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TinotopiaLog → Hotel Allegro, Chicago (Review) (15 Apr 2005)
Friday 15 April 2005

Hotel Allegro, Chicago (Review)

Nicole and I recently stayed at the Hotel Allegro in Chicago. It’s at 171 W. Randolph, which, if you’re not familiar with the city, is on the north end of the Loop, very near where the big car chase in The Blues Brothers ends. The hotel is part of the Kimpton chain of funky hotels.

We stayed there entirely on the recommendation of a podcast, of all things. Not long ago, the Church of the Customer Podcast had a segment about Kimpton’s legendary customer service, and we figured that this was for us.

I generally hate hotels. I don’t think I live in the lap of luxury, but I am nearly always appalled by hotel rooms. Maybe there’s something I don’t understand about the economics of hotel operations, but I do not see why it’s not possible to provide comfortable accommodations for under $200 a night — where ‘comfortable’ means ‘equipped with the ordinary amenities that the average guest has at home’. People do not drink out of six-ounce plastic cups; they don’t sleep on foam mattresses (cheaper Marriott properties used to be notorious for this) with rock-hard pillows and under cheap plastic blankets.

It looks like in this case, I am not alone in finding these things unsatisfying, as I read that much of the hotel industry is upgrading their rooms to get rid of a lot of the nastiest elements.

I must say that the customer service we received at the Hotel Allegro was mostly pretty good: the problem was that we required entirely too much of it, because the customer experience was, well, terrible. I call ‘customer service’ the willingness and ability of a company to solve problems when things go wrong: the ‘customer experience’ is everything about your interaction with them.

My overall impression was an unusual one: that the people actually working in the hotel were actually interested in our comfort and happiness, while the company was not, particularly — at least if the way the hotel is maintained is anything to judge by. Usually the situation is just the opposite: lots of literature from Corporate HQ about how important customer satisfaction is, and dead-eyed zombies behind the counter, looking daggers at you for presuming to spend money in their establishment.

To begin with, we were first put in a smoking room on a floor that smelled like the bottom of an ashtray. As soon as you stepped off the elevator, the smell hit you in the face. A lot of places have done this: because smoking can result in nasty smells, they put all the smoking in a certain area — and then pretend nobody’s smoking there. Smoking areas can be kept perfectly comfortable, if not pleasant, if you ventilate and clean them properly. Unfortunately, these days a lot of people seem to have the attitude that people who smoke should suffer as much as possible, so you rarely see good ventilation and cleaning.

The entire building had no ventilation — about which more later — and this floor really suffered for it. After checking in, we turned on the air conditioning and went out, hoping that this would help by ventilating the room a bit.

On our way out, we stopped at the front desk and mentioned that our bed didn’t have a down blanket on it, and could this please be changed. (The room was also pretty dirty, and we asked that it at least be dusted. I suspect that our room hadn’t been occupied in a while.)

allegro-woodwork.jpg allegro-switchplate.jpg
allegro-wallpaper.jpg allegro_wallpaper2.jpg
allegro_furniture.jpg allegro_tile.jpg
Left to right, top to bottom: Beat-up woodwoork makes the place look seedy; Nasty, filthy switchplates don’t help either; Wallpaper coming off the wall under the window doesn’t make me feel like a valued guest; It’s not good in the corner, either; Minibar door falling off announces indifference; Filthy grout in bathroom is icky. Not pictured: Lumps of dust adhering to main light fixture in bedroom; Banquet-hall chair in front of the desk; Lumpy bed; Comically-small closet; Chipped and banged-up doorframe; Incredibly noisy pressure-flush toilet. Clicking on any of the pictures pops up a bigger version.

The main reason we’d decided to stay in a Kimpton hotel is that they have down blankets on all the beds, instead of the horrible nasty Vellux plastic blankets you usually find in hotels. Our bed, though, in this Kimpton hotel, had a horrible nasty Vellux plastic blanket on it.

When we mentioned this to the desk clerk, he appeared mystified, as he did in all our subsequent interactions with him. If there was any customer service (as opposed to customer experience) failure at this hotel, it was him — unfortunately, I forget his name. He was young, and looked like he might just be starting out in the desk-clerking trade. Nevertheless he wrote down our request for a new blanket and another pillow on a post-it note, and told us he’d have housekeeping look into the issue of dirtiness, and we went on our way.

Bean: closed for Tuesday through May

When we returned (from attempting to see the Millennium Bean, which was closed for polishing), we found another pillow on the bed, and another Vellux blanket in a plastic bag on the floor. The dust was all still there.

Based solely on this room, the Hotel Allegro is a dump, and nobody should ever stay there. This room cost $180 a night; for that price in downtown Chicago I do not expect luxury but I do expect cleanliness, and I expect the hotel to match its advertised description without my prodding. The room wasn’t really dirty in any absolute sense, but as hotel rooms are intimately occupied by a succession of strangers, they must be unimpeachably clean: and this room wasn’t.

