Letter to Starwood, postscript

I almost regret ever sending a letter.. because the ensuing correspondence only served to anger me.

Aside from my limited communique with the current general manager of said hotel property, I got a separate email string from the Starwood Consumer Affairs. I speculate it was due to my lack of response to the GM’s offer to generously increase the donation to $500.


Greetings:

Thank you for connecting with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. through our Social Media team.  Further, we appreciate that you have taken the time to speak with the General Manager of this hotel. 

Please accept our apologies for the delay in reaching out to you.  We understand you as have discussed this concern with [GM], and you still have strong feelings about this matter.  If you wish to discuss the issue with us, please let me know.

I look forward to your follow up.

[Consumer Affairs person #1]


 

[against my better judgement, I replied.. ]

Mr Consumer Affairs person #1,

I appreciate that [the GM] took the time to talk to me, especially given how uncomfortable it must have been for him, not knowing the details, and having to account for his predecessor’s lack of action. I’m sorry he wasn’t in charge at the time- I can only imagine having a kind and caring voice around would have gone so far in helping me cope with the aftermath.

To me, all this just highlights exactly what my issues with Starwood are. [GM] may not be in charge at the time. But the fact that he had to do digging around to get as much information as he could tells me the staff in charge at the time either tried to ignore it, hide it, or bury it and that you, Starwood, as a corporation, have no formal incident reporting mechanism for violent crimes that happen on your properties.

Given all that, how is any number of free points going to convince me to step a foot on any Starwood property? You work in a highly competitive and saturated market- I am not lacking in choice of hotels when I travel even after eliminating Starwood from my pool.

I don’t think there is much to discuss at this point. The points and the $500 donation? You can’t be serious. I wasn’t complaining about something trivial like the elevator doors slamming shut on my suitcase or a lost reservation upon arrival. Basically, right now, it’s far too little effort offered far too late. So I’d rather you don’t bother with any offer at all than offend like that again.


Then, the most insulting reply ever.

Greetings,

Thank you for taking the time to personally connect with us further, I hope your day is off to a wonderful start. [Consumer Affairs person #1] is out of the office it’s my pleasure to respond on his behalf.

Despite the circumstances, I’m glad to learn that you had a good conversation with [GM] in relation to your experience. It’s understandable how frustrating it may have been for you to learn [GM] may not have had easy access to the details of what transpired; at the time of your stay this hotel was managed by Starwood Hotels & Resorts. At this time it is a franchised property, which is independently owned and operated.  This Hotel utilizes the Westin trademarks and logos pursuant to a License Agreement.  This in addition to the time that has elapsed is why [GM] would not have easy access to the details of your experience; we understand the disappointment this may cause you as one of our valued guests and recognize that it is an area where our efforts of sharing as well as preserving certain information may be improved.

It’s regretful to see how the gestures of goodwill offered were interpreted and that they may have caused offense, this certainly wasn’t our intention. Whilst we understand that neither of these gestures can change what transpired, our hopes were to show you our willingness to win your faith back and allow you the opportunity to create new, positive memories with us. I have copied [GM] in this email so he is aware of your preference to not receive these.

Thank you again for taking the time to connect with us personally to share your feedback. Your present feelings are appreciated; however, I do hope that you will not judge us solely on the basis of this particular experience and that we may have the chance to welcome you back to one of our destinations worldwide in the future.

With warmest regards,
Consumer Affairs person #2


 

My final reply.

MS Consumer Affairs Person #2,

A couple points about sensitivity training that a consumer affairs executive might benefit from:

Do NOT minimise hours of assault and robbery at gun point as a “particular experience”

Do NOT invite someone who has been assaulted in your business’s room free nights on the exact same room set up, no matter where in the world that would be.

Finally, do NOT say anything if you have nothing to say.


 

 

And that is the end of it. I am closing this chapter. I wish I never dealt with the consumer affairs people but it only validated why I will never stay in Starwood again. The careless callousness was just too much.

 

Copy of my letter to Westin and Starwood brands

Well, folks, where do I start?

My “hiatus” from blogging wasn’t planned. After last year’s incident, it was difficult to maintain my normally cheerful outlook towards travel and life, in general. There were times when it felt like a facade, an appearance to keep up. I had my job to do, my example to lead, my family to assure. I hated the fact that I was affected by this.

