Saturday, April 28, 2007

Spending Money Where You Sleep

Hotels charge you for the room and hope to recoup the cost of utilities, staff, maintenance, supplies, taxes, rent, insurance and on and on. They hope to get another little margin of profit from honor bars, in-house bars and eateries, parking, gift shops and such.

Our two main hotels for our Western adventure of 2007 were the El Dorado Hotel and Spa in Santa Fe and the Valley Ho Hotel and Spa in Scottsdale.

The El Dorado hoped to get thirty or forty dollars extra during our stay for the use of the Internet. Only it didn't work in our room and it was inconvenient to change rooms when they offered. I felt a little put out at them over that. OK, a lot put out. FFP had a massage in the spa (in fact he was getting it when they offered the room change which was after I'd found a cafe and checked email) but other than that we didn't give them one penny more than the room rate (which was plenty) and the taxes and the eighteen US dollars a day to park. We eschewed the mini bar. We didn't dine in their fancy restaurant (although the menu posted looked good). We didn't have drinks in their rather cold and cavernous lobby lounge. We didn't order room service and drank the (free) coffee from the little pot in the room. We went to the Internet Cafe pictured for free Internet access and bought coffee and other drinks from the cafe. We ate and drank at other restaurants.

Now at the Valley Ho they gave us a mega upgrade. The wireless access worked flawlessly. And is free. It might follow that I
  • drank a beer out of the mini bar
  • ordered expensive pots of coffee from room service
  • let FFP buy a T-Shirt, watch and sun block in the gift shop
  • bought an over-priced insulated cup in the gift shop for myself
  • ate two meals on the patio in the ZuZu restaurant
  • had drinks at the associated Trader Vic's
Those extras make money for the hotel. Only when you get pissed off about something you hold back and don't buy stuff.

So word to the wise, hospitality guys: if I feel well-treated and not ripped off then I spend money on the other stuff. And, hey, I was actually willing to pay $9.95 a day for wired access. You just had to make it work in a timely fashion. Of course, free access would have been better. The free apples in the gym, The New York Times (so much better than USA Today) and all that loosen up my credit cards. El Dorado: I might have dropped some other bucks in your hotel. Except. It just felt like a rip. Your loss.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Unworthy Customers

In Santa Fe you constantly see examples of the old customer adage "you never know who is going to be an important customer, so treat everyone like the most important one." OK, maybe it's not an old adage, maybe I just made it up, but it's a good one. Anyway, in Santa Fe when you go into an art gallery, the people running it are almost unfailingly nice. Even if you are in your jeans and hiking boots and you just want to chat about art you already own and how you are downsizing and actually selling the art you already own, they will show you stuff, tell you tales, make you feel like a customer.

Now, when we decided to visit Santa Fe we knew we would go to art galleries and wander through enjoying some, shaking our heads over other stuff. And we knew we wouldn't buy anything. But we knew we would be customers of a few dining and drinking establishments.

Restaurants occasionally fall into a mode where some customers are more equal than others. Why I don't know. Every customer is spending money. I guess they figure if you are a regular or a restaurant critic, it matters more how your experience goes. There aren't any consequences, in other words, of giving you a lousy table or otherwise spoiling your experience if they don't know (or care) who you are. You already showed up and they will just charge you the prices on the menu. No loss.

Well, I guess the restaurant folks may be right. But since I started this blog, I figure there are consequences. My three or four readers will find out how I was treated at and what I think about these restaurants.

Everyone we asked about Santa Fe said Geronimo was the fine dining choice. So I made a reservation a long time ago, many weeks ago, for the night of the first full day we'd be in Santa Fe. A Monday.

Things started fine. While we were having delicious NMex food at Tomasita's for lunch someone named 'Ronni' (I'm guessing the spelling, it was a woman) called on my cell phone to get assurance that we would show up for our reservations. I assured her that we would. I thought this was a good sign. In retrospect, though, I think it meant that they were trying to give away our reservation to someone 'more important.' Maybe not.

