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Hospitality Leadership - American Style
Statler Hotel - Cornell University (Ithaca, USA)
Member Name: duncantorr
Statler Hotel - Cornell University (Ithaca, USA)
Date: 17/01/08, updated on 13/05/08 (276 review reads)
Advantages: It's a good hotel
Disadvantages: But not as good, or as unusual, as it likes to think
Let me admit that, perhaps pedantically, I am irritated by the cliché of "exceeding expectations", and doubt its value as a measure of satisfaction. Say you'd been expecting a ghastly stay and it had proved no worse than miserable, would this be a success for the hotel? Or if you'd been expecting it to be heavenly and it had merely been delightful, would this be a failure?
As it happened, our expectations were at neither of these two extremes. We expected it to be clean, comfortable, well-equipped and efficient, and for the most part it was all those things, despite a few minor shortfalls. Beyond those typically American merits, though, we were intrigued to discover whether it could deliver something a little more imaginative and out of the ordinary.
There were reasons for hoping that it might. The Statler Hotel and J Willard Marriott Executive Education Center, to give it its full name, is run as part of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, highly regarded as one of the industry's foremost management training grounds. As the website puts it: "The School and Hotel are an integrated whole, creating a distinctive educational experience for our students and delivering a unique brand of hospitality for our guests." Some of the staff are full-time professionals, others are students learning the trade, relatively inexperienced but arguably bringing a high degree of intelligence and enthusiasm to the role.
Since my wife and I had reason to visit Cornell University, it all sounded rather promising as well as convenient, and we happily booked despite the Statler being a shade more expensive than several other options in the vicinity.
* Arrival *
Arrival at the Statler did not meet my expectations, let alone exceed them. The hotel is located right in the middle of the Cornell campus, so you'd think it would be easy to find, but in fact the university is not well sign-posted within its home town of Ithaca, NY, and the hotel not well sign-posted within the campus. When you eventually locate it, the Statler proves to be a modern building clad in pinkish-grey stone, unobjectionable but essentially nondescript.
Pulling up on the forecourt outside the front doors, you are confronted by a slightly ambiguous sign advising you to stay with your car and not to exceed ten minutes there. Nearby is another sign of the times, forbidding you to smoke within 25 feet of the building. Neither sign makes the arriving guest feel very welcome.
Perhaps a bellhop or valet parker is meant to be on hand to attend to you, but this was not the case when we arrived, nor, as often as not, on subsequent returns to the hotel from outings. It's not a big problem - you only need to step inside to find someone - but the sign is confusing and off-putting. You are not allowed, incidentally, to take the car to the hotel carpark, which is only fifty yards away, yourself, which I would have much preferred to do, nor collect it from there. Handling guests' cars is the prerogative of the valet parking system. It all works smoothly enough once one's found the relevant person to set it in motion, but it seemed to us inflexible, not as customer-friendly as it could be, and not an ideal introduction to the hotel.
"You never," as the management-speak maxim has it, "get a second chance to make a first impression." You'd think a School of Hotel Administration would be aware of that.
* Reception *
The people at reception needed no second chance. They were good. We never had to wait in line to speak to someone there. They were friendly, responsive and on the ball. Our reservation was located instantly and the relevant formalities courteously completed. Informed that our son would be coming to see us, they took his name and checked it before they gave him our room number.
On one occasion, when there was no one on the door to bring our car round from the car park, one of the reception staff saw us waiting, came across and volunteered to collect it, although this was clearly not her direct responsibility. Nice.
* Room *
The Statler has 153 bedrooms in four grades, ranging from "Traditional Rooms" at the low end to "Tower Suites" at the top. By the time we booked, all the "Traditional Rooms" (no one can beat the Americans at euphemisms) were taken for the relevant dates so we settled for the next-up "Deluxe Twin" option.
Our room was on the seventh floor, above the front entrance with a view beyond over some university offices built in mock-Gothic grey stone. "Cornell Campus Police" said the sign on the building immediately opposite, making me wonder how many British universities have their own police force. But then, how many British universities run their own showpiece hotel?
