|By Daniel Neman, The Blade, Toledo,
OhioMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 27, 2012--By any measure, the Hilton Toledo is one of the best hotels in town. Yet its housekeeping staff blithely ignores "Do Not Disturb" signs on the doors, knocking loudly and asking to clean rooms long before check-out time.
The restaurant at the Grand Plaza hotel has one of the area's more spectacular views of the Maumee River. But on some days, a traveler staying there would find it closed for dinner. And after eating a meal in his room or at the bar, if he wanted to relax with a drink he would have to make it fast because the bar is only open until 10 p.m. on weekdays.
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The Hilton Garden Inn at Levis Commons in Perrysburg does not have a restaurant for lunch or dinner -- its dinnertime-only room service is cooked by the nearby Biaggi's restaurant, meaning that the only food available is Italian. The hotel offers breakfast service, but on a day when only four tables are filled, a guest may wait 10 full minutes without being given so much as a menu. The frustrated guest may then storm out, never to return.
Is this the best Toledo can do? Is it the best face the city wants to present to its visitors?
The Blade recently conducted a review of four of the area's best hotels: the Hilton Toledo, Grand Plaza, Hilton Garden Inn, and Park Inn.
It then went to some of the best hotels in cities across the region and beyond as a comparison.
The differences are enormous. And they can have an unintended impact on the area.
Grand Rapids, Mich., for instance, is home to two luxury hotels. The Amway Grand Plaza opened in 1981 in the building of a former grand hotel, and the JW Marriott opened half a block away in 2007. According to the city's mayor, George Heartwell, the hotels "really started the rejuvenation of downtown. Our downtown was dead as a doornail. Virtually all of the retail was gone or leaving, heading for the regional malls. Downtown, other than attorney offices and banks, was a pretty quiet place."
That sounds like Toledo now. But then the Grand Rapids hotels were built and the convention center was upgraded, and now "downtown has a really vital, active nightlife," Mr. Heartwell said. The mayor said he recently counted 92 restaurants, coffee shops, and nightclubs in the compact downtown area, and he attributes much of the growth to the decision by the founders of the nearby Amway Corp. to build the luxury hotels.
"It added to the vitality of downtown. It provided another upscale option for convention-goers and tourists," he said.
That's what a couple of four-star hotels have brought to Grand Rapids. By the standards of any ratings organization -- the American Automobile Association, Forbes Travel Guide (formerly the Mobil Travel Guide), and even online sites -- no hotel in the Toledo area scores higher than three stars.
Executives, celebrities, and other people of wealth are accustomed to living better than that. They take it as a matter of course that if they stay at a hotel the bathroom floors will be marble, the fixtures elegant, the towels absorbent and fluffy.
At the Park Inn, the shower pressure was subject to sudden fluctuations and the tub threatened never to drain. The tub was plastic, the sink -- also plastic -- had a crack in it, and the towels were thin. The toilet lacked flushing power.
This is what businessmen see when they come to Toledo. Who knows how many executives have come to town to be recruited for top-level positions, only to receive an unimpressive first impression.
That said, it should be noted that the best local hotels for the most part are comfortable, and with rooms costing between $100 and $150, they are not out of line for the price.
But high-level travelers would find the hotels deficient. They lack the services that elite guests look for, they lack the amenities, they lack the conveniences.
Business travelers, often working late in their rooms, have come to expect a minibar from which they can grab a drink, a soda, or a quick snack. At the Fairmont in Pittsburgh, the minibar was particularly well stocked, with such luxury items as chocolate-covered pretzels and cashews, peanut butter cups, and chocolate chip cookies as well as such top-shelf liquors as Grand Marnier and Glenlivet Scotch. The MGM Grand in Detroit offered half-bottles of alcohol along with the more traditional single-serve bottles and even sold an "intimacy kit" for $25.
But none of the Toledo-area hotels visited had minibars at all.
Jim Koen, general manager of the Grand Plaza, said whether the hotel's restaurant is open for dinner or not depends on how much business the hotel has that day. The same factor determines how late the lounge stays open, he said; the lounge serves the full restaurant menu until 10 p.m., and it either closes then or remains open for drinks until as late as 1 a.m.
