It's the subject of books by luxury greats like Four Seasons Founder Isadore Sharp, and a mantra repeated when talking about what defines true luxury: the people.
And I was reminded of just how important those people, and their attitudes, are during a recent getaway to Mexico.
Following a fabulous, relaxing week being served by attentive, friendly staff at the upscale Villa del Palmar Flamingos in Riviera Nayarit, my husband and I got a rude re-entry to the very non-luxurious world of domestic airlines.
Upon check-in at the United counter, we were told our flight was delayed and we wouldn't make our connection in Los Angeles, so we were being rerouted through Houston. Of course, since that flight was also delayed (no crew), we would only have 30 minutes to make the connection, including customs, so we should probably carry our bags. Eager to avoid a night at an airport hotel in Houston, we chucked a $70 bottle of tequila and took our bags with us.
We were rushing out of customs in Houston when I spotted a United agent and asked her the way to our gate. Instead of helping, she gruffly informed me I had to stop and check my bag. I said the bag was a carry-on and we had no time, as our flight was soon departing. She again said my bag was too big. I said that I had just used it in an overhead bin, that the agent at check-in in Mexico specifically told me NOT to check it and that we were in a hurry and I would gladly check it at the gate when and if we made our flight.
She asked us how much time we had until our flight. I said 10 minutes. She declared that she could not "legally" let us pass with less than 30 minutes. (Did they pass a new law while I was gone?) I told her the agent at check-in booked us on that connection knowing we would have less than 30 minutes after clearing customs. She continued to argue with us and ordered us across the room to a line to be rebooked. I was so stunned I didn't try to argue -- or think to get her name.
As we got in line I recognized the escalator to the E Concourse and asked another United employee nearby it if we could make it to gate E9. He said we might, if we ran. This time there was no talk about whether we were "legally" able to try. So we refocused and ran up to the gate. We made it just after the doors were closed.
As a frequent traveler, I certainly understand, and have suffered through, many delays. I couldn't tell you how many times I have rushed through customs to make connections literally as doors were closing. However, I was flabbergasted to have been held up -- and made to miss my plane -- by an agent who seemed bent on confrontation rather than help.
We were rebooked on a flight the next morning, given $7 meal vouchers (wow, really, $7 for dinner?) and put into one of the dingiest hotels I have in recent memory had the displeasure to stay in. It took almost an hour for the shuttle to pick us up.
After all that, we were pleased to see the hotel had a bar. Unfortunately, the hotel had nobody to staff it.
The saving grace: a friendly waitress at the Hot Biscuit restaurant, who seemed genuinely pleased to see the crowd flowing in -- even if the crowd was of tense travelers from a bad day with United. She also seemed to genuinely delight in the joy she brought when she informed the weary crowd that yes, the Hot Biscuit served beer and wine. Despite the earlier hassles, the experience at the Hot Biscuit lifted our mood and again reminded me of the importance of people in determining a travel experience.
True luxury, more than anything, is the service and the traveler's resulting state of mind.
I fired off a letter to United, suggesting their agents could benefit from some remedial customer service training at the Hot Biscuit.