Have you noticed how the people who work in luxury hotels never actually use the word “hotel” to refer to the place? They call it “The Property,” or “The Resort,” or sometimes even “The Estate,” which, I imagine, is supposed to describe something much grander, more awe-inspiring and worthy of one’s hard-earned money than a mere “hotel.”
I had occasion to “experience” (their word) one such Property last week, for one night, thanks to the generosity of two friends who treated me to the trip, and, let me tell you, I might as well have fallen through a rabbit hole and straight onto the set of “Twilight Zone, the Movie.”
It’s a beautiful place — elaborate but tasteful, with a friendly, helpful staff that is courteous without being condescending, and enough space that you need a map and a scooter, plus maybe a day’s worth of food and water, to make your way from one wing to another. It’s also so empty that you can lie for hours by the pool or walk half a day on the beach without running into anyone but a hotel employee. My hosts, I’m told by a bright-eyed young woman at the reception desk, are paying for only a “standard” room (I take it that means “the cheapest”), which means I will be assigned a “standard view” (it turns out to be a tree that blocks whatever lay beyond it). It also means that I will be charged a $30 “parking fee,” a $12 “baggage fee” (which is not the same as the “baggage handling fee” — the first one is a tax on baggage in general, whether you have it or not) and (I swear I’m not making this up) a $3 “housekeeping fee.”
“Wow!” I tell the girl at the desk. “The place must really be suffering!”
She has no idea what I mean.
“To have to charge $3 for housekeeping,” I explain. “I don’t even think Motel 6 does that.”
The housekeeping fee, she explains most cordially, is for rooms booked at the discounted midweek rate.
“What’s that?” I ask. Judging by the emptiness of the place, the fact that it’s rumored to be near bankruptcy because of low occupancy, I imagine she’s going to say, $150.
“Six hundred dollars,” she says, “plus tax. The regular rate is $750.”
Six hundred dollars, plus tax, parking and baggage fees, it seems, doesn’t quite cover the cost of the room. “Management” has determined that the $3 is essential to the financial viability and superior service of The Resort.
“So,” I ask, looking around at the empty lobby and even emptier patio and dining room, “can I check into the room already?”
The girl smiles as if I’m the village idiot who’s come to the big city for the first time.
“Check-in time is 3 p.m.,” she says.
I mention that I suspect I’m the only guest at this entire “Estate” that day, and that she may, therefore, be able to find one single, solitary room, out of the 1,200 on “The Property” that’s ready for me to check into. She “invites” me to enjoy “the grounds” and wait till 3.
“The grounds” are breathtaking, but I keep getting lost every time I turn around because I can’t keep track of which tower I’m in, which set of elevators I should use and what floor I need to go to. The lobby, it turns out, is on the fifth floor; my room is on the second; the pool is on “P,” but to get to it you have to take one elevator to level five, cross from one tower to another, take another elevator to “P,” go down a set of stairs…. This, I imagine, is what it’s like to get through customs in North Korea if you’ve walked there on foot all the way from Japan.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you. The place is so pleasant I’d be happy getting lost in it any day of the year. I just can’t understand why it needs to be so empty, or pushed into bankruptcy by its creditors. Can’t “Management” lower the rates on these rooms a little? Make them more affordable without losing money on them? Isn’t making some money better than making no money?
Armed with my Economics 101 education, I march back to the front desk at The Property that evening, and ask to talk to Management.
Management is a tall, blond gentleman who embodies everything you’ve ever read and loved about Orange County and its beaches. I tell him I’ve noticed that business is slow.
“You think maybe things are a little too expensive here?” I venture. Like the one chocolate truffle I just bought at the gift shop, for example. It was $8. You can clean two and a half rooms with that.
“Our truffles are imported,” he says, so charmingly I can’t get annoyed with him.
“From where?” I ask, “Tibet?”
He thinks about it for a second.
“I can find out for you,” he says, embarrassing me with his helpfulness.
“Can’t you lower the room rates a bit?” I ask.
The rates have already been lowered, he reminds me. My $600-plus-tax is proof of that. Then he says, “Any more than that, and one risks attracting a different class of guests — the kind that steals towels and bathrobes.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but it has never occurred to me that anyone who can pay $300 a night for a hotel room belongs to the towel-stealing class. I don’t believe these hotel owners are so protective of their towels as they are of future profit margins. I think they refuse to lower rates for fear of revealing the truth about the emperor: that the rooms were overpriced to begin with. Better to suffer for a year or two, lay off dozens, perhaps hundreds of employees, many of them working for minimum wage, then come back and rake in the old profits once the economy gets moving.
If the economy gets moving — given that unemployment numbers are still on the rise and that they’ll keep rising as long as businesses such as this one stick to their guns of greed and fire employees instead of lowering rates.
Eight o’clock Friday morning, I’m served my walking papers by a hotel employee who slips the bill under my door. I call down to the front desk and ask for a 1 p.m. checkout. The girl says she has to ask Management if she can “offer” me a “complimentary hour.” She comes back a minute later.
“We’re all out of complimentary hours on The Property,” she says. “But we can offer you a 5 p.m. check out for half the room rate.”
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.