Interview: Alex reveals all!
An exclusive interview with the Hotel Inspector herself.
It's your third season as the Hotel Inspector. Did you approach the new series thinking you might have seen it all before? And did you get any big surprises?
I did dread the idea that I might have to be repeating myself. But the production team do an amazing job. When we look at hotels, there's a two-pronged attack - I get to see the taster tapes after they interview people, and I look at it from a hotel point of view. In other words, is there anything I can do to salvage this shithole; is it an interesting problem; is it a problem I've done before?
So what happens then is there's this meeting of minds. I say, "Couldn't possibly do that; what can we do to improve it; is it an interesting problem?" And the production team look at it from their perspective. But this time round there's a really good set of hotels, so yes I was pleasantly surprised!
Out of all the hotels in the new series, which did you find the most challenging to turn around?
Oh, dear. The Rutland Arms, Bakewell, because the owner was a very sprightly 74-year-old, but he was pretty slippery. He just couldn't keep his mind on any given problem, and he would always somehow manage to avoid any of the work that he was expected to do. Also, it had got into such a parlous state that I wondered how we could, in the short term, turn it round at all. I really don't know whether we've managed to, but it was the one that kept me awake at night.
So what did you do?
What we tried to do was get the owner to use his very beautiful ballroom, which was being very under-utilised, as a resource to be exploited. I spent a day doing three different set-ups, for a wedding, a board meeting and an evening party. So one with the classic big round tables and full-length tablecloths; a board meeting for 25 with the projector at the end and pencils and glasses and bowls of sweets and everything; and then the evening set-up, which was with lots of little cocktail tables. Just to show him how he could sell the room and how he could utilise it better.
You sometimes have to play surrogate mother or even marriage counsellor to the people you help. Have you had to use your mediation skills in the new series?
I think I felt less protective of people this time round, to tell you the absolute truth. There was a young man in Brighton who ran and owned the artists' residence. And if he hadn't been such a tit, I might have felt a bit more protective towards him. But he was so full of excuses for himself that I, very quickly, wasn't sympathetic.
I felt more sympathetic towards the elderly people who were involved in this series, such as the owners of Kingston House, near Totnes, who needed reassurance. I found it very hard to be tough with them. And like I said, Mr Jonegan in Bakewell really pulled at my heartstrings. But I know that being very sympathetic doesn't help anybody. I have to come up with solutions, I don't need to go there saying "Don't worry", because how does that help anyone?
How do you feel when the people you're helping struggle with criticism, or outright reject your advice?
They always do, don't they, basically...
So you're used to it.
I am used to it! I know there's this process we go through where I say something and they fight it, and they reject it, and slowly, slowly, as the understanding seeps through, they have to recognise the veracity of it.
You've previously expressed your annoyance at people entering the hotel trade with no experience of the business. So what's the best way for a potential hotelier to begin?
I would say, work in the industry. It's fairly self-evident, isn't it? What you should actually do is have a go, and see if you like it. Make a bed or two before you decide to have customers in your house. When you have a B&B you are your own kitchen porter; your own room maid; your own chef. You might as well know what it's about. Just have some experience of actually doing that day in and day out, and seeing if it suits you or not, because it just doesn't suit everybody.
Do you think people are attracted by the "lifestyle"?
What lifestyle? It's bloody hard work if you're busy, and it's incredibly depressing if you're not. Most people buy somewhere that they hope the business is going to support. So if you're not busy, and that mortgage still has to be paid, then that's another cause for worry.
Customer service is key to any business, but is the guest always right?
No, I don't think so. It's the way that people have of complaining. This happens rarely, but there are some people you know that you're never going to be able to please. They hate everything about your place, and by the end of the day it's almost easier to cut your losses and say "I'm really sorry that we suit you so ill. Can I help you find somewhere that will suit you better?" When somebody hates everything you do, from the way that you serve water to the way you make your beds, what point is there in continuing that relationship?
So what are your tips for picking the perfect hotel to stay in?
I think the main thing is to be very honest about what you want from that weekend. So, for example, if you want a quiet, romantic weekend away, ask the hotel to guarantee that there won't be a wedding that night so you're not being woken up at 4am by people throwing up in the bushes under your window.
I like a really big bed. My husband snores, and he's an octopus, so if we're in a small bed then it's misery. I like somewhere that I can roll far enough away for him not to bother me, so I always ask what size bed we are getting. At home I've got a two-metre bed, and if they say I'm getting a four-foot bed, which is nothing, I don't want it. So whatever you're looking for, get them to tell you absolutely what you're getting.
Do you think reviews sites can do more harm than good to the industry?
No, of course not! But they can be a useless tool, and they can also be abused, of course. I think if you see that one hotel has a constant litany of complaints then you probably would avoid it. But on the other hand, lots of things that people complain about are so silly, you just can't believe they've put finger to keyboard to mention them.
Perhaps people are more inclined to leave a comment when they've had a bad experience rather than a good one.
Yes! And also it's so easy now that you don't have to write, you can just tap something away, and it does ruin people's lives. Also, because you're anonymous, anybody can write anything. And although I don't believe that most complaints are generated by malicious rivals, I do think that there is the possibility for them to be abused like that.
Finally - could you tell us where you bought your red overnight bag? Everybody wants to know!
Oh god, I bought it from a shop in Brighton. And they don't make them anymore. I should probably start making them myself. Because so many people want to know, don't they? But they don't make them anymore.
Must be quite satisfying to know that you're never going to bump into anybody else with one, though.
Not really. I'd rather make some money out of it!