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Beijing Sheraton Great Wall. China Writ Large Or Me Just Being Petty?

Posted in China Business

So before anyone accuses me of being angry, petty and spoiled, let me flat out say that I cop to all of those things.

But here goes.

I am Starwood Platinum – Starwood’s highest level of loyalty in its frequent stay program. According to Starwood, this means the following:

Our highest level, Platinum, is reached after completing 25 eligible stays or 50 eligible nights in a calendar year.

As a Platinum member, you’ll receive all the benefits of Preferred, plus much more: upgrades to best available room at check-in, including Standard Suites.

Our signature Platinum Concierge service to help you arrange just about anything regarding your visit. It’s service tailored to your needs.

Now let me tell you about my last stay at the Beijing Sheraton Great Wall.

I booked three rooms. One for co-blogger Steve Dickinson, one for me, and one for Matthew Dresden, another China lawyer at my firm. When I arrived, I learned that neither my room nor Steve’s room had wireless internet. This was not a problem for Steve because he has a MacBook Pro and so could use the wired network. I travel with a MacBook Air (I love it; it truly has 14 hours of battery life!) and it has no ethernet port. This meant that I needed wireless internet. I was told that to get wireless internet I would need to pay about $100 a night more to upgrade to a suite. I pointed out to them that if there is a suite available I am supposed to be upgraded to it for free in any event, but they wouldn’t budge. So I signed up for the suite. Not an auspicious beginning, and one that turned out to be rife with foreshadowing.

Matthew came a few days after Steve and me, and he brought his wife and his three year old. Steve and I ran into the three of them while they were incoming and they looked exhausted. Flying from Seattle to Beijing with a three year old (heck, even without a three year old) can do that to you. It was about 7 pm and Matthew went with his family to his “non-smoking” room. The room reeked of cigarettes so Matthew requested a new room, which he was given.

Matthew and his family were soon asleep. Big mistake.

Maybe two hours later Matthew heard what sounded like someone coming into his room. He looked up and standing there was a Chinese businessperson, in a suit and tie. He mumbled something in Chinese (Matthew is fluent in Chinese but not so much in this sort of situation) and then scurried out. Matthew got up, double-locked the door and went back to sleep. His family did the same.

Maybe twenty minutes later, a peeved front desk person called Matthew to tell Matthew that he didn’t have a reservation for his room and that he didn’t belong there. Matthew, in late night Chinese, made clear that neither he nor his wife and kid would be moving.

I have never heard of anything like this, have you?

But we’re not done yet, as this is the Sheraton Great Wall….

On check-out day (Steve and I stayed five nights, Matthew and his family stayed three), Steve left early because he needed to go to Shanghai to meet with a client. Matthew and I sought to check out at around 9 am because we had a late morning Shanghai flight. I sought to pay for all three rooms but asked that the hotel not cancel access to Matthew’s room until noon (check-out time) so that his wife and kid could stay there until then. A relatively simple request, one would have thought.

But no, this is the Sheraton Great Wall.

The front desk person looked at me like I had asked him for his first born. He said nothing. For a long time. Finally I asked him to check us out as we had a plane to catch. He said that he was concerned about keeping the room open because of the mini bar. I then looked at him like he had asked me for my first born. But instead of waiting a long time, I rather quickly pointed out to him that if Matthew’s wife should go crazy on the mini-bar during the next three hours, the hotel could charge the plunder to my credit card. He again gave me a long look. This time rather panicked.  His look was one of not knowing what to do and not really having the authority to do anything. Should he take me up on my eminently sensible suggestion or should he follow orders and treat a guest like pond scum? I made very clear that we didn’t have all day and that we had a plane to catch.

He then called on someone with apparently greater authority and she came up with the brilliant idea of letting Matthew’s wife and three year old stay in the room a few more hours, but on the condition that the mini bar be locked. I was in too much of a rush (checking out by this time had already taken more than 15 minutes) so rather than pointing out how crappy the service had been and how ridiculous this was, I assented, then paid and left.

