The global engineer
E&T on a tiny gadget called Mino Flip, and why more can be less when it comes to the price of a hotel room.
I'm sitting in the Upper Class Virgin lounge at Heathrow, getting something for nothing. I've had a Vesper Martini, my boots have been well shined and I've enjoyed a back massage.
The décor is stylised 1970s, when popular air travel was still in its infancy and crushed velvet was the most fashionable fabric, often, as here, in a mustard colour we used to call 'antique'. 'Antique' is also the colour of the crush-velvet-covered chairs, which swivel on a single silver stick. I'm too nervous to take up the offer of a free haircut in case I emerge looking like Lulu with a bouffant bob. Unfortunately, there's no butterscotch Angel Delight on the menu, but there is Eggs Benedict and Karahi Chicken Curry. I finish off with a cup of new age hand-tied flowering tea.
Of course, none of this is really free. The high cost of a seat in Upper Class is beyond the reach of most business travellers. But there is a transparency in the price that's very appealing. You pay for what you get. You don't pay your fare, and then find you're slipped another bill as you exit the lounge.
Extras are the bane of every business traveller's life. You think you've found bargain hotel accommodation or a restaurant with a reasonable set menu, then the check arrives and it isn't reasonable at all.
Hotels charging ridiculous additional fees for simply accessing the Internet is the most obvious example of these add-ons. But there are other ways in which a mid-range room can silently morph into the sort of place only covered by a five-star expense account.
One recent morning, while staying in a mid-town Manhattan hotel, I felt like having breakfast in bed and ordered a cup of coffee. The price on the room service menu was five dollars. The slip I ended up signing was for $12 - over double that. Tax, tip and 'delivery charge' were all added, as if there were an option to have room service but collect it myself. The following day, I decided to go down to breakfast. While consuming my spinach omelette, I noticed a button had come unwound on my jacket and needed to be sewn back on. On the way back up to my room, I asked for a sewing kit at reception. They tried to charge me $15 dollars for a needle and thread. I decided to stay scruffy.
I'd discovered that more can be less when it comes to the price of a hotel room. After this budget-busting experience, I stayed downtown in Hotel on Rivington, in Manhattan's Lower Eastside. Here everything was included, from Wi-Fi to breakfast (rare in New York) and a copy of the New York Times. I could even have a game of billiards in the lobby for free.
It's not all down to the individual hotel. The way rooms and restaurants are priced does vary from culture to culture. Tipping and tax are regularly added to American bills. In the UK and much of Europe, these additional charges are often included. Perhaps that's why Hotel on Rivington is particularly popular with Europeans.
Some of the cooler travel companies have realised that we don't like surprises. Black Tomato provides its clients with what they call 'essential extras', all included in the initial booking fee. When you make your reservation, Black Tomato asks you about your literary and musical tastes. They then send you a selection of books and CDs, to ease your onward journey. When you arrive, they appoint you a City Concierge to 'get you into the newest and coolest parties, bars and restaurants' as well as making sure you secure tickets to the 'hottest' events. On your return, you'll find an envelope containing your welcome home kit - a copy of magazine The Week (to catch up on the news while you were away) and a DVD of your choice (to counter the post-travel blues). This spring, they've also introduced a new free 'extra essential', a Mino Flip. This tiny gadget - the size and weight of a mobile phone - runs on AA batteries and takes short snippets of video footage to capture your time away, which can then be transferred to your PC with a tiny USB stick that flips up (giving the gadget its name).
What counts as essential and extras doesn't only vary from country to country, but according to whom you're travelling with. I travel a great deal with my children, so for me all-inclusive means as many colas and as much ice cream as you can eat. But when I'm travelling for work, all-inclusive means everything I need is built into the quoted cost and my bill won't mysteriously double at check out just because I've drunk the bottle of water in the room (which I'd presumed was complimentary) or answered some emails on my laptop.
Charging for an Internet connection makes me especially want to cancel my payment, as new technologies mean the cost to the hotel is practically nothing. I think business travellers should club together to form a 'No Extras Campaign', so such practices don't continue.
But here in the Upper Class lounge, I know there'll be no argument over the cheque as I leave. I'm filing this copy as I twirl round and round in my crushed-velvet swivel chair, using the free Wi-Fi.