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Hotels

USM Quick Report: The good, the bad and Silkair

Getting back to work is always a herculean task after a great holiday, but here are some initial insights from my amazing Koh Samui trip. Full reports to follow!

SilkAir MI 772

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photo by kentaro iemoto

One sentence summary: Terrible delay management

The good

The aircraft flew safely from point A to point B

The bad

  • The trip started off on the wrong note when I showed up at Changi Airport at 8:45am for a 10:25am departure only to be told that the flight was delayed by 3.5 hours.
  • The ground staff showed me a notice to that effect, but the fact was no one had contacted me at all, through call, SMS or email. In fact, it was only when I was at the check in desk at 8:55am that a call came through. I received an automated email informing me of the flight delay…at 10:09am, 16 mins before the fight is supposed to depart

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  • Even if you accept 8:55am as the “official” alert time, it’s clearly inadequate to give passengers less than 90 mins notice of a 3.5 hour delay. There’s no reason why an automated SMS/email could not have been sent out as soon as the decision was made to delay the flight. This would have allowed me to request that they rebook me via BKK, which would at least saved a couple of hours off the delay. The most annoying thing is that my waitlist for the earlier flight (MI772) never cleared despite there being 8+ revenue seats available, meaning this whole issue could have been avoided by them simply putting me on the earlier flight.
  • The reason for the delay? “A late disruption to the aircraft allocation schedule”. In other words, the airline decided that another route required the aircraft more, and made the decision to reassign that aircraft. The reason was quite clear when I boarded, as the aircraft was less than 50% full. So unfortunately, I was part of the group that Silkair chose to inconvenience in order to get that aircraft on a fuller-load route.
  • The compensation offered was a $15 meal voucher and “sorry”. Needless to say this is completely unacceptable and I’ve written to Silkair asking for a full refund of the miles and taxes used to purchase this ticket. Let’s see what happens. I’m not optimistic, given that despite an acknowledgement of my complaint, no one from MI has reached out to me yet

The Vana Belle, a Luxury Collection Resort

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One sentence summary: Good villas, excellent service

The good

The service at the Vana Belle was flawless. Some of the really nice small touches

  • Whenever they brought the car around for us to go out, we’d always find 2 chilled bottles of water in the cupholders

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  • They gave us this delicious bottle of cookies which had chocolate chips and cashews in them. I’m a real picky eater, so trust me when I say that these were some of the most amazing cookies I had

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  • They were good at attending to misc requests, like pumping our pool pizza float, getting me a takeaway box for the rest of the delicious cookies, getting a stopper for our champagne bottle etc.

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  • Each evening during turndown service we’d find a new snack on the table, plus a new soap for us to try
  • The staff were very good at anticipating requests- when we checked out, the car was brought around and waiting for us when the buggy brought us to reception. On our last day, we were asked whether we’d need help deflating the pool float we brought. All these little touches made the experience much more polished

The bad

  • The view from the villa was somewhat disappointing- we were placed in Vana 2, which is separated from the ocean by another set of villas and trees. So while you can see a bit of the ocean, the view is rather obstructed

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  • The breakfast items were hit and miss. Some were very good, others were ok and some were really bad (think unseasoned, wilted spinach, overcooked eggs, soggy bacon and waffles and cooked to death steak). This was all the more surprising as 60-70% of the breakfast is cooked to order off an ala carte menu

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Conrad Koh Samui

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One sentence summary: World-class hard product let down by indifferent soft product

The Good

  • The villas have stunning views of the ocean, the type that photos cannot do justice. Watching the sunset in front of you into the ocean from your private pool is a very special experience

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  • For an expensive property, the food at the all-day restaurant was surprisingly reasonable. Think 300THB for a fried rice, the average dish around 450-500THB. Expensive for Thailand? No doubt. Reasonable for a 5 Star property? Definitely

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  • They did a giveaway for Hilton elite members at check-in and we got a 30 min complimentary spa treatment (unfortunately, it was only for one person. The cynic in me suspects it’s part of a strategy to get you to buy one more treatment for your partner)