When I got back to the US, I wrote Starwood and ranted about the treatment we had received. In response, I got an email from someone at the Sheraton Great Wall, offering her apologies and asking that I stay at the Sheraton Great Wall the next time I am in Beijing. No mention of why they had charged (overcharged?) me for my room and no mention of any sort of freebie.

I wrote her back and asked her why in the world I would stay at the Sheraton Great Wall ever again when the service is so bad there and all they offer me to remedy that is an apology. She then wrote me and offered me an upgrade the next time I go. In other words, after all this, they are offering me exactly what I deserved all along.

So why did I write this post. Two reasons, actually. One because I am angry, petty and spoiled.

The other to highlight how China still has trouble getting things right. Good hardware, bad software, as people always like to say.

Now before anyone points out how ridiculous it is for me to use one hotel to describe an entire nation, I should say that I virtually always experience a number of things like this every single time I go to China. I should also say though that the number of these things does seem to decline with every visit.

Oh, and in all fairness to Starwood, its American side eventually felt compelled to step in and make things right by giving me a bucket-full of points.

What do you think?

  • Lucas Blaustein

    Ah, China… I always try to stay at the Shangri La. Hostels are also extremely nice in China. Hutong hotels to converted towel factories are the way to go. If you are a member of hosteling international you also get a significant discount.

    A lot of the expat hotels are over priced, poorly staffed, and inferior. The Hilton near the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is the easiest example. By any rating a solidly three star experience with definite five star prices.

    Sorry you had such a poor experience.

  • Jason Patent

    Wow. Painful. Anecdotally, I’ve had two great experiences of late with Chinese hotels:

    1. October 2013. Courtyard Marriott Xuhui, Shanghai. Upon unpacking after
    my return home to Nanjing, I couldn’t find my iPad keyboard. Figuring I
    must have left it at the hotel in Shanghai, I called them. They said
    they had it and that they’d send it the next day. They did, and I paid
    on delivery (around RMB 25, if I recall correctly). From start to finish
    everything was handled with the utmost professionalism.

    2. January 2014, Crowne Plaza Nanjing Xinjiekou. (Long story as to why we
    were staying in a hotel in our home city.) I had reserved a room for
    myself and my family for four nights, through Priceline. To my horror I
    discovered I had reserved the wrong Crowne Plaza: Crowne Plaza Nanjing
    Jiangning, way out in the ‘burbs, not at all convenient. I had already
    paid in full. I called Priceline, who called the Jiangning hotel, who
    AGREED (!!!) to refund me in full. The Xinjiekou Crowne Plaza then gave
    us a nice discount on our stay. Priceline deserves much of the credit
    here, but I was astounded that the Jiangning hotel even listened to
    Priceline, let alone complied.

    I’ve also had many, many other stays at Chinese hotels over the past three years and can’t think of any real problems at any hotels.

    Regarding the more general customer service question, maybe I’ve been here too long, but I don’t have many problems, and people often go above and beyond. Case in point: today we held a birthday party for our ten-year-old daughter at a local Nanjing bowling alley. I had paid a deposit of RMB 200, but
    forgot the little slip that said I’d paid it. No problem: just sign here, sir, and please tear up that slip when you get home. I’ve found this to be rather typical these days.

    Oh, one more: when we moved to Nanjing in Sept. 2011, the movers killed our waffle iron. I ordered a new one from the U.S. for $200 (Williams Sonoma…I’m a
    sucker for kitchen gear…), which I picked up during a December visit.
    The moving company’s insurance provider only wanted to reimburse $100.
    The Nanjing office of the moving company argued hard on my behalf, and
    in the end they paid the whole $200.

    Maybe I’ve just been lucky? Hope I haven’t jinxed myself…

    • Francis du Bois

      I bet a (Belgian) beer that they have no foreign management but that the hotel is ran locally. Fatal Error. I strongly believe that foreign companies operating in china should always have a foreigner on the ground in charge of the company. And only at general management level, not with a Chinese boss or things will go wrong as well.

  • lacompacida

    Any agreement or contract with Chinese entities are just words on paper that meant nothing in real life.

  • Robert Walsh

    Kempinsky hotels. Everything always works.

    • Phlegming Liberal

      I’ll second that. Knew the Suzhou Kempinsky manager and his wife, great people, great hotel.

