I'm currently traveling abroad for a couple of weeks. Being out and about gives me some opportunities to comment on other sectors of the worldwide travel industry I'm not usually exposed to.
Half of the current trip is business, half is vacation. The two halves of the trip are studies in contrasts. I think it goes without saying that traveling for business and traveling for pleasure are entirely different worlds. This is especially true if you work for a big corporation that subscribes to the typical business travel mindset, as mine does.
In particular, I find myself staying at the so-called business hotels, the big chains with skyscraper designs in the middle of the business district. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. They’re certainly nice hotels. But there’s a game being played there that goes against what is sensible and natural. If you’re not a regular work traveler, you might not even realize what a business hotel is really about.
Fun fact: chains like Hilton and Marriott do not care about vacationers at all. Well, they do at a few of their properties. Maybe in Hawaii or something. But you know who the Phoenix Airport Hilton cares about? Business travelers. Hook one salesman who spends two hundred days on the road and it's worth more than a hundred families out on a weekend trips. To that end, the expense account is the opium upon which the Hyatts of the world grow high upon. And they’ll fight tooth and nail to get them.
Mega chains compete for these dollars in all sorts of ways. Mainly, they schmooze travel departments of big companies in an attempt to get preferred status. This may mean kicking the odd rebate to a good customer, but it’s usually worth it because there are dollars to be made off business travelers that could never be had from typical vacationers.
Did you ever wonder why the San Diego Hilton charges you $12.95 for internet access on top of $330 to stay there? Because a business will for pay for it and an employee will pay it because it's not their money they're wasting. Same for a $29 breakfast buffet (which the San Diego Hilton also offers).
The really scary thing is that otherwise-logical people regularly accept these terrible deals. I have, every time I go to San Diego for a conference. The reason’s simple: it’s not my money, and it’s certainly allowed under our travel guidelines. And that’s exactly why big chains only care about business travelers.
The main motivator to me (the business traveler me), the thing that topples over the last vestiges of common sense, are the reward programs. Throwing me a free night every once and a while is a cheap way of keeping the milking cow in the barn.
The thing about the rewards points is that sometimes you actually use a few. A few days ago, I burned some points for a few days at the very nice Hilton Diagonal in Barcelona.
This was one of the first times I’d stayed in a business hotel while not actually on business. I found the whole experience vaguely unsettling. Armed with a corporate credit card, I’m a bulletproof T-Rex. Without one I’m like a small furry critter at the bottom of the food chain, flinching at the prospect of a $23 omelet from room service.
Getting on to my story: there’s a little game I play when traveling: I try to find the absolute worst value proposition offered by a hotel. In America, that distinction goes to a snooty Washington, DC hotel that I will not name that charges $54/day for non-garage parking. Abroad, my biggest find occured during a trip to Rwanda, where we were charged $53 for laundry in a country where the average daily wage was around $6.
Anyway, after arriving at the Barcelona Hilton, I played began playing the game, starting with our room's minibar.
Down at the bottom, just below the 6 dollar mini can of Pringles, was a listing for a Preservativo, spanish for ‘condom’.
“Susan, there’s a nine-dollar condom in the mini fridge,” I announced.
“Bullshit,” she shot back.
“Check it out,” I said, cleverly hiding the fact that I was too lazy to get up.
Susan rummaged through the fridge. “I’ll be damned – you’re right.”
Surprised it was actually there, I struggled to my feet and had a look. There it was, a single off-brand condom perched to the left of the chocolate selection on a pressure sensor that would report the charge the very instant the love glove was plucked from the fridge.
"It's eight euro," I said. That's like nine bucks - for one. It's, like, a two thousand percent mark-up."
“That’s crazy,” Susan agreed.
“Yes," I agreed. "This should take first place in the biggest hotel ripoff contest."
Now, though, I'm not so sure. In the middle of the night, jet lag awoke me. In the predawn darkness, I found myself sitting before the minifridge, pondering a six dollar can of Pringles to ease my insomnolent torpor. A thought distracted me though: was the condom I had vilified by day really so overpriced? If the situation really came down to it, a condom is perhaps the only nonessential item on earth I would willingly part with nine dollars on. Perhaps, in my rush to judge, I overlooked true value in a misguided attempt to label corporate greed.*
Then I looked at the 6-pack of Oreos that was going for seven bucks and realized I had it right the first time. I shut the damn fridge and went back to bed.
*Susan was unimpressed when I later shared these thoughts. "Stop waxing poetic over the condom in the minibar," were her exact words.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.