Rather annoyingly, the windows, although they had handles, were sealed and could not be opened. An adjacent notice explained that this was to prevent bugs from entering, but somehow the rationale didn't seem convincing, and in any case we would have preferred to take our own decision as to whether to brave the bug hazard. Someone ought to do something about the Statler's signage.
The room was spacious, with ample storage, and comfortably, if rather predictably, furnished. There was a desk and an armchair. The beds were large, either one big enough for both of us. Drapes, bedspreads and carpet were all tasteful in design and of good quality. There was a free internet access point as well as a huge TV enclosed in a cabinet, with a vast number of channels to hop through if you didn't mind failing to find anything worth watching - a programming pattern pioneered in America, but now aped around the world. There was a Mini-bar, a coffee-making machine (rather awkward to use if you wanted tea) and a hair-dryer.
The en-suite bathroom was equally tasteful and well-equipped, with reassuringly solid fittings. Towels were large and soft, and flannels and toiletries were laid on. Two bathrobes hung behind the door. Everything worked.
Reading matter available in the bedroom included not only the standard Gideon Bible, but also a glossy coffee-table size tome entitled "Hospitality Leadership", clearly the bible of the hotel school, tracing its history and its underlying principles and written in a lively, accessible style. You can, it appears, purchase a copy for $35, but we decided not to take advantage of this opportunity.
* Eating In *
The main restaurant at the Statler is called the Taverna Banfi, and is Italian themed ("TuscaNY" says the headline on one of its ads, cunningly intertwining the two regions). Despite the theming, the décor is pleasantly unobtrusive, and the windows look out from the second floor over some leafy campus foliage. We ate only breakfast there, which was a NY rather than a Tuscan experience, even the Eggs Florentine being served "on an English muffin", which I don't think you'd find in Florence, or in England for that matter. However, both the Continental buffet at $10 and the Full Buffet at $14 were varied, copious, well-prepared and excellent value, especially when the exchange rate at the time was over two dollars to the pound. And I liked the fact that they were priced in round, honest dollars, not sly numbers like $9.99 or $13.99.
Reading the lunch and dinner menus makes it clear that the restaurant becomes progressively more Italian and more elaborate as the day wears on, but even at dinner the prices looked very reasonable, with starters all under $10 and main courses under $30. Checking them again on the hotel website, I feel almost sorry we didn't dine there.
Service was attentive and efficient in the American style, arguably too attentive one morning when a young waitress (perhaps a student?) could hardly wait for us to sip our coffee before rushing round to top up the cups and ask if there was anything else we needed, which didn't make for a relaxed meal, but I suppose one could hardly blame her for trying.
Apart from the Taverna, the Statler has two less formal, inexpensive eateries: the Terrace restaurant, which true to its name has an open-air terrace facing out from the lower ground-floor at the back of the hotel straight onto the campus, and Mac's Café on the same floor, a self-service cafeteria much patronised by students. The Terrace looked attractive in the autumn sunshine (we were there at the beginning of October), and its food looked tasty. We would have lunched there if we could have found an outside table free, but they were over-subscribed. Neither of these two is open in the evening.
There is, of course, also room service available.
* Other Facilities *
The Statler offers a Fitness Center, open day and night for those who want to tone up their muscles in the small hours of the morning, but alas no swimming pool, though I believe it's possible to arrange to use one elsewhere on the university campus. There is a dry-cleaning and laundry service. There is a complimentary shuttle to the local airport and bus station. There are also lots of business services such as copying and computing, and conference facilities. There is even a 150-seat banqueting hall hidden away somewhere if you decide you want to host a Wedding, Bar Mitzvah or similar celebration.
* Location and locality *
You probably wouldn't go to Ithaca NY - more than 250 miles north-west of New York City - unless you had business at Cornell, but if you have then the hotel's location right at the heart of the campus is a big advantage. Sitting atop a steep hill above the town, the university has a scenic outlook and some fine botanical gardens, though its architecture is too eclectic and untidily strewn around for it to be called pretty or quaint.
Delineating the campus to either side are some deep gulches, almost ravines, with splashing cascades and shady trees, which one never suspects of being there until one happens upon them, but which provide quiet, atmospheric opportunities for walking.