I don’t know if I will ever truly “get over it” but I know now that I am ready to move on.

It has taken me time to forgive myself. I know I didn’t do anything wrong, but there certainly were things I wished I did better. It has taken longer, though, to forgive others around me, especially the hotel in question. I am not going to deny that I considered a lawsuit.

I procrastinated on the idea of a lawsuit for many reasons. When one lawyer explain to me that I would have to at some point quantify what my “damages” are, I realised no amount of money could fix what I coped. When a friend pointed out it would force the hotel to make changes, I concluded a settlement likely comes with a non-disclosure and would do exactly the opposite, allow them to sweep it under the rug. At the end, I decided to drop the pursuit of legal grievance. I had enough on my plate personally and didn’t need the added pressure. I have no aspirations to be a David taking on Goliath.

Nor did I want to just forget it. So I instead worked up the indignation to write an angry email to the hotel chain executives.. and to publish some of that here for other fellow travelers. It felt cathartic. Then I found myself in a laughable position of not knowing where to send it! Fortunately, a friend with amazing research skills was able to dig up some resources (more on that in another post).

I didn’t expect compensation. I didn’t expect any response from Westin, really. I now have reached the point of not caring. Instead, I just needed to get the anger off my chest and close out this unpleasant chapter of my life. I am ready to move on, and this is my final parting shot.

Full disclosure: Westin and Starwood brands responded. Surprisingly quickly. Clearly, emailing the CEO a castigating letter dinging them on their service and quality is pretty effective. I spoke to the current General Manager of the hotel afterward. Despite not being in the position the time of my incident, he was very apologetic and kind, which I appreciate. I acknowledge it must have been difficult to own up to his predecessor’s mistakes, especially when the natural reaction would be “it wasn’t under MY watch.” However, I rejected his offers of assistance, that being a $250 donation towards a charity of my choice, and some large number of points towards future stays. From a large corporation, $250 felt like a slap in the face. Keep in mind, many of their hotels charge more for a single night’s stay. I rather they don’t bother at all and make that donation myself and told them so.  And, in a market saturated with competition, I see absolutely no need to ever visit a Starwood again, when the choice is left to me. They later raised the donation amount to $500, to which I have not responded.

Postscript: And it didn’t go away. Final communication with Starwood posted here.

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A year ago this month, I checked into one of your Westin hotels. Living overseas, I was returning Stateside for a long trip and looking forward to an “homecoming.”

And what a hell of an homecoming it turned out to be.

As soon as I got into my room, I was held up at gun point, robbed, and assaulted. The man held me in the room somewhere in the window of two and a half to three hours. I was stripped of a majority of my valuables on me and in my bags, and of my sense of my safety. This is not the first time he has done something like this- he was too calm and collected and took his time.

That this happened in a Westin shocked my sense of trust in any business reputation. But how the Westin handled- or didn’t- was absolutely inexcusable and a disgrace to the hospitality business.

The only thing the Westin did right was how quickly they called the police. After that, it was a series of horrendous performance.

  • The manager went off duty at the end of his shift. Despite the heavy presence of squad cars and the fact that several rooms were taken up by the police for the investigation, he left with no replacement manager on duty, and did not provide any senior staff any instructions.
  • As a result, when the police helped move me to a different location for both my safety and my sense of security, the night staff at the front desk had no idea what was going on, and didn’t know how to “close out” my account. They couldn’t even answer the question then the lead detective asked if the hotel seriously expected me to pay for the room.
  • While your staff kindly helped the robber pay for his parking, likely with my money, they were confounded how to deal with helping the police get my rental car off the lot to the alternate location.
  • Your security personnel- if they exist- were never seen roaming on the grounds by me, or, later on, the police. Nor did I see any increased presence when the police brought me back from the hospital to collect some change of clothing.

The only communication I ever received from the hotel was a pathetic email from your “director of guest services”.. and I paste the text here:

“The safety and security of our guests is our main priority, I’m reaching out to you, to make sure you have my information should you need anything from us.

Hope you are well and please let us know if there is anything we can do for you at this time.

I know you spoke with [name withheld] our Manager on Duty last night, I was also here, but I was unable to speak with you at the time.”

