After 45 years working in hospitality and grand hotels in Britain, France, Switzerland, Martinique, Malta and Australia, Ben Sington has pretty much seen, and dealt with, it all.
The rock stars who want their room windows blacked out so they can sleep by day, guests who get frisky in the hot tub, others who want a Starbucks slushie on check-in or who demand only white flowers in their rooms.
Along the way, he’s formed some strong opinions about the hotel business – and the people it caters for – which he shares as he prepares to retire as managing director of Melbourne’s Langham Hotel on December 20, 2018.
The London-born hotelier had never been to Australia when he moved with his wife and two daughters to Melbourne from Malta in 2007 to run what has been named the Asia Pacific’s No.1 city hotel by Travel + Leisure Magazine World’s Best awards nine times.
Though trained as a cook by the same tutor as Jamie Oliver, and a talented amateur watercolourist, Sington says of hotel management, “I never wanted to do anything else”. TND asked him some curly questions.
How do I get an early check-in, late check-out or room upgrade?
We will do it if we can. The bigger the hotel, the more chance you have of all of them. If you’re a regular or member of a loyalty club, that increases the likelihood of success.
That said, it’s often not possible during busy periods like the tennis or New Year’s Eve. Guests arriving early from long-haul flights should always let us know.
Do hotels keep dossiers on their guests?
We do keep track of regular customers’ preferences. Go to housekeeping at the beginning of your stay and tell them what you would like.
I ask to have slices of lemon in my fridge so I can have it in hot water. One guest has to have four raisins in his porridge. Other people might request green tea, or skimmed milk. Build rapport with a staff member if you have the chance.
When a guest sleeps here, the room host will notice which side of the bed they have slept on, and will tell the turndown staff – who’ll put the slippers and mat on that side. If a guest uses the bath, staff will make sure the plug is on the closest side of the bath so they don’t have to reach across to get it.
Are all five-star hotels the same?
There’s a difference between a five-star hotel and a five-star luxury hotel and it’s service-led. You’d probably have to stay in one to see the difference, but many experienced travellers know and seek it out.
A five-star luxury hotel might have the same-sized rooms as a five-star hotel, but it will have valet parking, a proper spa and cocktail bar, and complimentary elements it offers guests. Little extras might include more than one towel per person.
The most unusual thing you’ve done as a hotel manager?
I’m proud to say I relaunched the tea dance at the Waldorf in London in 1985. We served high tea and had an orchestra.
[Also] talking with the Queen for 10 minutes in Malta before her state visit reception. But probably it is recreating Monet’s water lilies out of vegetables in the hotel forecourt during a Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
What constitutes good service?
Recognition of what a customer wants and giving it to them in the manner they want to receive it. Sincerity. Attentive but unobtrusive.
I’m unhappy. I want to complain
It’s always better to be polite. Be civil and clear and don’t try to throw your weight around. These days a lot of people who complain want something for free. Ask for what’s reasonable instead and you will get a better result.
What should a guest expect of a top hotel?
Service. A front door presence (we took a long time to replace a doorman who retired recently. We’ve hired a former comedian who loves to chat with guests).
Valet car parking. Good round-the-clock security has become more important with closed-circuit TV. And 24-hour room service. The chef might only get five to 10 orders a night but it makes a difference to people who want it. Turndown should be standard but many “top” hotels have now made it “on request”.
Can a concierge get me into a booked-out restaurant or show?
Generally speaking, yes, you can get anything at a price.
Our Langham “Les Clefs d’Or’ (Golden Keys) concierge got Nadal-Federer Australian Open tickets for a guest a couple of years ago. It was a lot of money but they were happy to pay.
How do I get the VIP treatment?
I tell friends to write to the general manager in advance. Why? Because nobody does. There’ll be a note put in the system, it might even get you a room upgrade.
Always advise the hotel if it’s a special occasion. Regular guests and members of loyalty clubs are always looked after.
What do you do with unruly guests, like the clients who got frisky in the hot tub?
That wasn’t in Australia, I should point out. We asked them to desist, and when they didn’t, we told them if they didn’t stop, they’d have to leave.
One of the best things in Australia is the responsible service of alcohol laws, which give you the power to stop people from drinking. If guests are noisy, we send security, who are usually able to sort it out. If there are extra people in the room – four or five in a room booked for two – we ask them to leave.
Another law that’s lesser known – minors cannot stay in a hotel unaccompanied. So adults registering teenagers into a room to celebrate an 18th have to remain with them or we have to refuse them, legally.
Where does a hotel boss stay when he’s off duty?
My favourite hotels are the Lake House in Daylesford; the Metropole in Hanoi, the Four Seasons in Maui and Bali and The Langham London.