by Brenda Fine
Any up-market hotel worth its array of stars realizes it can be only as good as its staff. Luxurious rooms fully loaded with the latest in high-tech toys, award-winning restaurants on-site, the best and latest perks —- all are vital to winning those stars, but all of which don’t mean much if the people working at the hotel fail to extend themselves to help create a perfect experience for each guest.
And even if the staff is good, there are degrees of such excellence; that elusive plus that can make all the difference. So, it’s not just the welcome smile from the doorman that greets you, it’s the genuine welcome behind that smile that let’s you know that you’re really welcome.
Here’s my newest and best favorite example of that something extra: a concierge whose actions really drove home that point.
During a recent visit to China, my husband and I checked in to the Four Seasons Shanghai. It was around lunchtime, and we were hungry. We wanted to find a restaurant within walking distance of the hotel. Nothing fancy – just a neighborhood place where we could soak up some local culture while enjoying some authentic Shanghai dim sum.
The problem: we had arrived in town during the weeklong celebration of Chinese New Year, a time when many businesses traditionally close down so their employees can spend this important holiday with their families.
Helping us in our search, Peter, one of the Four Seasons concierge staff, spent some time on the phone, calling around to his local restaurant choices to determine which ones were open during the holiday. It took him a while, but he finally located one. He then carefully marked our route there on a map, pointing out some landmarks along the way to help us find the place. He also wrote down the name in English characters.
A few minutes later, as we were walking toward the restaurant, we heard Peter come dashing up behind us, panting, out of breath, and coatless in the chilly winds.
He had just learned that the restaurant was actually not open. But he had an alternate.
And so he began walking us there. “You’re going to freeze,” I protested. ‘Just give us directions and we’ll find it on our own.”
But he insisted. He walked along the several blocks with us to a bustling storefront crowded with people waiting for their take-home orders. He led us through this crowd to the escalator up to the 2nd floor restaurant, which was also mobbed with locals. Leaving us alone for a minute, he went off in search of an empty table, found one, and then made sure the waitress cleaned it properly before letting us sit down.
He then went over the menu with us (it was all in Chinese, with very few of the pictures that might have helped us use as guides had we been alone), placed our order with the waitress, and clued us in to the local rule that requires patrons to pay in full before their order can be placed. (We would never have figured that one out without him.)
It wasn’t until he was completely sure everything was in order — and on order — that he bowed, wished us a good meal, and left to return to his post at the hotel.
We encountered this sort of going-the-extra-step behavior (although none quite as dramatic as Peter’s full-court assistance) with almost all the staff we encountered. On another day I was amazed and impressed and touched by the initiative of our chambermaid who, having accidentally thrown away one of my packets of tea, wrote (in English!) a personal note of apology and left a whole box of replacement packets.
Physically, this 37-story Four Seasons is reassuringly similar to its sibling Four Seasons around the world. The public spaces are predictably lofty and lavish, with dramatic artwork that reflects the city or country in which it is located. Here in Shanghai, the hotel’s lobby jogs into a right-angle turn, extending into relaxed seating areas with a bar at one end of the room and a grand piano at the other.
Our room, while remarkable spacious and well appointed, had a curiously dated look and feel to it. As for being in a hotel in Shanghai, this room could have been in any country in the world, there was almost nothing Asian or even Far Eastern about it. In addition to the large king bed and night tables, the room also housed a seating area–a setting so clichéd and predictable it could have been moved here from a stage set in a ’70’s TV sitcom — a sofa and rectangular coffee table flanked by two upholstered club chairs. All in drab, nondescript colors. Across the room was a desk/office area three-line phone with voicemail. High-speed Internet access, is available for a fee. The only overtly “Asian” piece in the room was a large decorative chest that housed both the TV and the safe (it took a while for us to find that safe, having first ransacked the closet/dressing room trying to find it. A nice touch: this safe is large enough to hold a laptop. ) So while nothing in this entire room was run-down or shabby it was just surprisingly 1970-ish in style and ambience.
One definite plus was access to the hotel’s Executive Club. Located on the 37th floor, this welcoming and comfy lounge showcases stunning views of the city and, at night, overviews of its dazzling lights. One corner of the room is an “office” with two computers and a printer for guests to use. A separate space is dedicated to displaying and serving foods throughout the day – breakfasts which include cooked-to-your-order eggs, as well as other hot and cold Western breakfast favorites, plus a section of Chinese and Japanese morning favorites. There are snacks and drinks available during the day and then, as evening approaches, cocktails and canapés, which are served from 5:30 to 8 PM. A series of seating groups front the large windows so everyone can take advantage of the panoramic views. Given the multi-national cast of characters who come to enjoy this club, the whole experience becomes one of fellowship and good cheer. (Except for the smoking, which is allowed anywhere pretty much everywhere in China.)
On another completely different level of contentment, Qin, the Four Seasons’ Spa, delivers its feelings of well-being and euphoria via various spa techniques that are both classic and innovative. Step off the elevator on the 6th floor and you are instantly transported to a hushed, darkened space that is scented and pleasing to all the senses. The granite floor underfoot feels like well-worn ancient stone. The lacquered door is oversized and dramatic enough to have come straight from some imperial palace. Other decorative elements include the eight symbols of the I Ching : sky, earth, thunder, wind, water (moon) fire (sun) mountain and lake. But most significant of all is the inclusion of a doctor of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) on the Spa staff, as well as TCM treatments on the menu of regular spa treatments. A classic TCM treatment begins with a diagnosis (involving the Doctor following the basic steps of: observing, listening and smelling, inquiring and feeling.) Frequently the results of this diagnosis will include recommendations for specific herbal medicines, or acupuncture and tui na massage, or cupping treatments.
Because Valentine’s Day was coming soon, we chose to experience a couple’s treatment that involved all sorts of romantic elements in a suite specifically designed for two people. The room was hushed and darkened, robes silky-soft on the skin, a therapist kneeling to perform a foot scrub and massage in a basin where rose petals floated on top. As for all the rest? I’m not really sure of all the details because my mind floated off somewhere into a lovely warm la-la-land as we were massaged, and soaked in warm tubs and pampered for an hour or so. Or maybe it was a few days? My only caveat is: don’t wait for Valentine’s Day to experience this treatment; create your own holiday and go for it.
Of the several restaurants in the hotel, we tried only one: Si Ji Xuan, featuring Cantonese cuisine with Shanghai influences. Like other Four Seasons public spaces this one has large proportions — high ceilings and (for this New Yorker) remarkable amounts of space between the tables. The room is dominated by an enormous aquarium, which houses a coral reef bustling with a bevy of day-glo fishes. (Must admit I always find it a bit intimidating to order fish from the menu under the unblinking stares from these finny kin-folk.) But we did really enjoy some stuffed crab, prawns in black bean sauce, pea shoots sautéed in garlic, and cold Singapore-style chicken. Towards the end of the meal, the hostess came over to chat with us. Her English was excellent. She had many questions about life in the USA, and also shared many personal insights about living and her own life in Shanghai.
And so, in the end, this five-star hotel experience was all about the people. The flawlessly trained and (so it seems) naturally caring staff members who see it as their regular daily workday goal to make visitors feel welcome and comfortable and appreciated. And they succeed.
FOUR SEASONS SHANGHAI
500 Weihai Lu
Tel: 800 819 5053 (toll-free)
Tel: 86 21 6256 8888
Friday, 13 May, 2011
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