More such gorges await exploration in the surrounding countryside, including one, just a few miles away at Taughannock, which has a waterfall higher than Niagara, although, it must be admitted, a great deal narrower. This river flows into Cayuga Lake, at the head of which Ithaca is located, one of about a dozen lakes of glacial origin in the area. Set amid hills and farmland, these so-called Finger Lakes offer a less exciting landscape than the mountainous Adirondacks and Catskills found elsewhere in upstate New York, but they are none the less interesting and charming for that, especially with the woods beginning to display their colours for the fall, and the Statler could be as good a base as any for touring them.
* Tariffs, Tipping and Check-Out *
I have been unable to discover a standard "rack rate" for the Statler. The hotel website only offers an interactive facility that quotes rates specific to the date(s) in which you're interested. For each of the two nights we stayed there the room tariff for our "Deluxe Twin" was $209, to which taxes added another $27 and parking another $10. We toyed with staying a further night, but this would have extended our stay into the weekend of the Cornell v Harvard football game and the room rate would have shot up sharply. As it was, although certainly not cheap, I thought the rate was reasonable for a hotel of the Statler's standard.
There were tips to disburse too, of course, this being America, all of which were received with a practised smile and a formulaic "It's appreciated", a mantra that I could only assume is instilled into staff as part of their training.
In common with many American hotels, the Statler offers an express checkout facility, whereby they slip an account statement under your door on the morning of departure and you can authorise it over the phone to be charged to your credit card; potentially, this saves hassle and delay at the desk on leaving, not that we ever saw much sign of hassle or delay there.
* Verdict *
The Statler is good, even very good, at what it does, but it is not flawless. More to the point, what it does is not essentially different from what many good hotels across America also do. Regular readers of my reviews will know that I value character in a hotel, and on my scale of values the Statler let itself down, not just by the odd glitch that I'd happily overlook in a place I liked, but by its lack of character. Moreover, this lack of character seemed to me in turn to betray a lack of imagination and responsiveness.
If it failed to exceed my expectations, it might have been because the management couldn't conceive that my expectations might be other than what they'd expect them to be. Despite the hotel's aspirations, the sense is still conveyed that the customer is regarded as a standardised item to be processed through the system, rather than a human guest.
Maybe the Statler's only how a hotel has to be for the American market. America, it always has to be remembered, is the land of the brand, where consumers expect and prefer known, predictable values. They tend to like the conventional done well, rather than the unconventional or unpredictable. Of course, Europeans can be like that too, but in my view are more receptive to spontaneity and variety. One thinks of the contrast between American football, which relies on the meticulous execution of set plays, and real football (soccer), which relies on improvisation and inspiration.
Then there is the question of service. I remember once attending a business conference at a hotel in New Jersey that boasted the slogan: "Aggressive hospitality makes the difference". Our American colleagues couldn't understand why we Brits found this funny. It wasn't just a different interpretation of the word "aggressive", but a different perception of what enhances hospitality, that separated the two nationalities. The difference was subtle, but critical. Americans seem to like service to be active, even proactive, almost in your face. Valet parking, bellhops gliding your baggage up to your room on one of those low-slung trolleys with high arched brass rails, waitresses busting their asses repeatedly to refill your coffee cup - these are all taken to signify good service, regardless of whether they're actually what every customer wants.
Myself, I prefer a more discreet approach, and a more flexible one, but in any case it's not what makes the difference. What makes the difference to me is when a hotel is or does something out of the ordinary - whether in architecture and décor, or in location, or style, or comfort, or charm, or cuisine, or value - and the Statler does not. It does the ordinary pretty well, and perhaps presenting something essentially ordinary as extraordinary is part of the skill of hotel management that is taught at the Statler and at which it aspires to excel. Perhaps that's what is meant by "hospitality leadership", but the Statler didn't seem to me to be very special, which in turn made me suspect that what's taught there can't be very special either.
Maybe it's just me, but to exceed my expectations a hotel has to do something unexpected, and the Statler did not.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2008.
Summary: A thought-provoking example of the American approach to hotelkeeping
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