I often stay in five-star accommodation, to see what we can learn from it. When a special offer was made to members of Gastronauts, attending a dinner at The Taj Cape Town last week, I grabbed the opportunity to experience this hotel, and made a booking. I had booked the hotel room to share with my colleague, to allow her to experience the advertised 5-star service, but a last-minute guest arrival prevented her from joining me. I was relieved in hindsight that she could not join me, because I would not want the service I experienced at The Taj to be her benchmark for service quality. I was so frustrated by the poor staff service that I experienced that I checked out of this The Leading Hotels of the World member hotel just after midnight.
It started when I knew that my colleague could not join me, so I called the hotel at 16h00 on the day of my stay, to ask for the room to be changed from a twin-bed one to one with a king bed. I asked for the Reservations Manager who had handled my booking, and the call went through to his answering machine. I did not receive a call back, and called again an hour later, to be told that he wasn’t feeling well, and that he had been sent home. Clearly no one was listening to his messages.
When I arrived, I parked at Mandela Rhodes Place (free parking here is included in the package, as the hotel does not have its own parking), and I had to carry my overnight bag, my computer bag, and my dress bag from the parking garage to the hotel. A Taj doorman saw me coming along, and quickly opened the door, and welcomed me back (odd, as I had just arrived!), but made no effort to help me with my bags. There was only one receptionist on duty, and she was assisting a security officer linked to a VIP room. There was no acknowledgement of my presence until she had finished with the other person. She then asked me mechanically “How can we be of assistance?”. It was quite obvious that I was checking in, given the luggage that I had with me, but this seemed to be a surprise to her. I was then told that I had to sign the ‘Legal document’ – this is when my hair started to stand on end. She asked if I wanted to go to the lobby for the check-in. As if I was a tourist, I was asked for my passport, not a document I normally walk around with in my home city of Cape Town! I was offered a non-alcoholic drink in a tiny glass, but requested a glass of water, lemon and ice from Andrea, when she asked me what I wanted to drink. I was served a glass of lukewarm tap water without ice and lemon. When I fed this back to Andrea, she seemed quite relaxed about it, without apology, and the water was replaced with what I had ordered.
The ‘Legal document’ I signed had no details about my stay, other than my name, the rate, and the date of stay. However it had eleven Terms and Conditions, in very small print, that I was asked to sign. Being very cautious of such ‘legal documents’, especially as she used this term, I studied the document in detail. Some of these terms are rather scary. For example, it states that the rate on the ‘registration card’ is exclusive of taxes and is ‘for room only’. It was confirmed to me that the rate included Breakfast, but this is not stated in the terms and conditions, and I had to write this into the ‘legal document’. The hotel has the right to take a ‘lien’ on guest luggage and belongings if one does not pay what is due, and these can then be sold or auctioned off. No responsibility at all is taken for theft or other loss. The clause that caught my eye was the following: “The Management reserves to itself the absolute right of admission to any person in the hotel premises and to request any guest to vacate his or hers (sic) room at any moment without previous notice and without assigning any reason whatsoever and the guest shall be bound to vacate when requested to do so” – not the best way to inspire confidence and trust in the hotel and its operation on arrival. A clause relates to ‘tenancy’ and ‘sub-tenancy’ and is not understandable at all, it is so full of legalese! Very nervously I signed the ‘Legal document’; and asked for a photocopy, to record which rights I had signed away!
