Last night I dined in blissful solitude at the legendary award winning Kisso Japanese restaurant, located in the Westin Grande Sukhumvit in Bangkok, Thailand.
I went for three reasons. One was because their reputation for fantastic Sashimi was apparent from their reviews online, I was hungry, and because I am always on the prowl to see what the big boys are up to when it comes to guest experience.
This is no smoky, noisy Izakaya style Japanese restaurant. It is completely the opposite: serene, elegant and refined. It has won several hi-so awards, including Thailand Tatler Best Restaurant, and the Bangkok Dining & Entertainment Best Restaurant in the Japanese category. They don’t sound like the sort of awards one wins for serving grilled chicken hearts.
This light hearted critique will look at both the actual guest experience, and explore the Starwood Preferred Guest Program from my perspective as a guest.
I have always liked the Westin Grande Sukhumvit, having dined there many times for lunch and been impressed with the service and quality of their food and beverage services.
This was the first time at Kisso though, and also the first time I have experienced joining the Starwood Preferred Guest programme in person.
I arrived without a reservation and entered the lobby where I was noticed by the concierge who gave me helpful directions in how to get there. It is confusing, because the restaurant is located on the 7th floor and yet the lifts are only marked to the 6th floor. Definitely a trap for new players.
Upon walking up the final flight of stairs and entering the restaurant I was greeted by a delightful host who you would swear was Japanese by her mannerisms.
The chefs and other staff who I could observe from my table were very professional, with none of the usual joking, gossiping or phone fiddling that inflicts many less professional service staff.
Now here is where it gets interesting. I was given the food and drinks menus and had a brief look at them before the delightful host came over and suggested I sign up with Starwood Preferred Guest (the inducement being a 10% discount for the meal).
Of course I said yes, although I wasn’t looking forward to doing paperwork, and my worst fears were realised...
She immediately brought over a membership application form, which was clearly designed by the marketing department, and not the guest experience division, and in the dark lighting I ended up putting all my details in the wrong spots. Never mind, she worked it out.
What was interesting about this form is that it had this ludicrous little hidden flap at the bottom which you are supposed to know is there, revealing additional questions and making you look like an idiot for not noticing it. And of course being a 5-Star hotel everything had to be in the tiniest fonts just to make it look more exclusive, despite their clientele being mostly past their optimal eyesight age.
After I had completed the form, within about 7 minutes I received an email from the SPG program with a link to activate my membership. I was then able to activate the membership and setup a user name and password. I hate having to setup user names and passwords outside my office, because I am not able to add these details into my password manager.
What was fascinating about this activation process is that they insisted on asking personal questions as part of the security questions. These questions were blatantly (at least to me as a hotel marketing consultant) designed to elicit as much personal information from the guest as possible, such as “my favourite restaurant” or “my favourite Starwood hotel” and many others.
Presumably they had not considered that ones favourite things might change over time, and that perhaps something more enduring like "my first car name" might be more suitable.
The only question that wasn’t a conspiracy to extract highly personal information from me was the last question “pets name” or something similar. They probably have a cunning plan on how to use that information for all its worth as well.
It seemed these were all required questions and there were many of them. The fact people won’t remember the answers to their obscure security questions doesn’t seem to have been a concern for the security department.
Now to the food. I ordered a small sake at 320 baht, which seemed relatively inexpensive (relative to where I was), but there is of course service charge and VAT on top of that (17% more). Having said that, I still thought that was reasonably priced for the restaurant and the general high taxation of liquor in Thailand.
I asked the host whether it would be physically possible for one person to eat the 7 Kinds of Sashimi dish at 2500 baht, and she thought it would be, providing I didn’t order anything else.
That proved to be somewhat of an overestimate of my ability to consume solid fish protein, but somehow I managed to complete the entire dish right down to the pretty yellow flowers, which I took the liberty of assuming were also edible. The Sashimi was really good, and included Chutoro Tuna in addition to some very tasty dark red Maguro (not the usual insipid stuff that is often served in noisier establishments).
The mens bathroom was quite perplexing. There were paper towels at the wash basin and then two separate rubbish bins, one marked “recycling” and the other “waste”. Was I supposed to put the paper in the recycling bin or the waste bin? The correct bin is of course the waste bin, but a quick inspection of the bin revealed others had buggered up their system. Is it really necessary to have a recycling bin in the bathroom?
Now to the next fascinating thing that happened (it wasn't a particularly eventful day). As half expected, the staff came over and asked me further personal questions, such as did I live in Bangkok, how long I was staying for etc. This is not uncommon in Thailand, but their cover was blown when another staff member asked the exact same questions about 10 minutes later. Clearly to me, now I was a number on their SPG programme, they were eager to add further information to my profile. Or have I been listening too much Alex Jones over the years?
What can smaller independent hotels learn from this critique? Be super careful designing and implementing a loyalty program as it's much harder than it looks to implement properly.
The amount of effort that has gone into the SPG programme is incredible, so they must be betting the farm that encouraging guests to book directly and get 10% off everything is going to pay off.
July Update: A few months later and I am still being bombarded by offers, newsletters and promotional emails from the SPG program. This is of course what I expected, but as they seem to send 4-5 emails a month I opted out recently.
Can or should smaller independent hotels also setup their own loyalty programmes to compete with the big boys? Perhaps, but as always with everything in the hotel marketing space, it depends ;)
For most smaller hotels it is not because you expect the loyalty program will massively change consumer habits in terms of booking directly (because it probably won't) but more because it gets around pricing parity laws in Australia. It means that by offering a loyalty program, you can actually charge 10% less for a room than an OTA (and still make more profit).