Reading that first communique was the equivalent of being kicked when I was already down. Even without knowing the details of the police investigation, I would hope the presence of 4-6 police vehicles, and the initial report I gave the operator, would clue your own management the seriousness of the trauma I had experienced. “I hope you are well” What utter callousness. I will carry the scars- both physical and emotional- for a long time to come. And, I would really like to know what was so important that she “was unable to speak at the time”

Your vague offer of “help” smacked of insincerity and was far more offensive than I could stomach at that moment. If your guest relations person thought a generic statement would qualify for a more useful “please let us help you contact the banks to replace your stolen credit cards” or “can we recommend a local medical clinic for you” or “let us assist in getting you home or assist you with alternate accommodations while you are stuck in town to deal with the police investigation” you have extremely low standards in your hiring and performance standards.

The friends and family who know of any portion of my ordeal often started with “I am so sorry for your ordeal” because that is an appropriate caring sympathetic response. Instead, you have your carefully worded toneless note that smelt more like fear of accountability than genuine concern over a person’s trauma.

How I was targeted and how the robber chose to come into the Westin are questions I want answers to but won’t get until the police catch him.

At the same time, you, the Westin hotel, owe a lot of answers as to how you don’t have the security coverage to even identify how he went in the hotel. More than that, how you force every single car driving onto the property to take a parking ticket to pay park anywhere on the grounds, but not have any cameras to capture the car traffic, let alone the license plates. Your priorities are clear: revenue over security.

I hate that my confidence and my trust in myself is shattered. Considering that travel is an inherent aspect of my professional demands, being terrified wasn’t bad enough; I dreaded I would be paralyzed to not be able to do my job at all. I don’t skirt with danger unnecessarily; I chose my travel arrangements with my personal safety and comfort level in mind. I expected Westin to meet those needs.

What you failed in your security is an unknown, pending the police investigation. What you failed in your service and reaction to the events of that night is clear. A lone traveler in a city that is not her own, and you left her- me- stranded alone with zero support. Your staff’s ignorance and apathy demonstrated the standards of your company.

So, now what? Part 1: Using all the services

I admit blogging was the last thing on my list of things to do lately. But in my quest to resume as much normality and routine in my life as possible, it meant it’s time to resume. I found myself stalled for a while. What does one say after sharing something so personal and so emotional? I then realized, well, it’s time to talk about how to travel, how I travel again.

To say that nothing changed would be a blatant lie. I was at a group lunch recently when we were talking about people and shrinks (not a segue from my experiences, but from leadership training, believe it or not). One guy said “It’s tragic if someone was abused as a child but to imagine that it would change and define that person for her whole life, I don’t get it.” While I have no doubt he has no maliciousness about it, as poorly his judgement may reflect, it made me think that whether or not I realized it, I have changed. And in the scale of ways to victimized, I could have been faced with so much worse.

It’s an experience that in part of me now, a change in my psyche, but it won’t be the defining thing of my life. Surprisingly, I haven’t been scared off traveling a whit. It wasn’t a willed reaction, a forced effort to move on. It just was. I checked into the next hotel without hesitating; I continued my trip in CA after a brief pause and a few nights with local relatives.

I’ve always considered myself a pretty careful person. I can’t claim 100% attention span… I get tired, hungry, distracted. Travel to various third world countries have taught me some habits already. I always travel with a pocket knife, except in Japan and in the UK. I glance at all the hallways when I get off the elevator. I keep something sharp- a key, a pen- in one hand when walking in the dark. However, I was caught off guard that night. I was exhausted, after 12+ hours of travel, 8 hour time difference, no restful sleep in over 18 hours, my belongings all tightly packed in my check-in luggage. And in my mind, I was back in America and checked into a reputable hotel chain.

So, I now use all the services offered by the hotels. Valet parking? Sure. Bellhop? Please. Walk through the room with a staff to go over how the A/C works? Absolutely.

I had been one of those who always turned away the bellhop. My bags have wheels. I had found the service to be unnecessary and I rarely think to have small bills available for tip. Not anymore. I’ll change $100 for all $1 at the reception desk if I have to. If he takes the service elevator while I take the guest, I’ll even wait in the hall for him to show up.

I have also started walking the entire length of the hallway my room is in, and back, before I actually enter. Where the guy came from that night is a difference of opinion between the police and me. I think he was already in the room. The police thinks he followed me. I decided I’d rather be confronted in the public hallway than cornered in a private room.

