I recently returned from my annual bout of travel flagellation. The fact that it takes place in the bowels of the Bellagio in Las Vegas makes it easier to take, but sitting down and speaking with every travel executive on Earth is a harrowing experience.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to accept about this annual gathering is the fact that hoteliers age better than travel consultants. I know this to be true, but I don't need to be reminded of it in person each year. It must be because hoteliers do not have to spend their days tracking hotel commissions.
There were lots of five-minute meetings, hundreds of them, spaced out over five days. The consortium to which we belong gathers top travel executives like bees to honey, and this year, it seemed as though there was not quite enough honey to go around.
Though it was physically difficult to sit and talk with folks from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. before showering and then proceeding on to cocktail parties featuring small talk (what do you think I've been doing all day? I've only got so much small talk in me), this year was an almost exhilarating experience.
The vast majority of the agents I spoke with and the hundreds of suppliers were all feeling, as Larry David might put it, "pretty ... pretty ... pretty good." Business in most sectors seems strong, and the membership was eager to share their successes with one another, both privately and in open training forums.
To listen to the conversations, one would conclude that the biggest challenge facing these consultants is the difficulty they are encountering finding suitable help to process the current workload.
How odd it seemed, after the entirely positive vibes on the convention floor, to go back up to one's room to turn on CNN and find that our sense of economic comfort was somehow misplaced.
At the event, the conversation and some of the gossip again centered on the truly extraordinary job done by the staff at the Bellagio.
You kept hearing folks from all over the world saying, "I don't know how they do it."
There were, after all, 3,700 or so of us. We were the most critical group on Earth. We eat bad hotels for breakfast. Not only that, a fair portion of the world's very best hotel managers were in attendance, along with hotel concierge staff and the top agents on the planet when it comes to evaluating and booking hotels.
These were not bloggers on TripAdvisor. These were hotel professionals who know when a marble bathroom is outdated.
One of my favorite agent friends brings white "dust gloves" on every trip and runs them underneath the bed, in desk drawers, etc., to "gauge and note" the state of the housekeeping.
Another agent advises me that she always orders anchovies and raisins in a hotel restaurant just to see how prepared they are to serve guest needs. "Richard, I'm telling you, you can learn a lot from anchovies and raisins. Think about a proper Caesar salad and giving the kiddies what they want."
I'm telling you, this was a rough crowd.
So it was, as you might imagine, sort of like feeding the Bellagio to the wolves. What would the Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton, the Montage, the Dorchester, the Peninsula folks think about this Las Vegas hotel and the manner in which it treated its guests? How does a Vegas hotel meet the expectations of management from properties such as Raffles in Singapore or the Ritz in Paris?
In fact, we weren't even guests. We were, let's be honest, conventioneers. We arrived at about the same time. There were catering banquets and breakfasts and lunches for thousands. We would all be exhausted and we would have little time to wander out in the non-air-conditioned reality of the desert.
Worse still, we had pretty much seen it all before. We had traveled the world, often on someone else's dime, been upgraded and wined and dined as individuals who might bring new business to whatever property would be courting us.
So how could a hotel in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip win over our hardcore audience? I mean, this wasn't an 11-year-old hotel reviewer from Slobvodkia on Twitter. This was Valerie Wilson and her equally impressive progeny. Live.
So the stage was set for failure. But this is how it went:
I arrived in Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines. But enough name-dropping.
There was a gentleman in a tuxedo from the Bellagio waiting, and he had a nice car he had brought with him.
When we arrived at the hotel, the staff at the entrance was greeting guests by name. Check-in was handled effortlessly. The staff remembered where I had eaten the year before and asked if I would like similar dinner reservations.
For the next week, we were enveloped in the kind of service that one just doesn't associate with any but upper-tier properties catering to affluent individuals and costing perhaps four times what we were being charged per night.
Just a few examples:
- There were three calls to make certain that everything was "perfect" in our room.
- The maid introduced herself and inquired as to how and when we would like our room made up.
- Breakfasts and lunch almost always exceeded expectations, given the thousands being served in fast-moving buffet lines. There were creative frittatas, fresh-squeezed orange juice and caring table service.
During one banquet meal, I passed on the lovely but decadent chocolate tower and was immediately asked if the chef could prepare me a fruit plate. It was customized to my request, looked beautiful and arrived within moments.
Everyone on the huge staff seemed to be sincerely glad that we were visiting, and they were eager to show why they are world-class, even when dealing with a group numbering in the thousands.
Bellagio staff was universally friendly, and they would always nod and greet you despite the army of guests. Even security seemed carefully chosen for both their seriousness of purpose and their ability to make you feel welcomed.
Bathrooms were constantly being cleaned, coffee was constantly being poured.
How, I wondered, do you get more than a thousand staff members to offer anticipatory service at this level?
The design of the garden atrium off the lobby had lovely, rather interactive giant cages with lovely birds, some visiting from as far away as Australia. It took 150 Bellagio employees, working for a week around the clock, to complete the display.
Our convention of critics experienced a property that not only "handles" 3,700 people but embraces them and accepts the challenge of offering one-on-one service to those who think it impossible.
At my early-morning checkout, sans lines, the receptionist quickly presented my bill and asked me, with a slight smile, "Did we surprise you just a little bit?"
It was as if she had read our collective minds.
As we arrived at the airport, the driver signaled and Southwest's curbside check-in staff walked over to the car to take our luggage. Even Southwest respects a car that has "Bellagio" written on its side.
Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at email@example.com.