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  • The rooms are furnished really nicely- think King sized round bathtub with plenty of room for you and a partner, Shanghai Tang bathroom amenities, Apple TV & Bose Sound system (a perk unique to the 300 series rooms, I am told- more on that in the full trip report)

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The Bad

I think the list below might well be the epitome of “first world problems”. That said, given that the starting rate at the Conrad is upwards of $1,000, I think it’s safe to say that no detail should be too small. So here goes…

  • The arrivals area was really small, and probably only had a seating capacity for maybe 10 people at most. There were nearly 20 people at the check-in area when we arrived, all of whom had bags, which made it seem really hectic and noisy- not really the kind of first impression you want to give in a place which is supposedly all about relaxation. The check-in staff might done a better job in quickly moving people out of the check-in area to the villas to minimize the overflow

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  • Our villa was not ready at check in, and given that we arrived at 1pm that was more than fair (official check in is 3pm). We were invited to the restaurant to have a drink and wait. We ordered lunch, and just as lunch came we were told that our villa was ready. I asked if they could take the food to the villa because we were really eager to see it, to which the staff member sort of made a face and said “it would be better if you could take your lunch here first”. Rule number 1 in the luxury hospitality business- the only proper response to a customer request is “certainly!”
  • Because of its size, the entire Conrad Koh Samui relies on a series of buggies for transportation. We are told that buggies can take as much as 10 mins to arrive, but often the wait was 15-20 mins. One particularly long wait was after a spa treatment, where after a 20 min wait still no buggy showed, so much so that the receptionist suggested I walk back to my villa as it would be faster
  • During breakfast, the activities director went around to the different tables hawking paid tours, which seemed a bit unclassy for a place like the Conrad
  • Perhaps it was a communication issue, but when we went to the lobby to collect our car to drive out, the staff just handed me the key. I was a bit confused because I had no idea where the car was, having valet parked it. I asked them and they said “oh, you want us to drive the car to you?” It was a bit of a weird moment
  • Similarly, when we returned from going out and dropped off the car, the reception staff asked if we were checking in. Considering that the Conrad issues all its staff a literal “face book” of all the guests staying there, this would definitely count as a service goof
  • It took a full 2 hours for the pool staff to return the pool float that we had left at the main pool for them to deflate despite 3 calls
  • Anticipating needs is a big part of the service game- at the Vana Belle when we called for help with our bags to check out, when we got to the departure area our car was already there waiting for us. Not so at the Conrad

I do suspect capacity has a thing to do with it- the staff at the Conrad seemed consistently flustered with the large number of guests they had to deal with (I did witness raised voices between 2 members of the staff in the reception area, which was unprofessional to say the least), but in the Vana Belle it seemed much more quiet and the staff more relaxed


Overall, despite the terrible way MI handled the delay, the trip was still fantastic. The full trip reports are in progress and will hopefully be posted within the next week, with tons of photos, so stay tuned for that!

SPG category changes- the good news and the bad

So, SPG has announced its annual category changes for 2016. The number of points needed to redeem a free night in each of the 7 categories has not changed, but hotels have moved up and down between categories.

As a reminder, here are the points needed in each category

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All in all, 168 hotels are going up in price (~12% of all SPG hotels), and 114 hotels are going down in price (~8% of all SPG hotels).

Remember that the category of hotel is not strictly related to its quality, although the best hotels in Starwood’s portfolio are in the Cat 6 and 7 brackets. Category changes are driven by forecast occupancy for the upcoming year- if occupancy rates are expected to stay high, categories go up.

Changes will take place on 1 March. If you book before 1 March, you can get properties at the existing prices. If you currently hold a booking for a stay at a property that is going down in price, you can cancel and rebook after 1 March to get a refund of the points difference (be sure there is availability before you cancel!) 

