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.

=========================================

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.

Summit: Jebel Toubkal, Morocco

Some of you may remember: I made a personal resolution on a milestone birthday to climb a mountain a year. A recap of some previous climbs:
Jebel Catherine, Egypt, 8,625ft  or 2,629 m
Mount Fuji, Japan, 12,388ft or 3,776 m
– Harney Peak, USA, 7,244ft or 2,208m
– Schiehallion, Scotland, 3,553ft or 1,083m
Cadair Idris, Wales, 2,930ft or 893m

Now I get to add:
– Jebel Toubkal, Morocco, 13,671ft or 4,167m

I almost didn’t fit one in. It’s December before I even made my first trip to any mountain this year.

And, boy, did I get my bum kicked with altitude sickness. I underestimated it. I didn’t realize until I looked up the numbers of previous summits for this post that this is the highest I’ve ever gone, at least on foot. Well, good thing I know now.

The landscape changed drastically. The bottom of the valley was lined with trees, changing into autumn colors. The season was technically going into winter, but the milder climate had the trees clinging into their foliage just a little bit longer. On our return, we passed many piles of wooden crates used for the apples from the orchards. We passed a couple group of men sorting their harvest.. had I not been with a group, I would have been so tempted to stop and take a bite.

Somewhere just above the villages, the tree line stopped and the mountains were rocky faces looming over us. The face of the mountain looked bare without the colorful trees. I couldn’t shake the sense of leaving civilization behind as we forged upward.

The trails were created by mules. All these generations, mules continue to be the primary mode of moving and sending supplies through these mountains. I was pleased to see how healthy the animals generally are, that despite the hard work, they are fed and well-cared for, unlike their peers in the city of Marrakech. Over my years of travel, I have started to see a correlation between how societies that treat their children, elders, women, and livestock be a reflection of how they value life.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We stopped at Sidi Chamarouch for lunch on our way up. From that point was there I started to feel the altitude. I wasn’t alone. Another fellow climber started to struggle. I thought I’d give him company but found even his pace too leisurely for my impatience. I found myself following in spurts of catch up with the rest of the group as I stopped briefly but frequently.

We stayed at a mountain refuge, a base camp, if you will, on Mount Toubkal.The lodge was much larger and better equipped than I expected. I had imagined something similar to the mountain huts on Mount Fuji. Instead, the refuge was an enormous mansion, with a large open central area, as is typical with Moroccan buildings. No one ever lingered, though. Only two rooms have wood burning fireplaces, a sitting room and the dining area. We were staying at one of the newer refuges, where, on the upper level were dormitories, each trekking group sharing one. While not luxurious on Western standards, it was nice to have separate rooms by group, as the various treks all had different schedule. Our “beds” were two levels of platforms with thin mattresses and pillows.

DSC_9842

While I said the refuge wasn’t luxurious, it was far more than I expected and could have asked for. I have no doubt in my mind it was luxurious in many local standards. A solid building, with windows, and roof over our heads. The pleasure of fireplaces even in just two rooms. Flushing toilets and running cold showers. They even collect the trash, when I was expecting to have to carry it all back down. They even afforded to lay out some blankets, which were a godsend over our sleeping bags. I am admittedly too pampered to live in this cold for long, but three days, I could muster the wherewithal and actually enjoyed it.

We got up early for our summit. I didn’t quite understand why we had to get up so early, in the dark, but was glad to make it back in time for lunch. I would not have done well starving while climbing. I ended up taking a really steep route to avoid the ice patches on the inside of the ridge, a move that I actually reveled in as it brought back memories of the rock climbing we did in Scotland. I wasn’t so pleased when we were descending, though. I slipped and fell hard quite a few times, several jarring my bones enough to remind me that I no longer have the bounce of the youth when they fall.

The ascent I would describe in four phases. First was the climb of the rising wall behind the refuge. As it was pitch black when we started, I was focused on what my head lamp illuminated, my head down, eyes intent on the individual rocks I could see on the ground. I didn’t realize it was a pretty diverse route until my return, first a swish back path amongst boulders that leveled out into ice patches before we rose over the first saddle and lost sight of the refuge.

