How Much Hotel Hospitality Is Too Much?

I was recently in residence at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia in Vancouver when I returned to my room to find a note from the room attendant. She’d noticed that I had a toothbrush, but appeared to have run out of toothpaste, so she’d left me a small tube alongside the note explaining it.

Charmed, I shared a picture of the note and the toothpaste on social media. It was exactly the kind of anticipatory hospitality that I felt sets a property apart.

What I discovered was how divergent attitudes toward the gesture—and toward personal hospitality in general—can be. Many of my friends reacted positively, lauding the room attendant for her proactivity. Others expressed discomfort. “Did they go through your things?” they asked. (Not apparent in the photo was the fact that my existing tube of toothpaste had run out and was in the trash, and it was otherwise obvious without too much rifling that I didn’t have a replacement.)

It reminded me of another time when I stayed at a property on Kauai that had butler service, and I made a similar post after returning to my room to find my clothes expertly packed between layers of tissue paper, adorned with purple orchids and a souvenir tote bag. The service is “on request” so I knew it would be done, but the presentation was so charming I just had to share.

That time, there was much of the same response. “I just couldn’t be comfortable if I knew people were touching my stuff!” was the general sentiment. In contrast, I much preferred to spend my last few hours on the island at the beach instead of fussing with my luggage.

It got me thinking about how many luxury hotels often strive for a degree of hospitality designed around a class of traveler that largely no longer exists.

When today’s luxury hotels and large hospitality brands were in their formative stages in the early part of the 20th Century, their objective was to replicate the experience well-heeled guests would have enjoyed in their own homes. At the time, domestic household staff was more common, even in the United States, and the services their counterparts provided in hotels would seem shockingly intrusive to modern travelers.

Maids and valets entered guest rooms with a knock for cleaning and tidying, packing and unpacking, relaying fireplace fires or cleaning ashes, delivering beverages, or assisting with dressing and undressing (many—but not all—guests traveled with their own staff for this purpose) and clothing care. Bell staff were on hand to carry mountains of luggage, but also to fetch and run local errands.

In short, guests of the era were far more accustomed to the omnipresence of domestic staff; the replacement of a spent tube of toothpaste would only likely have been noticed if it wasn’t done.

As the 20th Century progressed, even large houses became more manageable without staff. Everyday wear is less formal, dressing and undressing no longer require assistance, and clothing is easier to launder and care for. Restaurant reservations, airport limousines, theater tickets, floral arrangements, and midnight noshes from any number of local restaurants can all be ordered from a smartphone.

A generation of travelers who wouldn’t dream of having their own domestic staff check into luxury hotels and are suddenly faced with a staff trained to do far more than make their beds and vacuum their floors. They’re trained to look after them and their needs during their stay, which can feel downright feudal in an increasingly egalitarian global society.

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of preference. I appreciate luxury hotels for those kinds of niceties. The Hotel Georgia also has gigantic marble showers, plush beds, drawers with noise dampeners, bedside lighting controls (how nice is it to hit the Do Not Disturb light without getting out of bed in the morning?) and tasty shortbread cookies that magically appear on the bedside table during evening turndown service.

Travelers who find the type of hospitality I’ve described too intrusive could easily avoid it (and save money) by booking hotels in other categories, but they ultimately miss out on some of the more charming moments I’ve come across in my travels, like the Club Lounge attendant at The Ritz-Carlton Washington D.C. who insisted on having housekeeping sew a button back on my cardigan (it was back to me before I had finished my first cup of coffee at breakfast). Or perhaps the breakfast server at the Four Seasons Lanai who noted the huge plate of longans I devoured and noted it in their system so that I was greeted by a plate of them upon arriving at my room at the Four Seasons Oahu a year later.

It’s important for travelers to remember that there’s virtually always positive intent on the part of hotel staff, and the hospitality they receive is ultimately up to the guest. Hotel staff is typically happy to skip room cleanings, evening turndown, or other services if guests indicate a preference for privacy.

Humans have an immense capacity to take care of each other, and the people who choose to make careers out of hospitality have, for the most part, that instinct well-developed. Many travelers do so as an escape from the every day, and many revel in exploring new and different forms of hospitality during their travels. While it might take some getting used to, I can say that letting oneself relax and be served can often mean the difference between a memorable stay and a truly remarkable one.

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