We arrived a couple of minutes early. We immediately noticed a fireplace in front with tables set in front of it. Since indoor areas seem stuffy there anyway we hoped not to get one of those. We should have been so lucky.

FFP thinks the hostess said she 'had us at table 40.' Table forty was back a room and set for four (we'd only had a reservation for two for sixty days or so after all) and it turns out that four would be very very uncomfortable at this table. Shoehorned by a gas log fireplace, it had a banquette and two chairs on the opposite side of a narrow, not-intended-for dining (legs on outside) table. The hostess suggested that we both sit on the banquette. I wasn't interested in being by the fire and, as it turned out, two people could not sit on one side of the table very easily because to avoid the legs I had to move the extra chair well out of the way. My chair was apparently partly broken because as I squeezed in and scooted away from the leg that banged my knee the seat back and seat moved apart and gave me a mega blood blister on a finger.

So was this the worst table in the restaurant? No, it was the worst table in all of New Mexico. Because just to my right was a corridor and every waiter going to the kitchen with dirty dishes or coming from the kitchen with plates and every customer coming and going to the toilet had to pass through this corridor. I started doing a scientific stufy (well, maybe not scientific) of the average time we were left in peace without interruption. The longest was 30 seconds. Sometimes there was no break. Usually I'd count five, six, seven seconds and someone would go into or out of the corridor.

Now we should have asked for another table. But we didn't. So I can't tell you if they would have accommodated us.

But I will say they were serving the foie gras on chocolate cake. I'll go a lot of places with a good chef. But I won't go there. So I had a tuna and smoked salmon appetizer which was just okay. When I ordered the lobster and salmon entree I should have known that something was going to be off. The waiter said, "Now the lobster is spicy and it's served atop a cold salad." I guess other diners complained? Well, I got it anyway. The spice was cranked up a bit but that was fine. Overall it just didn't come together. The lobster and salmon were not mated in a meaningful way. The whole thing was served on a narrow curving dish that meant that my food was hard to keep on the plate. I hate that. FFP got some dish that combined fish with short ribs. You know when you go someplace like that with a chef, it has to work! We ordered a $20 retail bottle of Chardonnay for which they charged eighty bucks.

Did we have dessert and coffee. Um, no.

We retrieved our car and went back to the hotel. We asked ourselves if there were consequences for the restaurant. Probably not, we decided. But it wouldn't keep me from expressing my dissatisfaction in this space.

We did find places we liked in Santa Fe. The much-touted Cafe Pasqual's was everything we dreamed of. Fresh, flavorful, friendly service. Yes, it was crowded. But all tables were equal and you could actually dine at them without being assaulted by the service for every single table. We liked it so much that went back the second time for breakfast. The smoked trout hash and the motulenos were delicious. FFP had a breakfast chile relleno, too, that he loved. We tried to go back for dinner but were thwarted by the line. (They do take reservations.) We also enjoyed Il Piatto, too, where the pumpkin ravioli, apparently a signature dish, was wonderful. Service was friendly and they didn't have any table that was really so bad that it could be compared to number 40 at Geronimo.

Every customer's experience has consequences. We didn't try SantaCaFe on this visit because Austin's food critic for the local paper went there three times and had three bad experiences.

We love dining. And sometimes good experiences are expected and not realized. Other times good experiences are just stumbled on.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Save the Earth! Free the Internet!

We are in Santa Fe at the moment and yesterday we wanted to sit and read and have coffee and we only found a Starbucks. We asked for brewed coffee, a tall. (This is small for those not schooled in this Starbucks BS.) We asked for a real cup since we planned to sit in the place and consume it. This seemed to completely baffle the Starbucks employee. She showed us a rather large ceramic cup and said she did have these but they held more than the tall (which is small remember).

"Do you just want me to put the amount of a tall in it?" she asked.

"Um, yes."

I didn't look and see if she used a disposable cup to 'measure' the amount. I couldn't have taken it if she did.

