Steps at Pine Cliffs
Life On The Mediterranean HOTELS AND ACCOMMODATION,TRAVEL Is Customer Service Dead in 5* Hotels

Is Customer Service Dead in 5* Hotels

Steps at Pine Cliffs

I just returned from a long weekend in Portugal to attend a smooth jazz music festival. There’s a decent group of us who attend this festival twice a year in a couple of different European locations.

This festival was at a 5* hotel in the Algarve, and our days revolve around attending excursions, dining together, sipping cocktails, and enjoying music for up to a week. These festivals are somewhat pricey, partly because they are in 5* hotels.  But some of us recently started questioning is customer service dead in 5* hotels, or is the 5* designation just a checklist of amenities.

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Mind you, not everyone loves smooth jazz music, but it does attract a crowd that is not afraid to throw a few bills at a festival in a swanky location. We are picky and snobby, and have no qualms about complaining about what’s not right. Most of the crowd are familiar with 5* hotels, and know what quality and customer service are.

This is not a 5* Hotel

I arrived early at the hotel and was enjoying breakfast while waiting for my room. A couple of people I met at breakfast, who were there already for a few days, immediately asked what I thought of the hotel. I hadn’t checked in, so I didn’t have an opinion. Their comment was, “This is not a 5* hotel.”  Why, I asked? Their response, “Poor customer service.” Hmmm.

hotel pool at pine cliffs resort portugal

Is customer service dead in 5* hotels and just a list of amenity check boxes?

I’ve discussed this before with my smooth jazz friends because we also attend a festival in Mallorca and get excellent customer service from the Protur Hotel Group.

It got me thinking. What exactly IS a 5* hotel and what are the criteria?  Does or should customer service factor in? Is customer service dead in 5* hotels in favor of spas and golf courses? Or maybe we are just crotchety Baby Boomers who have traveled so much that we expect more?

I started digging into the criteria of the European hotel star system and came across the site, HotelStars. There is a set of criteria for 1* to 5* hotels and what they need to have as a basic minimum. Hotel rating systems differ from country to country, and the list of criteria by star is here. The interesting thing to note is that France, Italy, Spain and Portugal are not signed up to this pan-European set of standards. Hmmm. So what are they using?

Pine cliff inner courtyard

Portugal’s Hotel Star System

Portugal operates under a national compulsory hotel classification system managed by the Tourism of Portugal agency. I couldn’t get their site to change to English, but below is information off another site. Here are Portugal’s requirements for the hotel star system:

1* hotel: must include basic furnishings in the room with active or passive cooling, as the bathroom, accepts credit cards;

2* hotel: bilingual front desk staff (Portuguese/English), plus 1* requirements

3* hotel: the common parts must have health facilities, the front desk service should operate for 16 hours, you need a luggage room, wake up service and internet; plus all 2* requirements

4* hotel: air conditioning in common areas, parking for 20% of the room count, better furnishings in rooms, must offer shampoo, shower cap, and towels and bed linen must be changed daily; plus 3* requirements

5* hotel: safe, hairdryer, bathrobe, internet access in rooms, 24-hr room service, breakfast, 24-hr front desk, baggage handlers, and laundry service.  I’ve also seen a list to include full bathroom with shower and bathtub, mini bar, bar and restaurant on site.

There you have it. The list includes primarily tangibles that you should find in these hotel classes.

But, what if a property is also part of a distinguished brand of luxury accommodation, which this one is. Would you expect a step up in service and amenities? I would. We did.

Here are a few ways where customer service failed in this 5* Luxury Collection property.

Hotel Courtyard

Hotel Courtyard


I got to the hotel early, around 8:45a, and said I was checking in later that day. I wondered if there was a place to store my suitcase for the time being.

The front desk staff asked if I wanted to check into my room. I was quite surprised to hear that I might be able to check in that early, but thought maybe there were rooms available and he was kindly going to allow me to check in. After all, I’d been up since 3a to catch my flight.