How I got right back to routine travel, I don’t know. I didn’t stop to analyze how I’d deal with it, I just did. Two key factors in my recovery I believe are loved ones and one excellent hotel. My aunt flew down as soon as she could to spend time with me, giving me company, not letting me out of her sight for more than a couple minutes, day and night. My cousins called as soon as they heard, giving me a home I can spend a few nights in to regain my equilibrium. My friends and family called, some daily, to check on me, be a listening ear for my emotions at the moment.

Before I went to my cousin’s, I still stayed at a hotel. The police offered to move me to a different hotel and I took them up on the offer in a heartbeat. They informed the management of the second place the gist of my circumstances. The head of security immediately introduced himself to me, told the front desk to leave instruction that house keeping does not disturb me. For the following three days I stayed there, I always saw a security staff roaming the hallways. The rest of the staff was not informed, but they were so attentive. My keys frequently demagnetised, leaving me to constantly ask for help. The bellhops staff recognised me with my roaming, my trying to find the services around the hotel. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have stayed at any more hotels immediately after. But this one had such excellent service and cheerfulness that without realizing it, they demonstrated that I can still stay in one of these establishments comfortably.

For all those who helped, knowingly or not, I am thankful. To find that I would be paralized from travel would be devastating. It is an inherent component to my work and a big hobby. I can’t begin to the express my relief that didn’t happen.

Losing trust in myself

Good morning, readers, friends, and family.

I have been absent a lot lately. The first couple months of the year, I have no real excuse. Life just gets in the way of blogging. I am on holiday now, with every intention of catching up, and finishing up drafts of old posts and that is when the monkey wrench was thrown into my rather happy life.

I landed back in the States, in San Francisco, eager to start a wonderful trip in one of my favourite areas. I checked into a hotel, went to my room. There I got robbed at gun point. I was just in the room and something made me turn around. In doing so, I saw a man covered up and pointing a gun at me.

He took all my electronics, cash, and some other belongings. What was more unnerving was how he took his time and was methodical. I was blindfolded and told to lie face down on the bed. I could hear him open all my bags and dump the contents out.

I told the police this wasn’t his first rodeo. He was too slow, calm to never have done something like this before. He had the presence of mind to make sure I took the password protection off all the electronics, rebooting them to confirm. Oddly he didn’t find my driver’s license, even asking me to take it out. I pointed him to my overseas ID card.

I was held hostage for about two hours. I got the sense he tried to leave earlier, but there might have been people in the hallway. He told me to fall asleep and that he would leave half an hour after I was asleep. When he found that I wasn’t sleeping, even checking my pulse to confirm, he accused me of not complying.

He eventually left. He didn’t close the door completely. That door closing was what I was waiting for and I must have waited for another 10 minutes after his departure when I dared to lift my head and look around.

The police knocked on the doors of the rooms in the same hallway asking if anyone has noticed anything. Neighbours confirmed hearing commotion. Hearing that was like a stab in the stomach. I know hotels have an aura of privacy but what if someone had knocked to check? What if my two hour ordeal could have  been aborted?

It was the fact that I was held two hours and the fact that his grubby paws touched every possession I had on me that has left me shaken. Had he taken my stuff and just ran, I might not be having such an emotional response. I would have been angry and that would be the end of it. Instead I feel violated, unsafe. Worst, I don’t know how comfortable I would be in a hotel anymore. As a frequent business and leisure traveler, how this impacts me remains to be seen.

I chose not to publish more detail, as cathartic as writing may be, because the police are investigating and I don’t want to interfere with or jeopardise their work. As tempting as Internet shaming the hotel is, I am not ready to do so yet. God knows that hotel has a lot to answer for and that I will never set a foot in any of their properties again. Believe me, all will be revealed in due time.

For the most part, my lost items are a minor nuisance. I am lucky in the sense that I have the financial means to replace my belongings and track my credit activity. What hurts the most is the external hard drive used as an archive of my photos taken since 2008. I have them backed up over Christmas, so the only photos lost were those of 2013. But emotionally, that is the hardest loss to take. In addition to my comfort in traveling being abused, I now lost my best record of my past travels.

I am eternally grateful for my family and friends who helped bring my vacation and my life back on track and the outpour of love and support from those everywhere else in the world. I know we often feel words are useless when we say them but during the ordeal I had never felt so alone. Hearing from people now have helped me realize I really am not alone and I do have loved ones caring.