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 and marketing in general.
This is no smoky, noisy Izakaya style Japanese restaurant at all. It is completely the opposite: serene, elegant and refined. It has won several fancy 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 charcoal grilled chicken skewers.
This critique will look at both the actual guest experience, and explore the Starwood Preferred Guest Program from my perspective as a guest, may be interesting for anyone in the hospitality industry.
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 and he 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. Call me a genius, but surely this could be improved by having a sign inside the lift with Kisso on the 6th Floor.
Upon walking up the 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 incredibly professional, with none of the usual joking and gossiping that inflicts many less professional service staff from all over the world.
Now here is where it gets interesting. I was given the food and drinks menus and had a brief look at them before the Japanese impersonating host came over and offered to sign me up with Starwood Preferred Guest (the inducement being a 10% discount).
Of course I said yes, although I wasn’t looking forward to doing paperwork and my worst fears were realised...
She quickly 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 discovering 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 optimum eyesight to afford to eat here.
After I had completed the form which didn’t really take that long, within about 7 minutes I received an email from the SPG program with a link to activate my membership. Then I was 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 a safe repository like Keepass.
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 milk that for all its worth as well, although I haven't thought of one yet.
It seemed these were all required questions and there were many of them (I believe around 8-10 in total). 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 seems relatively inexpensive 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 cost 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 100% 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 cheaper, noisier establishments where you are really paying attention).
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 was I just being overly paranoid?
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.
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 my clients it is always very far down the prioritised list of considerations.