Once upon a time, not so long ago, checking into a hotel used to be a straight-forward process. You would supply your name, a receptionist behind a desk would tally this against their list of bookings in a hard-backed ledger, and – all things being in order – you would be handed an old-fashioned key with a plastic fob too large for your pocket.
How times have changed. Arrive at a hotel in 2017 and – especially if it is at the luxury end of the spectrum – you can expect an experience which goes way beyond the basics of polite greeting and bags conveyed to your room, and veers into the specifically personal.
If you have stayed in a hotel of three-star rating or above during the last half-decade, you will probably have noticed that the television has started saying hello to you.
Not verbally, perhaps – but when you first stroll into your room, road-weary and pulling off your coat, there it is on the wall – that sleek flat-screen, flashing your name and casually mentioning what time happy hour will be kicking off in the moodily lit bar downstairs. Simple stuff, of course – the hotel has your details as a first point of contact.
But increasingly, the check-in procedure, particularly at five-star level, is becoming tailored to individual guests to a fine degree.
In this modern era of social media, Instagram feeds and endless smartphone connectivity – when so many of us are so very visible online – the places where we stay are learning to use what they know about us, and convert it into a welcome which is designed to make us feel very much at home.
At least, that’s the theory. A quick appeal for tales – among readers and Telegraph Travel staff – suggests that what is supposed to be clever and crafted has crossed a line into creepy.
While some nice touches are exactly that – names spelled in petals on pillows; a cheery “happy birthday” from the front desk if your red-letter date happens to coincide with a weekend away – others can feel more like excerpts from the stalkers’ handbook.
Witness the tale of a travel journalist who stumbled into their room after a lengthy journey to find their children’s faces printed out and framed on the wall. The images had been mined from Instagram – in the assumption that, as the writer was travelling alone, they might be missing their offspring.
A gross invasion of privacy? Not technically. The photos had been published on social media – we are, after all, our own gatekeepers. But a step too far? Possibly so. After initially being touched by the gesture, the journalist later took down the pictures, quietly unsettled at the thought of how they had been harvested.
There are other examples. The reader who wandered into his room to find his face recreated on a cake with unnerving accuracy (partly unnerving because it was not his birthday). Another who was presented with his face in chocolate form.
Then there is the writer who visited a hotel spa to be presented with a bowl of gummy worms – and an apology that the sweets were not gummy bears, her favourite, as she had at some point mentioned in a social media posting. And the journalist who found that she had been added to a WhatsApp group that included the hotel manager and other guests – on the off-chance that she wanted to share her thoughts on the property, or perhaps suggest a get together (she really didn’t).
I have also “enjoyed” this over-extended personal touch. On a recent trip, I stumbled off a long-haul flight, caught a taxi from the airport, checked into what was an admittedly lovely and stylish property in a prime city location – and found my face staring back at me in giant, decidedly disturbing, blown-up fashion.
What’s more, in each example – there were about six of them – my head had been transplanted onto someone else’s body. The hotel’s “social media concierge” – yes, such a thing does exist – had spent a portion of his day scrolling down my Twitter account, selecting images posted in earlier travel assignments, and grafting them onto photographs relevant to my new location.
So there was me riding a camel, walking along the promenade, and surfing an enormous wave. I will admit that the last photo – where my image had been grafted onto some sun-bronzed Adonis, was a significant upgrade on what I actually look like on a surfboard. But that wasn’t the point. What did I think, this enthusiastic puppy of the front desk asked me, eyes agleam. I mumbled something about it being “very interesting”, and hoped he would leave quickly.
And yet, top-notch hotel brands are increasingly seeing this highly focused form of guest interaction as something both valuable and valued. Writing for the Harvard Business Review last year, Ana Brant, director of “global guest experience” at London-based luxury accommodation group the Dorchester Collection, argued that hotels should know their guests to the point of being able to gauge what type of toiletries they might require.
“Catering to the individual is what defines luxury,” she wrote. “In the luxury segment, it is the critical competitive differentiator. The challenge for any business seeking to deliver a luxury experience is to be knowledgeable enough to go beyond the standard, to have hair spray for the person who needs it whether or not it’s on a checklist.”