I grabbed the new blanket in its plastic bag and headed back downstairs. As I was explaining that another Vellux blanket wasn’t what I was after (see also this), Young Desk Clerk Guy interrupted me and said, ‘I don’t need…’ — presumably he didn’t need me to bring the Vellux blanket down to the lobby. (Or maybe he was winding up for ‘I don’t need this’ in which case I would have leapt over the counter and started strangling him.) Luckily, at this point the other guy at the desk, named Achim and much more competent, stepped in. A good thing, too: had I been told that I was doing it wrong on the second attempt to get the hotel to bring our room up to the advertised specification, I think I would have been in a cab to the Hyatt five minutes later, after having made a scene in the Allegro lobby.

Achim stepped in an apologized. He said that some of their down blankets were out for dry cleaning, and that they’d been mistakenly replaced with the plastic ones instead of other down blankets. I think that was an artful deception, actually: I doubt they put the expensive and odor-absorbing down blankets on the stinky floor.

In any case, he moved us to another floor, and into a suite. (Or, rather, they gave us new keys and then we schlepped our stuff to the new suite on our own.) This was particularly nice, as the original room hadn’t been renovated aside from having had new wallpaper, carpet, and light fixtures (badly) installed. It would have been reasonable for a cheap hotel room in Manhattan, but this room was neither especially cheap nor in New York. The suite was about three times the size of the original room, and the furniture was all in better condition. There was also a down blanket already on the bed.

We turned the air conditioning down to 63 degrees — we like to sleep in a cold room under a warm blanket — and headed out for dinner to Club Lucky, and then for drinking at Silver Cloud.

Mmmm: Toasty.

We returned at about 9 p.m. to find the room still a balmy 73.6 degrees. We decided to give it a while longer, and so we watched a DVD on the in-room DVD player — and so learned that the easy chair in the living room was built for a pygmy and thus uncomfortable for normal people.

Two hours later, the temperature was 73.4 degrees: at this rate, to get the room down to 68 degrees would take another 54 hours, by which time we would have checked out. I called the front desk and — though this was a different clerk — was again met with incredulity. Too warm? It’s too warm in your room? What do you mean, too warm? Did you turn down the thermostat? Well, we’ll send up an engineer.

The thermostat made some clicking noises and was reset to an even 60 degrees, and a short while later the on-duty engineer appeared. He took the grilles off the radiators and found that one of them had both hot water and cold water flowing through it. He turned off the hot water and said that would help.

He also explained that they didn’t actually have their air-conditioning system turned on yet.

To comprehend what he was saying, you have to understand how large-scale air-conditioning systems work. The rooms themselves are cooled by cold water flowing through radiators, just as they are heated in the winter by hot water or steam flowing through them.

This water is made cold through a number of different means, depending on the outside temperature and humidity, the design of the system, and the need for cooling. If it’s cold enough outside, you can just run the water through a big heat exchanger that cools it down by exposing it to the low temperatures out there; if it’s dry outside, you can cool the water evaporatively; if it’s very hot or humid, you have to use an ordinary refrigeration system like the one you probably use to cool your house.

As it wasn’t very hot outside, the Allegro was probably just using a heat exchanger: they certainly didn’t have the refrigeration system turned on. The water coming through, the engineer told us, was at 50 degrees, which is marginally cool enough to do the job — if the hot-water valve hasn’t also been open. It was actually about 55 degrees outside, so if we’d been able to open the windows even a little bit the problem would have been solved: but all the windows in the hotel had been sealed; the engineer said that their insurance company had made them do this. Presumably a sufficiently misanthropic guest could toss stuff out the window and wreak some serious havoc 18 floors below — such an episode is actually part of the plot in Arthur Hailey’s Hotel (which is quite a good book, by the way).

On the one hand, I have some sympathy for the Allegro. Few places have such variable weather as Chicago in April. On the same day, you might wear both a tank-top and a parka at different times, and be perfectly comfortable in both. That you’d need serious refrigeration in a hotel in the shade in Chicago in April is not a foregone conclusion, and in many systems you can’t run the heating and the air conditioning at the same time.

On the other hand, I don’t really give a shit. I understand the challenges that the hotel faces with this particular situation, but then I expect the hotel to understand these challenges even better than I do, and to meet those challenges. This is why they get paid. If there were no challenges and no complexity to what they’re doing, they wouldn’t be able to charge money for their services.

We were ultimately offered yet a different suite that was already at a lower temperature, but as it was now after midnight and we’d unpacked a lot of our stuff, we decided to tough it out. With the hot-water valve closed, the temperature was dropping, and while it never did get down to what I would have liked, I was able to get to sleep in reasonable comfort.