  • Vigarano

    Very disappointing collection of comments so far, Dan. I expected far better from your readership, given that it must be one of the most China-savvy blog readerships on earth.

    And so, I have gone to my archive of letters written to hotel general managers (always write to the top guy, as I’m sure you know), and nearly at random, selected one for the entertainment of all.

    So here goes (I’ve redacted the name of the GM I wrote to; this was a handful of years ago):

    Dear ______,

    Thanks very much for getting in touch last week during my stay. I apologize for rushing off the phone when you called but the entire week was flat out and coming down with a bad cold or flu during my stay did not help matters.

    I’m writing because the stay was so dreadful it was almost funny, and I thought I would share with you my experiences in the hope they can be passed along to your key managers.

    On check-in, despite the withdrawal of that benefit to Diamond Club members generally, I was very kindly offered an upgrade, but the only room available was a smoking room. As I am allergic to smoke, I declined the room and was given another. No problem at all and I appreciated the effort.

    After dropping my bag in the room (which I was sharing with a colleague), I rang down and later visited the desk to ask whether we could take our breakfasts in the Regency Club lounge. Since we were not in a Regency Club room, the answer was ‘no’. Difficult for me to understand that one, since we had been offered the room (and as a result the breakfasts) only minutes before. We could not eat in the lounge, then, because I could not stay in a smoking room.

    As we had arrived late, we dashed to catch an excellent dinner downstairs before the kitchen closed. On our return to the room, we found that although it was ostensibly a non-smoking room on a non-smoking floor, it had been smoked in by the previous guest or guests. This is something that should be flagged by housekeeping and sorted before the room is cleared for re-issue. We requested a room change and got it.

    The new room was quite small, but I understand that you were full. No problem on that. Where there was a problem, unfortunately, was with the neighbors. In the next room was a large group of what I can only assume were migrant workers on a sleep-all-day play-cards-all-night holiday. Neither my colleague nor I were able to sleep from the hours of 2:00-4:00 a.m. Lucky for me, I had some earplugs in my bag. My colleague was less fortunate. I’m sure you can appreciate that in China, a middle of the night confrontation with holidaying migrant workers was not in our plans.

    The next day my colleague, ill with the same cold or flu that affected me, skipped our afternoon meetings in an effort to get some sleep (the sleep he had not gotten the previous night). He set the “do not disturb” sign but was twice rung by Housekeeping to ask if they could make up the room and once walked in on by housekeeping staff who ignored the sign. Unacceptable.

    Later that day, when I returned from my meetings, we undertook another change of room in an effort to get away from the card players … In this effort we met a very helpful fellow on your staff named Jason. Jason took us personally to a new room, which unfortunately again had been smoked in (though it was on a non-smoking floor). Jason apologized and we trooped downstairs again so Jason could check his computer. For a slight upgrade fee that I was happy to pay, Jason found us a two-bedroom suite, and that was very comfortable.

    Unfortunately the broadband did not work in either of the rooms in the suite and my colleague spent an hour on the phone to your provider before they were able to solve the problem. The problem was solved in only one of the bedrooms and was never resolved in the other. Balancing the equation, the TV did not work in the room where the broadband worked and the broadband did not work in the room where the TV worked.

    Finally, both I and my colleague badly stubbed toes on the legs of the beds, which in our view are dangerously designed (the leg terminates several centimeters from the floor in a caster – presumably this allows staff to easily move the beds, but it also allows a guest’s foot to slip under the leg and jam against the sharp caster). I bruised a toe and my colleague badly cut one toe and broke another, if you can believe it.

    All in all, not the best of stays. I hope the above is useful to you and your managers. In my view (as a very frequent traveler), most of the problems are clearly solvable through increased or improved training. I understand the hotel is in China and I understand very well the unique challenges of that environment, but you are, after all, the Grand Hyatt.

    Best regards,

    • http://www.chinalawblog.com/ Dan Harris

      And what was the end result?

      • Vigarano

        Nothing hugely interesting. An apology, a future upgrade.

        On another occasion, I wrote a series of letters on behalf of a friend (I write good complaint letter) to the GM of the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong, where my friend was a VERY good customer (150+ nights a year). After 3-4 back-and-forths, the (Swiss) GM wrote back to say, “Look, I understand your complaint, and I appreciate your position, but the [Chinese] owners have instructed me to give no compensation to guests. We’re full all the time, and they don’t care. Not the way I like to do business, but there you have it.” My friend then asked me what he should do. I said, “Well, you have two choices: accept it, or take your business elsewhere.” So he took his business across the street.

  • Tiltowait

    Gosh, I wish I could stay at the Sheraton and not worry about the cost. Even pay for a suite for no other reason than to have wireless. Spoiled is right.

    • Vigarano

      “Even pay for a suite for no other reason than to have wireless …” and conduct business while on a business trip.

      Far better to wander out into the wilds of Beijing to try to find a smoky game center every night after a (business) dinner, after a long day of (business) meetings, in order to bash out (business) emails and send and receive (business) documents.

      My guess is, Tiltowait, that Dan would have preferred to spoil himself by skipping the (business) trip to Beijing entirely in favor of a spa holiday in Bali.

  • David Oliver

    A friend of mine is GM of a 5-star hotel in China and after hearing some of his experiences I do have some sympathy for how hard it is to deliver top quality service here.

    My most recent frustrating experience was a Hyatt Regency in HK where both the room card and complimentary broadband only worked 50% of the time. The staff at reception admitted they had been having a number of issues. I did write a letter to the GM, and one of his senior management replied, but no offer of any kind of freebie during a future stay was made when I think they should have done so.

    I post reviews on TripAdvisor but have never ‘threatened’ to write a bad review while staying at a hotel with the inference that they had better do something or else. I’m wondering what experience others have had with mentioning TripAdvisor as a bargaining chip to get better service during their stay?

  • Ward Chartier

    Eventually, employees in China will learn to care. I fear it will take a major economic downturn with 1.4 billion people chasing a much smaller pool of money. Because the society is relatively highly motivated by money, only the scarcity of it will drive necessary changes in behavior.

    In the meantime, we have experiences such as the ones described in the post and the comments, and we are richer for the China war stories we have. I think that any of us who have spent considerable time in China deserve a Served in China medal. The ribbon could be red, pale yellow, and silvery gray for the blood, sweat, and tears. Add an oak leaf cluster for each weird bacterial infection one endured.

  • Andy Ungar

    If you travel with a MacBook Air, always carry an Thunderbolt to Ethernet adaptor cable from Apple

  • r_s_g

    I have to say the frequency of frustrating China hotel experiences has declined for me quite substantially over the last few years. Restaurants, on the other hand, are a different story…

    I will say that some of the newer international hotels have been very shoddily constructed, though the service is acceptable. The short-lived Sofitel in Humen, Dongguan, was a great example. Beautiful looking but several floors smelled distinctly of mold, and after being open for only a few years, it has since been taken over by a local company. I’ve run into some Grant Hyatts with similar issues–mold, water damage, etc.

    I think a lot of the international chains have cut corners on service or building quality in a rush to open as many China properties as possible. Sometimes an established, locally-run 4 or 5 star will have superior service compared with the gleaming foreign brand. But of course I understand the drive to accumulate points and status.

    And don’t get me started of this trend in Asia to put the hotel lobby on the 90th floor of the building, thus requiring guests to change elevators a dozen times to get to one’s room (and the 10,000 light switch per room trend).

  • Kung Tong Tung

    One of several million bad China experiences we all have to deal with. Now you finally get to live it.

  • http://www.tripodadvisors.com David Schlesinger

    The only thing I want to comment on, Dan, is the Mac air situation. This accessory http://store.apple.com/us/product/MD463ZM/A/thunderbolt-to-gigabit-ethernet-adapter?fnode=51 is the best $29 you will spend. I carry it everywhere and it makes the thunderbolt slot into an ethernet port. This obviously has nothing to do with any of the service issues, but it has everything to do with making your life easier.

    • http://www.chinalawblog.com/ Dan Harris

      David, we have about ten of those at my office and I actually use it every day at my desk. Just didn’t figure on needing it at an allegedly nice hotel.