I was then chased along to go to the room. Again I had to carry all my own luggage to the room! I had to laugh when the staff member asked if she could book a table for dinner for me, but I had booked specifically due to the Gastronauts dinner at the hotel, which Andrea said was not reflected on my booking! She kept calling me by my surname, which is a 5-star hotel habit, but it is so formal. I asked her to call me “Chris”, but she clearly felt uncomfortable doing so. It reflected what the problem is in this hotel – a lack of communication between staff members and departments. Andrea asked me if I would be using the internet, a rather silly question, as I was clearly lugging my laptop with me. Proactively she offered to expand my internet allocation to a 24 hour one, instead of the half an hour free service guests are entitled to, the only good service I received outside of the Mint restaurant at the Taj Hotel. I do question the half an hour allocation – surely internet connection is an entry level service accommodation establishments should offer these days, especially at 5-star level. The cost of the 24 hour service is a preposterous R230. Andrea called for an ice bucket so that I could add ice to my bottle of water, which was at the bed. It arrived without ice tongs, and I had to take the ice with my fingers. Andrea asked me if I would need to know anything else, having switched on the TV, showing a promotional Taj programme. She did not explain how to find the TV channels or how to use the phone, all of which became an issue later on. Luckily I referred to the room directory, and I was guided to find it in the drawer of the desk – I would never have thought of looking for it there. I found a welcome letter in my room, signed with ‘warmest regards’ from the Assistant Front Office Manager, and I was asked to note the ‘key facilities’ of the hotel, so that I could enjoy a ‘memorable stay’! The room card holder gushes on this theme too: “Our team is committed to making your stay not only comfortable but also memorable in every way” – I am sure the experience I had is not the ‘memorability’ that the hotel had in mind!
The room has a beautiful view onto Table Mountain, especially on the 8th floor level. It has a comfortable desk, with the clever placement of plug points above the desk, and not below it. A table had a welcome bottle of Doolhof wine, some fruit, chocolates and a plate with pannacotta on it. The bathroom is well-appointed, with bath and shower, and Molton Brown bathroom amenities. It is not the most luxurious hotel room that I have stayed in, but it appeared comfortable and spacious.
Prior to the Gastronauts dinner we had sparkling wine in the lobby, being a glass of Môreson Solitaire MCC NV (Veritas Gold). The hotel would have known how many persons were booked for the dinner, but the sparkling wine had run out when I arrived, the waiter told us. It took some time before he found some more of it. We were served canapés, being gruyere profiteroles and white asparagus jelly. We were ushered into Mint restaurant, and I was told at which table I was to sit. I chose a place in the middle of the table, and was then forced to move from this seat, as the chair was booked by another member, I was told. There were no name cards on the table, and I was most determinedly moved by the Beverages Manager. In the end it turned out to be a blessing, sitting with Angelo and Tina Casu from Grand Dedale, Samarie Smith from Die Burger and her partner Paul Swanepoel, with Takuan von Arnim and his wife Christiane of Haute Cabriere, and Michael Pownall, GM of the Taj Hotel. Michael came to South Africa for the opening of the Cape Sun in 1994, then opened La Vendôme Hotel in Sea Point, moved to the Mount Nelson Hotel, and then spent some time in America for Orient Express, the owners of the Mount Nelson, amongst others. Michael and Angelo worked together at the Cape Sun and at the Mount Nelson. In 2008 Michael returned to open the Taj Cape Town, a challenge as he was involved in the renovations, which incorporated the old Board of Executors and the South African Reserve Bank buildings.
The set menu, without choices, was printed on hand-made paper with an orange and gold-embossed backing, and rolled up with a ribbon, looking elegant and unusual. Three sets of cutlery were laid out per guest. Willowcreek olive oil and balsamic vinegar were on the table, as was a basket of delicious mixed rolls. The Gastronauts dinner and wine pairing was good, and the service excellent. The dinner had been specifically paired with 2010 Gold and Double Gold Veritas award-winning wines, Bennie Howard, the Gastronauts’ chairman and Veritas Awards’ Deputy Chairman, and the Taj head chef Sayam Longani pairing the food courses and the wines. The starter was a duck and goose liver terrine which was served with an interesting grape compote, and thinly sliced toast, and was paired with De Wetshof Finesse Chardonnay 2009 (Veritas Gold). Bennie told us that De Wetshof makes eight excellent Chardonnays, and that the Finesse goes well with food, being rich and elegant. I did not enjoy the sage-baked kabeljou, finding it dry and rather boring, but it was paired with a heavenly Cederberg Chenin Blanc 2010 (Veritas Double Gold), a delicious fruity wine. For the pairing of the softest deconstructed Karan Beef Wellington, served with the cutest porcini mushroom pie, we were offered two wine choices – Bilton Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (Veritas Gold) and the Lamond Cape Agulhus Syrah 2008 (Veritas Double Gold), and for many the Bilton was the preferred wine. Dessert was an unexciting dark chocolate parfait with orange jelly, and one had the choice of pairing it with a yummy Fleur du Cap Noble Late Harvest 2009 (Veritas Double Gold), or a Van Rhyn’s 12 year brandy (Veritas Double Gold). Friandises were served with a choice of coffees, to round off a lovely evening.
