After the enforced hibernation of winter, we took a week’s holiday, in the hills and beaches, hotels, pubs and restaurants of north-east England.
Continuing covid regulations, staff shortages and cultural nervousness have conspired to create some very odd regimes. Some hotels seemed to demand face coverings even in the open air, others seemed pretty blasé about it. One hotel refused to provide a morning paper ‘because of the pandemic’, while others delivered a paper to the room and had others available over breakfast.
Ordering systems are weird too. One hotel laid on a breakfast buffet, but required guests to put on awkward proctologist gloves before approaching the spread – a helpful brake on the ‘breakfast buffet inflation’ described by Giles Coren in a column at the weekend. A café brought menus to the table, but then asked you to go inside to order at a counter, slightly defeating the point of table service.
But the most perplexing was the four-star hotel that insisted that all orders were processed through its clunky app, resulting in items being delivered to your table in random order, often without cutlery, a bit like an in-house Deliveroo service. You didn’t have to use the app if you made enough fuss, but then had to go and huddle with one of the friendly waiting staff by a console. The idea of staff noting orders on a pad or device, then inputting them, seemed impossible.
But more seriously, there was no sense of anyone being in charge of their systems and of individual guests’ evenings. All the skills that create good service – awareness, anticipation, empathy – had been stripped out, reducing the skilled job of waiting tables to a much less skilled bussing operation (which I suppose at least aligns with the Government’s new immigration rules).
I delivered these whinges to the hotel in question, but I am worried that the combination of staff shortages and residual nervousness (there is no evidence of anyone catching covid from a paper menu) may enable more and more of this type of ‘unnovation’, deskilling workers and cheapening customer experiences.
It’s worth comparing this experience with McDonalds. Though I have in the past described their ordering system as a “bleak, beef-based game of bingo”, I’ve become used to it. And the system works – the interface is well-designed (even if the relentless upselling is tiresome), and nobody goes to McDonalds looking for advice and engagement from the staff. Indeed, I can see that the system actually improves service and covid security by enabling service to your table or car.
But the impersonal nature of transactions is, if not the point of McDonalds, at least a feature that customers are happy to accept for the sake of fast service and low prices. Other hotels and restaurants should be careful not to draw the wrong lessons, however short of staff they are at the moment. Creating a half-arsed fast-food experience in a four-star setting at fine-dining prices seems a recipe for irrelevance not renaissance.