I gave him my details and he said, “Well actually your room isn’t available but check back in a few hours.” In the meantime, he gave me a voucher for breakfast.. Great, I’ll come back at 11:30.

Double room at Pine Cliffs Portugal

Double room at this 5* hotel in Portugal

At 11:30, I went back, and a different Front desk member called housekeeping and confirmed the room still wasn’t available. She told me somewhat scoldingly that check-in time is 2pm. What ever. I wasn’t trying to scam them out of a few hours, but was just going off what the first guy said. I went back at 1:50, and they said 10 more minutes. The room was finally ready 40 minutes later at 2:40p.

By then, I’d been in the hotel 6 hours with plenty of time to check out the bar, restaurant, pools and grounds. The bell-boy appeared to want to drag his feet once we got the key to the room. He asked if he could show me the hotel. I said no, that I’d been on the property for sometime, and I really just wanted to get to my room. Even when we did get to the room, he hesitated to open the door as if he’d find housekeeping naked on the floor.

Room at the Pine Cliffs Resort

Pretty rooms. Housekeeping generally did a good job.

Check in time is the Check in time

I get that there are check in times. I was not expecting to check in early The first thing that front desk should have said was that the room will be available at 2p. Punto. Basta. At that point, I could have pulled stuff out of my bag, gone to the pool, beach, or spent a few nickels in the spa, and came back later. But there was this unnecessary drip, drip, drip of suggestion that I would get the room sooner. It’s called managing expectations. The first front desk person even took my phone number and said they’d text me when the room was ready.

I also had the sense that housekeeping were spending their time redoing rooms for existing customers versus getting room turns done first for new arrivals. Most people who have a room don’t care if you remake their bed at 11a or 2pm. The point is to get new customers into their rooms so they start spending money in your outlets.

Presentation of the room

The friendly bellboy explained how the card for the electricity works, that there’s a luggage rack, that the air conditioning doesn’t work if the patio door is open, that the minibar is empty, and there’s the telephone if I need anything… Really?

Pine Cliffs Patio Portugal

The A/C does work if you keep the doors open. Lovely, space though.

Ok, the A/C DOES work with the door open because I had it open many times. I assume the hotel doesn’t want you to waste energy, but the staff member doesn’t know how the rooms work. More than likely he’s never spent a night there, which would help. That’s a useful perk and learning experience for staff. Have a sleep over and let them try things out.

Empty Minibar

What is the point of an empty minibar in a Luxury Collection 5* property? No cooled water (two warm bottles on the desk), no soda, no snacks; just some of that fake milk you put in your freeze-dried Nescafe. There was a good list of items I can call down for and then wait 20 minutes for someone to bring it up. You’d actually make more money by filling me up with all sorts of goodies I could consume.

Empty Mini Bar Pine

Empty Mini Bar – what’s the use? For the little milks?

But this also means that housekeeping would have to account for items from the minibar on a daily basis. Maybe that’s too much bother. Or, maybe the hotel does not trust their staff? Have staff been consuming from the minibar and the guest is getting charged?

I’m sure the hotel could not easily gather the list of last night’s consumption before guests check out in the morning, and they are stuck covering the cost of a 6-pack of Oreos and some Pringles. Any rate, it is poor customer service. They are making the customer do the work to make up for poor internal practices. The hotel is losing potentially substantial ancillary revenue.

Restaurant Service

The first morning, a server stopped by our table and asked if we wanted orange juice and coffee. We ordered some cappuccinos and OJ and we were good to go.

The next day, the running joke among the group was, ‘There’s a machine.’ This is what one server told someone in the group when they wanted another coffee. There’s a machine… you know, like one of those with the push buttons in a cafeteria. Just head inside and do it yourself… When you are paying $260 a night, you expect more.

beachfront restaurant

Pleasant beach front restaurant that served the same menu as inside the hotel?

Another time, I was sitting with 2 friends. One friend and I had finished our breakfast, and empty plates were in front of us. Our 3rd friend’s plate was full, but she stepped away from the table for a few minutes. The server came over and directly went to remove the full plate of food versus clearing the empty plates. There appeared to be no manager present, and so many tables were full of empty plates impeding others from sitting down.