I guess Starbucks doesn't want to wash dishes. They want you to take those awful cups with the cardboard rings. And a plastic lid. Even to sit in the place and have your coffee. They are good citizens of the world, though. They have signs about how fair trade their coffee buying is and they sell this water from a company that purports to donate a nickel for each bottle to a charity that provides clean water to the third world.

Today I'm typing this in the Ecco Espresso and Gelato bar. The coffee automatically came in a ceramic cup when I said I was dining in. The sizes are 'Small, Medium and Large.' The wireless Internet is free. I'm using the Internet here because my fancy pantsy hotel purports to have wired Internet for $9.95 a day but it doesn't work in my room. I always check if there is Internet before picking a hotel. But sometimes they lie. We stayed last night in a less well-situated chain for about a third of the price. Free wireless. It would be funny if it weren't so sad. I like my high thread count sheets and fancy shampoos and soaps as well as the next person. I like a great location. But get the Internet together guys. I don't want to spend my vacation on customer support!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Perils of Wal-Mart

There has been lots of press of late in Austin about the neighborhood opposition to the Wal-Mart project at the site of the old Northcross Mall. Elegant renderings of native limestone buildings surrounded by native Texas plants have been presented by the Bentonville set. In their defense, they 'voluntarily' made changes. And no tire shop either. And they might not be open all night and will (somehow) keep their big semi delivery trucks off the neighborhood streets. Opponents counter about the parking garage, traffic and their vision for a mixed-use development on the property. I suspect that WalMart will win. They already have approval, after all.

But today I was in Brownwood. My husband picked up a Brownwood paper and found the police blotter cluttered with Wal-Mart crime. Is that because nothing else is open in the wee hours when everyone but Wal-Mart employees, shift workers, criminals and drunks are asleep? Anyway, in Brownwood I doubt their was a protest of the Wal-Mart perched on the highway amid the chains and dollar stores.

But these police reports were funny and make a case for not having Wal-Mart in your neighborhood. One guy objected to an ID check for his smokes purchase and verbally and physically abused customers and employees and employees and police gave chase to the Dollar Store. (This guy struck a jailer with a shoe hurled from his foot after arrested. There you go.)

"In unrelated incidents" (don't you love that?): an officer responded to a disturbance at (you guessed it) Wal-Mart where a guy who was eating donuts, candy bars and beef jerky in the store told the cop he was "chillin' dawg." And then another officer responded to Wal-Mart where a woman was stealing laxatives and her companion sunglasses. The man was cited for theft! But there's more! Another officer was dispatched to (yep) Wal-Mart because a guy took a cooler into the store and tried to put a 30-pack of beer (I never heard of a 30-pack of beer!) in it.

So, yeah. Wal-Mart. Crime wave. Whatever.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bad Connection

That's what my Dad's cell phone looks like. [Although maybe there is no picture there. Suddenly for my blogs the pictures don't show up.] Anyway, my Dad's cell phone. He never uses it. But we share minutes and he has it if he really needs it. And happens to be carrying it. So it goes. (Not to get all Kurt Vonnegut on you.)

Anyway, a few weeks ago I started noticing on my phone (which I talked about here) that I was getting missed calls from, I think, an 866 number. I didn't think anything about it. No messages were left.

Then one day I happened to be paying attention to my phone when it vibrated and I answered it and it was this 866 number (I think, something like that) and it was someone with a hard-to-understand accent trying to hard sell me a new phone. And a new plan, of course. Not only was the person hard to understand because of an accent but the connection was bad. And, usually, my connection is crystal clear. In any case, I told them I didn't want a new phone or plan.

But the calls kept coming. Different accents. Always a scratchy connection even though my other calls remain crystal clear. Finally I got one with a hard-to-understand accent and this real pushy attitude. "The new phone we are GOING to give you has a NEW plan." Still a poor connection exacerbating the accent.

"I haven't agreed to a new phone or plan. I'm happy with my phone except for you people calling on it and bugging me about a new phone or plan."

"We can put that in our records," she said. I think anyway.

"Yes, please do."

Isn't it funny that these are the only calls that sound like they are coming from Mars via India? And they are from my cell phone company trying to sell me something.