The suite was, even with the air-conditioning problem, a good value for $180; but then of course the actual price of the suite, if you weren’t moved into it because of a cock-up on the hotel’s part, was a good deal more than $180 a night. It was a lot better than the original room, but it was not without its quirks: and by ‘quirks’, I don’t mean the random funky things like bottles of Mr. Bubble that make the Allegro a ‘boutique’ hotel.

By ‘quirks’ I mean the light fixture — the one controlled by the switch just inside the door — that didn’t work. It probably just needed a new light bulb, but why on earth should a guest be the one to discover this? I have no doubt it would have been fixed had I complained, but I had done enough complaining for one visit: when I discovered this, I just didn’t care any more.

Had the Allegro bothered to check out this suite themselves when they were moving us into it, they would (hopefully) have noticed this on their own. In any case, during the two days we occupied this room, housekeeping apparently never noticed the problem, either:


By ‘quirks’ I mean the shower valve installed upside-down:


This is actually dangerous, as the whole point of the strange hotel-shower temperature control thing is to make it difficult or impossible to scald yourself. Normally, when you first turn the handle, you get all cold water: turning it further introduces greater amounts of hot water into the mix, up to a pre-set point that is presumably below a temperature that would seriously injure you. Since nearly all American hotels use the same thing in the shower, too, guests are safer because they don’t have to figure out a new system every time they stay in a different hotel.

At the Allegro, though, the pipes in the wall must have been installed backwards — and then this problem was ‘solved’ by also installing the valve backwards — because as soon as you turned the water on, you got 100% hot water. Turning it further toward ‘hot’ produced cooler water.

I just want to make this absolutely clear: this valve is mislabeled in a way that’s dangerous and potentially life-threatening for particularly inattentive guests. I am not intimately familiar with Chicago building codes, but it’s also almost certainly illegal.

By ‘quirks’ I mean the GFCI receptacle that was falling out of the wall next to the sink:


This isn’t actually particularly dangerous, but it’s certainly inconvenient and probably, again, in violation of the electrical code.

And this was aside from the minor annoyances, like the grimy switchplate in the bathroom (what the heck is their problem with the electrical plates? Motel 6 does a better job), the hole in the wallpaper, the light fixture that was furry with dust, the bathroom vent ditto, and the messy tangle of wires under the desk, in full view of the entire living room:

allegro-suite-wallpaper.jpg allegro-suitedust.jpg
allegro-suitevent.jpg allegro-suitewires.jpg
(All of these, and most of the other pictures here, will pop up bigger versions if you click on them.)

I suppose it really says something about the value of viral marketing that I would be willing to risk staying in a (different) Kimpton hotel again, even after this experience. Random people on the web have no reason to lie about their experiences: if they say Kimpton hotels are good, then it’s not unreasonable to expect that they actually are good. Corporate marketing and advertising types will always say that their product is the cat’s pajamas, because saying that is their job.

However, I’m somewhat reluctant to say that our experience was just an outlier: I had three contacts with front-desk staff who were baffled by simple requests (‘blanket’, ‘cooler’), and we were in two rooms that were definitely not clean or in good condition — though the suite wasn’t absurdly so.

So how does Kimpton live up to their viral reputation for service? One of the links prominently featured on their website is ‘Kimpton Cares’. Aha, I thought. Kimpton cares! That’s impressive — a link to their customer-service people prominently displayed on the front page, instead of hidden behind ‘contact us’ in 9-point type next to the copyright notice. (Those ‘contact us’ links as often as not really just shunt you into a system designed to make sure that you don’t contact them, too.)

So I click on ‘Kimpton Cares’. What do they care about? ‘Social Responsibility’. Women’s History Month, Dress For Success (i.e. white-collar coaching for poor women who want to get ahead), red ribbons for AIDS, ‘EarthCare’, i.e. environmental causes.

They really only care about customers, at least in the ‘Kimpton Cares’ sense, if those customers are homosexuals. They feature their special gay-magazine ad, and link to their special GLBT homepage that touts their Pride discounts and so forth.

I’m all in favor of these things, too: I’m in favor of women, against AIDS, and pro-Earth. I have nothing against homosexuals, and marketing directly and specifically to the gay community is a good idea. But it turns out that the only customer service link on their site is ‘contact us’, and it is down by the copyright notice — featured less prominently than the link to their ‘diversity’ page — and it does just give their reservations 800 number and a web form to type your comments into.

Perhaps I’m not really in the market for a ‘lifestyle’ hotel: I can bring in da funk by own bad self, thank you very much. I don’t need ‘lifestyle’ from a hotel, I need comfort and cleanliness without my having to stage-manage the experience. Boring is just fine, actually.

But somehow I think that the people for whom boring isn’t fine in a hotel — apparently these people are all gay — want cleanliness etc. as well.

Posted by tino at 14:23 15.04.05
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