Delicious Spinach and Berry salad

Delicious Spinach and Berry salad in the hotel restaurant

Self Service

The last morning, I was again with 2 other friends and we’d gotten our breakfast inside and then went outside to find a table. The tables outside were empty and needing cleaning with no table settings on them. This was 8a. We found the cleanest table and sat down.

There were two servers at the silverware station, one had a tray full of ready made napkins with silverware, and the second had a few sets in his hand. I asked if I could get some silverware and the server with the loaded tray flat out said, No. I looked at the other one and he asked how many I needed and he gave me 3.

No coffee was offered; I served myself from The Machine. Then I went back to the silverware station to get the full jug of orange juice. Not only did I serve my table, but I also served 3 other tables that were outside. The staff were rude and slow. Not what you’d expect, but maybe customer service is dead in 5* hotels.

There should be separate wait staff that do nothing but clear and reset tables. When you have a buffet with hundreds of guests in a short amount of time, it’s necessary.

Outdoor Bar

I wanted a glass of wine to enjoy with friends in the grassy area who were listening to music. I went to the bar and asked for a glass to take with me. The bartender said if I wanted one, it would have to be in a plastic cup, and it’s not very nice to drink wine from a plastic glass. What… you’re now going to give me etiquette of drinking wine?

Lush spaces near the outdoor bar

Lush spaces near the outdoor bar

Any rate, he wouldn’t serve me. I had to sit down at the table and wait for the slow staff to take my order. If it’s a faux pas to drink from a plastic cup, then get plastic goblets that resemble a wine glass. Embarrassment solved and you could actually reuse those versus the throw-away plastic cups.

Customer service is dead in 5* hotels and we substitute beaches instead

Welcoming beach area

Donation added to your Folio

As standard, you get a detailed list of charges when you check out. Much to my surprise, I see $1 to a charity added to my bill. While $1 is minimal, please don’t assume I support the work of this charity or any other. No one mentioned it, I had to ask why it is there, and this is deceitful. ‘Oh, we can remove it.’ Darn skippy, you’ll remove it…

customer service dead in 5* hotels and now we have to be careful of add-ons

Donation to Unicef – really? Customer service is dead in 5* hotels when you shamefully charge them for a charity they may not believe in.

Clearly I didn’t experience everything the resort had to offer, but I was so turned off to the point that I didn’t want to spend a penny more than necessary.

Point is, has a 5* hotel become simply a check list of physical attributes? Spa, check; golf course, check; concierge, check; baggage boys, check! Should it not include the service provided by the employees and the treatment of their guests?

There are so many companies who provide specific customer service training for the hotel industry. This is one luxury collection resort that has a lot to be desired and that I will never stay at again.

Sorry to be a downer, but I worked for Hyatt for 5 years and I can say they are on top of their game in terms of customer service offered.

Empty mini bar in a 5* hotel

2 thought on “Is Customer Service Dead in 5* Hotels”

  1. Hi Maureen,
    Completely agree with your observations and comments re: 5* properties. I’ve cynically concluded it really is only about the checklist, not providing stellar guest service- no matter how much/many tips I’m laying-out.
    Also, based on my experience, doubt whether a copy of this review to the appropriate ” Luxury Collection” exec would make any difference.
    Seems like the larger corporate programs snare enough members- Hyatt exempted- who have not travelled enough to know or appreciate- or raise hell- that this ‘service slide’ has reached this level.

    New to your blog. Like your style. Keep up the good fight !

    A fellow “cheesehead” transplant-

    1. Thanks, Mark. I’m wondering if this is a Portugal thing as this has happened before there. I’m sure the staff have worked in a 5* property, but I don’t believe they’ve been trained in 5* hospitality, which is different. Any rate, thanks for finding me. Hope you are enjoying where ever you’ve transplanted to. 🙂 Go Pack! 🙂

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