After dinner I wanted another cappuccino, and I asked a staff member of the hotel when the Twankey Bar closes. She told me at about midnight or 12.30 am. I went to pop in at Brio first to have a coffee there, and then went to Twankey. It was 23h20. There were other guests in the bar. When I asked for a cappuccino, I was told that the bar was closed, as they had cashed up already, despite the other guests still being there. I asked the waiter if he could add the coffee to the room bill, to which he answered in the affirmative, but no coffee ever arrived. He was very keen for me to use the hotel bar, which I did not see nor was I shown – I thought it was the Twankey! When I returned into the hotel, I was welcomed back once again by the doorman, clearly a standard line.
On my return to the room at about 11.30 pm the turn-down had been done, and a letter of departure (I had not used the room for more than an hour at that time) was already waiting for me, thanking me for my choice of hotel, trusting that I “had a memorable time”, and wishing me “a safe journey onwards”. It also requested that I complete a Guest Feedback Survey, and stated that “all at Taj Cape Town look forward to welcoming you back to our special hotel in the very near future”. The survey has some oddities – it refers to “associates anticipating and meeting your personal preferences” and the “ability of our associates to ensure no disturbances occur…”, meaning that the staff must be referred to as ‘associates’, a first in the hospitality industry, to my knowledge.
Needing to do some work, and always working with the television on, I tried to find channel 23, which the TV list said was Deutsche Welle. I wanted to pick up on the latest news about the resignation of the German Defence Minister. I could not get the remote to change anything on the TV, and had to work out how to use the phone to call for help. I could not be advised about the TV channels on the phone, and was told that someone would call me back. A knock on the door presented the duty manager and her colleague. She arrogantly told me that the use of the remote to find the TV channels was self-explanatory! However, it was not that clear to her either, as she struggled for about ten minutes to get to channel 23 ! However, channel 23 was set on ProSieben (an irritating common channel) and not on Deutsche Welle. I was told that they could not send an IT person to my room to fix the problem immediately, and would only be able to do so the next morning, when I was due to check out! I explained to the Duty Manager that they just needed to change the programme selection within the German bouquet. I heard nothing further, and had to call again. I was promised a call back, which did come some time later, but I could not work out how to answer the room phone. I then called the Front Desk. Here a new person answered the phone, telling me that his colleagues had left for the day, and that I would have to wait for IT for the next day to fix the “Dutch TV” problem!!! Once again a communication problem between staff was evident. By now I had quite enough, and decided that I could only escape this service nightmare by checking out and going home. Michael Pownall was standing at Reception when I left, and asked what was wrong. I promised him a report. Kindly he sent a staff member to accompany me to the Mandela Rhodes Place parking garage, and once again I carried all my belongings myself. So I did not get to try out The Taj Cape Town bed, the bathroom, the pool, or the breakfast, but I was far happier once I had left for home.
The Taj Hotel has a nice GM, and good staff at Mint Restaurant, but the Reception staff have a ‘falseness’ about them, being like ‘tape recorders’, saying the same thing over and over again to each guest without the ability to vary their standard message, and do not have complete information about the hotel (e.g. the Twankey Bar closing time), or about their guests. The staff arrogance is a shame, as The Taj Cape Town is so beautiful, and could be welcoming to Capetonians too. I did not experience five-star service at The Taj Cape Town, and certainly did not have a ‘memorable stay’!
Taj Cape Town, Wale Street, Cape Town. Tel (021) 819-2000. www.tajhotels.com
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage