There’s a knock at my hotel room door.
“For you, sir.”
An hour later, a young lady is squeezing my hand.
“How does that feel?”
“Um…it’s lovely. Thank you.” (I feel the urge to thank her with a handshake, but she’s already doing other things with her fingers). “I type a lot. My fingers, sometimes they cramp. Any suggestions?”
“You should try our full massage treatment.”
Look, I’m just having my first hand massage ever. This is too much hedonism in one go. Do I look like a European?
“And this one has a fascinating history…”
Richie Barrow, Assistant Food & Beverage Manager, is waving a bottle of tonic water that doesn’t have “Schweppes” on the label. I’m having explained to me how complicated a drink gin & tonic is. I sip a few samples. He’s not wrong. I grab my notebook and write “Tonic water, blog post, amazing”, underline it a few times and keep listening. I would be learning a lot here, except that gin is starting to having an effect.
We’re in a hotel kitchen that isn’t even remotely hotel-kitchen-hot. Executive chef Malcolm is doing fascinating things to Nephrops norvegicus, better known as “true scampi” or langoustines. I can’t get over the fact that I can breathe in here. Where are the clouds of superheated steam, the drips of condensation, the irony of cooking while being cooked? None of that in evidence – they’re using industrial-scale induction cooking, keeping the air eerily cool. The langoustines have their own little tasting spoons, and I grab one. Down in one go? Well, okay. Seems disrespectful, but…mmph.
I fight the urge to ask if I can have another 50.
I could go on, you know. I could try to walk that tricky line between Telling You About The Thing and Smugly Gloating About Having Had The Thing. I probably wouldn’t manage to do it very well, partly because I really did have a wonderful time at the Sheraton Grand Hotel And Spa in Edinburgh, and partly because I’m probably way over that line already. Pardon my smugness. I can’t help it.
So does that mean I’m compromised?
There’s a lot of talk in travel blogging about the role of sponsorship. For some people, sponsorship equates to selling out. Working with a tourist board, with some kind of travel industry client, with anyone interested in using your skills to help create buzz that will result in sales of something they’re selling, is selling out. Not travelling under your own steam & financing everything yourself? Then you’re in someone else’s pocket. That kind of argument.
It’s common. And it’s slopppy thinking. As Pam Mandel says so eloquently here, if you’re doing your job right, sponsorship should change absolutely nothing about your relationship with your readers (the people you’re really answerable to, the people who entrust you with the power to pursue that sponsorship in the first place) - and in an ideal world, those readers would understand that when you work with sponsors, you’re still looking out for your readers. The way you nurture that trust is in the work you produce. Produce crap that doesn’t serve your audience, and you jeopardize that trust. Lie to them, and you’re in real trouble.
So, here I am at the #MeetYouThere promotional event at the Sheraton Edinburgh Hotel, and everyone is being incredibly nice to me and I’m having a grand time. And I won’t lie to you – I’m feeling a little uncomfortable. This is manifesting itself as a conversation I’m having with myself.
Why am I here?
You’re here to do a job, Mike. You remember? The whole “travel blogging” thing?
No – why am I here?
I belong on hillsides, being rained on. Lurking miserably under park benches in Bologna. Catching wrong trains, being robbed in Germany. You know – suffering.
You’re telling me you’re…too comfortable.
I guess I am, yes.
What is wrong with you, man? Is this professional? Do you want to be uncomfortable when you travel? What if word gets out that you expect to be miserable? “Oh yes, Mr Sowden, we’ve lined up a lovely little straw-lined broom cupboard for you to sleep in, nice and filthy, just your thing,” or maybe “Hi Mike, we hear you’re a travelling disaster, so we’ve alerted the local fire brigade…“
I open my welcoming letter from Sheraton.
NOW LOOK WHAT YOU DID, MIKE.
Wow – great guest engagement…
YOU’RE MISSING THE POINT, MIKE.
The reason I’m at the hotel is to investigate its social media strategy. As I said for my write-up for Travelllll, what Sheraton are doing with social media is smart, and it’s this: they’re letting people be honest. Everything that is said about the hotel, the One Spa, the One Square restaurant and any of the other facilities is aggregated onto a hub page that Sheraton are hosting for all their hotels. Everything that’s said about them is up there for all to see, good and bad. (Note the presence of a feed from Trip Advisor – a controversial company in recent years, but still the biggest out there).
They also track everything that’s said. If I went onto Twitter right now and wrote something absurd like “I’m a little teapot, short and stout – #SheratonEDI”, I half suspect I’d get a tweet back saying something like “Holding Yorkshire Tea, Mike?” Because that’s the other half of the power of their approach – they have teams of people who monitor feedback and respond where appropriate. Those customer relations triumphs that you hear about regarding Twitter, where someone sends a complaining tweet and it’s acted upon in a timely manner? They want that kind of win – if they haven’t had it already.
(When I reluctantly skipped the main course at dinner because I had a migraine, I was sent a tweet asking if I was ok and if I needed anything sending up to my room. Really impressive. Also, slightly unnerving that they knew the first thing I’d do before crashing is to check my Twitter account. Obviously I now look like the Internet addict I really am).
If you’re on a 5-star budget, I would unreservedly recommend a stay at this gorgeous (and newly-renovated) hotel. It’s filled with incredibly relaxing, super-comfortable spaces, and yet there’s almost too much to do. Everyone I met was smiling and helpful, in an apparently genuine, approachable, “how can we help?” way. That, right there, is what I regard as true professionalism – the ability to engage with people as people. Quite the skill, and I saw a lot of it at the Sheraton Edinburgh. Reflective of the average guest experience at the hotel? That’s for online reviews to decide…
Ah, honesty. It’s scary, but it gives you a credibility you cannot obtain by any other means. Sheraton want to be transparent about what they have to offer, let people respond honestly, and then manage those responses to improve their service. In a sense, their primary focus is serving their “readers” – both the people debating a stay at the hotel based on reviews and social media buzz, and the people who are doing & have already have done so. Their online reputation is the work they’re producing, and what results, if all goes according to plan, is trust.
They’re a good example to follow.
All photos – Mike Sowden.