaza, which wasn't cheap, but I didn't really have any complaints about the room or the breakfast - I didn't try any of the rest of their food. I have come to pretty much expect that the officially designated conference hotel will be ridiculously overpriced, so tend to go for one of the other nearby ones - Premier Inn if I'm being good, but it's not always possible. By the time I'd passed accreditation this year, they were all booked up.
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