  • Karl Metzner

    Probably not the worst experience at the GW Sheraton. At least the entryway didn’t collapse on you, as it did in 1993. http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1993/12-Injured-When-Hotel-Entry-Collapses/id-bf68046df284d4ea9b0a4b3200c767fb

    GW Sheraton does seem rather abandoned these days. Just running on fumes. If you want to stick with Starwood and that area, the Westin across the street is an obvious choice. Of course, it’s more expensive.

    Some big, old (but not really old) hotels have been stripped down to their structural elements and have been rebuilt (Kunlun) or are being rebuilt (China Travel at Sanyuanqiao, City Hotel). I’m curious about the economics of doing such a complete renovation as opposed to tearing the building down and starting from scratch. Maybe it’s done that way to put more people to work for a longer time.

    • http://www.chinalawblog.com/ Dan Harris

      I should indeed be thankful for small favors. I did once stay at a Beijing hotel where the ceiling by the elevator came down, but I was out and about when it happened and as far as I know, nobody was injured.

  • Robert Walsh

    The best and most consistent good stay experiences are at Orange and Hanting Chains. You get what you pay for. As for a well-run places, aside from Holiday Inn Riverside in the otherwise abominable city of Wuhan, only Kempinsky delivers consistent value. The Lido should be the IP for a B52 strike.

  • KC

    Awesome. Just saw this in my RSS feed as I am preparing to check into the Beijing Sheraton Great Wall. Hope I have better luck.

    • http://www.chinalawblog.com/ Dan Harris

      So, how was it?

      • KC

        It was OK. Had some of the same issues with the internet, but overall, it was, to put it in Chinese “很一般”… Very typical of a lot of the experiences I’ve had with Beijing hotels – not horrible, but also very forgettable. The one hotel I’ve had consistantly good service in is the Red Wall Garden Hotel; alas the location was not really ideal for this trip.

  • lisa5

    Dan, I too have a Mac Air. There’s a handy little USB to Ethernet adaptor thing that I always travel with, just in case. Very small!

    ETA: Oops! Just finished reading further down the page. Yeah. Mine is for an older Air but works on the newer model too. The Thunderbolt to Ethernet is probably a better option. Feel free to delete this!

    Lisa B.

    • http://www.chinalawblog.com/ Dan Harris

      I have that adapter (in fact I use it daily in my office for faster internet), but I rarely travel with it because who (other than the Great Wall) doesn’t have wireless internet these days?

  • Kung Tong Tung

    The Beijing Sheraton Great Wall is an old hotel. Why you stay there anyway? Its one of the cheaper hotels. The Kempinski (note American readers its not KempinSKY) is good but very German. Most successful executives go to the Grand Hyatt, Peninsula or Shangri-La. The Westin is also good. Or for good old time Beijing style that is Ok try the Jiangguo Hotel that is a legendary place many deals got done there back in the day. And fire your travel agent. You get what you pay for in Beijing as Robert Walsh said. Its time for you to upgrade and be serious. Being economical in Beijing doesn’t give you any face, you need to large it up. Everyone knows that.

  • Omario

    Hi Dan – sorry to read about all of this. I can only add that in addition to all the things you said, as well as some comments below, it seems to be a problem of proper training in China. I see this time and again in China, where international membership-subscription-etc. programs that involve China branches are never properly implemented or executed. This responsibility falls primarily on the company management, Starwood here, to make sure that everyone is briefed properly. But it usually never happens in China, whether properly or at all. Also, given how local things get here, 天高皇帝远, etc., Sheraton staff might have been trained but as I have seen things go here, they probably didn’t care at all. There’s a local superior here that they fear way more than compliance with some amorphous, far-away program. Sheraton Great Wall has been here so long it might be its own little empire now. The mini-bar issue doesn’t surprise me at all – people still live in the Cultural Revolution here – no one will trust you with five cents. That’s just life unfortunately.

  • Devin Petty

    #1 I resent the title.
    #2 Go Pro or get out.
    #3 DO NOT establish residency outside of your mother land.

  • PaulR

    For all the trouble you suffered, one would think they would at least offer a complimentary hooker from the discotheque off the lobby….