Whether this is good or bad for you depends on your travel patterns. Some observations relevant to me

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Rooftop Bar at Four Points Bangkok- going up to Cat 3

Bad

  • Four Points by Sheraton Bangkok going up from Cat 2 to Cat 3
  • Le Meridien Bangkok going up from Cat 3 to Cat 4
  • Westin Grande Sukhumvit Bangkok going up from Cat 3 to Cat 4
  • Westin Singapore going up from Cat 4 to Cat 5
  • Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort going up from Cat 4 to Cat 5
  • Laguna Bali going up from Cat 5 to Cat 6
  • W Retreat & Spa Bali going up from Cat 6 to Cat 7 (!)

Good

  • St Regis Mumbai going down from Cat 4 to Cat 3 (possibly the cheapest St Regis anywhere?)
  • St Regis Bangkok going down from Cat 6 to Cat 5
  • Le Meridien Bali Jimbaran going down from Cat 4 to Cat 3
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Lobby at St Regis Mumbai, an amazing value Cat 3 property now

Category changes rarely work out in your favor, but given that I’ve got a few trips to Mumbai coming up I’m looking forward to trying out the St Regis again. I am concerned at the increase in category prices in Bangkok, which has historically been the best market to get 5 star hotels on the cheap. The mantle of lowest cost redemption in Bangkok now resides with Aloft at the Cat 2 price point.

I’m still locked in for 3 nights at the hopefully amazing Vana Belle Koh Samui (no category change there, and remember you can get 30% off redemption prices here) with a full trip report to follow in March, so stay tuned!

A Luxury Collection Hotels & Resort - Vana Belle, Koh Samui
A Luxury Collection Hotels & Resort – Vana Belle, Koh Samui

 

 

Small Luxury Hotels- where everyone is special

One less well-known group of hotels is the Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) “chain”, a loose grouping of about 500 independent hotels (locations here)

SLH has a loyalty program and  it’s interesting because of the very low threshold needed to earn any sort of meaningful status. The program is free to join, and (supposedly) rewards you from Day One.

There are 3 tiers

Special Member

– A hotel room upgrade on us (subject to availability at check-in)
– Access to Club Rates
– Regular Club newsletters with exclusive partner offers

Loved Member

After 1 stay you’ll receive all the benefits above, plus:

– Daily complimentary continental breakfast for two
– Late check-out (subject to availability at check-in)

Honoured Member

After 5 further stays you’ll receive all the benefits above, as well as:

– Free reward nights (terms and conditions apply)
– Priority complimentary room upgrade (subject to availability at check-in)
– Early check-in (subject to availability at check-in)

If you’re not big on the conventional loyalty programs and like to stay at boutique hotels, this might be the “chain” for you. The lowest tier is free to join and already grants you an on-availability room upgrade. Make that 1 stay and you’re already a Loved member, getting free breakfast thrown into the mix and late checkout.

I’d like to point out that there’s a link here you can use to sign up and instantly get Loved member status, thereby skipping you one tier up the (rather short) ladder.

How good are the properties?

The rates in Singapore are rather eye-popping, unfortunately. This is how it priced out for a 2 night (Friday-Sunday) stay for 2 adults

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Even though the above is for 2 nights, that’s still no small amount to pay!

I checked the prices for booking directly with the hotel and although Hotel Vagabond prices out the same, the Scarlet prices out at $506, surprisingly more than on SLH (and creates the possibility for a BRG claim)

What about more “affordable” markets like Bangkok?

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Still pretty expensive, I’d say. FYI, SLH properties do alright on Tripadvisor- not the best but certainly nowhere near the bottom. in Bangkok, S31 Sukhumvit ranks 198 out of 807 hotels on Tripadvisor, Maduzi fairs much better at 58.

I’d like to clarify that being part of SLH does not mean the hotel has won some special award or is in some way elite (although I’m sure many of the properties are very special in their own way). SLH is not an “award”, SLH is a marketing initiative bringing together various small independent hotels

SLH runs occasional sales which offer 3 nights for the price of 2, or 4 nights for the price of 3. This brings down the rates into more affordable territory,

My advice is that if you’re booking a non-chain hotel, your best bet is to still go via Kaligo/Rocketmiles to earn some milesback, or via Expedia etc to earn cashback. However, if you’re staying enough nights to get good value out of the free daily breakfast, and if the price difference is negligible, you might want to look at SLH.