The boulders flattened into a field of rocks. Sometimes it was a spread of larger rocks the size of my fist with relatively smooth faces to just walk over. Other parts cleared into loose gavel-like deposits that made for a loose footing. The light has come out and we could see the golden sunshine peeking over the top ridge line. The face of Toubkal made me feel like I was standing inside a crater, and that I was at the base of the hallowed cone inside a volcano. The scree got really steep as we start climbing our way to the ridge. More often than not, I was scrambling over rocks. I could handle that better than a loose dirt path on extremely steep gradient, proved later when I couldn’t walk down without falling. We made it to the inside of the ridge, and hovered around the ridge wall towards the summit point.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The summit was on a flattened top, almost like a hilltop, a cruel joke after all that work.. by the time I saw it, I was so shattered and altitude sickness threatened to take over my sense of up and down. I barely dragged my feet to the summit. I couldn’t even muster the energy to quicken my pace. I was so relieved to reach the summit I forgot how to really celebrate.

The metal triangle marker has got to be the strangest summit marker I have ever seen.

I was startled to hear how much walking we did, both just to get to the refuge and roundtrip overall. I beat myself up for the return trip, wondering why I, as active as I am, had so much trouble with the climb. It wasn’t until today, when I looked up the elevation numbers that I found out this is the highest summit I made on foot. Next time, I’ll give myself more time to acclimate to the altitude before making my summit attempt. I’ve been living in the low elevation countries for too long!

Two days later, the soreness has fully set into my legs.. and to add insult to injury, I find myself facing the following in my guesthouse (riad) in Fes.

IMG_1847

Four flights of this. I’m on the top floor. I could cry…

Great many thanks to Toubkal Guides for the wonderfully managed trek in every aspect from the crucial guides all the way to the individuals ensuring the smooth transfers.
Special kudos to:
– Our trek team: Mohamed, Ibrahim, Abdul and Khalid
– The Refuge Toubkal des Mouflons staff for being so hospitable, feeding us well, and giving me that bottle of hot water to warm my sleeping bag!
– Jamal for such a well oiled management of the trek.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Indulge

I’m a simple person. My tastes veer to bread over caviar. Water over champagne. Train over jet.  My mother said I was the easiest child to feed, as long as I was the only one being fed at the moment.

My tastes have translated into my lifestyle. Even with all the travel I do, simple and frugal is the theme. So finding myself in a 5 star hotel in Penang that came with a butler call button is nothing but a splurge and indulgence of a long weekend.

By the way, I found every little excuse to push that butler call button. “Can I have some ice” (not that I need any). “May I have some scotch tape?” “How do I turn the A/C on?” Just because I can.

Describe the view outside your window

I rarely blog about when I am at the very moment, largely for my privacy and safety. But I will make an exception to the rule.

I have no windows around me right now. Well, I barely have any walls. I escaped the city off to the quiet hills outside Chiang Mai for a farewell getaway.

I’m seated at a long table with square stools that resemble the kind you’d see in an old Chinese tea shop. Well, the stools, not the table. The table is long solid probably teak wood planks, so long it puts an Italian family dinner table to shame. Right in front of me, an old rickshaw with a safari hat on the passenger seat. And an old chalkboard with a Jack Dainel’s Whiskey label on the front of the bike. The smaller tables for 1 or 2 are old sewing tables with the wheel and pedal still on.

The wooden railings “walling” in me separate me from the garden around me. A jackfruit tree bears so much fruit the scent of jackfruit whiffs across my nostrils every time the wind breezes through, which is quite often. If it had been mango, the mango would be long consumed by now.

Just a little further beyond, from the other side of the open patio below my deck, the sound of a small water fountain ripples through the foliage. I vaguely remember seeing a pair of cows walk through the car park entrance. A covered gazebo overlooking the water is empty, asking me if I’d let go of my tethered Internet wire to sit there instead. Not now, sadly.

I am perfectly content being on the open deck. The restaurant space I turned into my ad hoc office is part of the La Bhu Salah resort outside Chiang Mai. I am the only guest at the moment. In other words, I have the entire place to myself. It is their off-season so their artisan workshops are not in session. It’s OK. I came to get away, relax, and take a cooking class. The rest of the time I was to catch up with my writing. Without a car and being as far away from downtown, I had nothing to distract me otherwise.

For the first time since I started working, I had absolutely nothing about work niggling in the back of my mind. I am content and truly rested. Life can’t get any better than this.