None of the local hotels visited serves food after 10 p.m., and only the Hilton offers room service as late as 11 p.m.
But most four-star and five-star hotels provide at least limited room service all night; at the Westin Columbus, the offerings included salads, short-rib sloppy joes, and granola yogurt parfaits.
Hungry guests in Toledo can sometimes satisfy their late-night cravings at 24-hour gift shops, which are little more than oversized closets. The Hilton offers junk-food snacks such as candy bars and microwavable popcorn, and the Hilton Garden Inn also has frozen entrees and drinks. Fruit, peanut butter cookies, and coffee were always available at no charge in the Hilton Garden Inn lobby.
But guests at the Grand Plaza downtown looking for something to eat at night are relegated to a single vending machine in a dingy corner off the lobby. The front desk clerk said, "it may be getting sparse," and he wasn't kidding: At our visit, of the machine's 36 possible slots, 29 were empty. The vending machine at the Park Inn was also forlorn (just 14 items available out of 25 positions), but an assortment of potato chips is sold at the front desk.
When visitors to Toledo want to eat in their rooms earlier in the day, the results can be uneven. A fire-roasted veal chop at the Grand Plaza was terrific, but the side dish of sweet potato enchiladas it came with was a mushy nightmare of mismatched flavors. The capellini di mare ordered at the Hilton Garden Inn, which was made by Biaggi's at nearby Levis Common, tasted decent enough, although the pasta was a bit doughy. An order of Mediterranean chicken with couscous at the Hilton Toledo was too small and too salty, but otherwise fine. And a patty melt at the Park Inn was far too greasy to be palatable.
Luxury and service
Certainly, the upscale traveler expects a concierge to help get tickets for a show, reservations for dinner, or a good tee time at a top golf course. But none of the local hotels has a dedicated concierge, and only the Hilton Toledo has anyone -- the front desk clerks -- who can perform the services of a concierge. And although high-priced travelers look to bellmen to help unload suitcases from cars and take them up to the room, and then show all the features of the room, only the Hilton Toledo has bellmen at all, although not nearly enough to assist with the bags of many of their customers.
One singular advantage of the local hotels is that the Internet is free in the ones visited, which is rarely the case with the more expensive hotels elsewhere (the exception being the MGM Grand, where it was also free).
The AAA publishes a long and specific list of what it requires for a hotel to receive four or five diamonds, but it all boils down to two things: luxury and service (in nearly every category, the final criterion is "the guest feels well served").
The aspects of luxury are readily apparent everywhere in a four or five-star hotel, from Oriental rugs in the public rooms at the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland to the marble floors and sinks at the Campus Inn in Ann Arbor. The fabrics are fine and durably made, such as the handsome and sturdy carpet at the MGM Grand, and the furniture bespeaks comfort rather than functionality. The sofa and chairs in a suite at the Campus Inn could serve well in any elegant living room.
In contrast, the furniture in Toledo hotels is often cheap and poorly made; at the Hilton, the chair was uncomfortable and an ottoman was lightweight and covered with a poor imitation of suede. In local hotels, the ice buckets are all made of plastic (in better hotels, they are metal and have a sophisticated design). At the Park Inn, even the drinking glasses are plastic -- and this in the Glass City, with the Libbey Glass Outlet just a few blocks away.
It isn't just a matter of luxury. The top hotels repeatedly and habitually go beyond what is expected. For instance, the showers in Toledo (except at the Park Inn) were fine for anyone. But the showers in the fancier hotels were exquisite. At the MGM Grand, the stalls are enormous, ringed with opaque green glass and topped with two showerheads on the ceiling. At the Westin in Columbus they are even better, with twin showerheads on a single stem from the wall for a delicious sensation of being enveloped by water.
The quality of extraordinary service is less tangible than luxury, but it is just as apparent. All the hotels visited were kept impeccably clean, although the housekeeping staff at the Park Inn curiously left a wastebasket on top of the sink. And without exception, the staffs at the Toledo hotels were friendly, helpful, and courteous. Even when the bartenders at both the Hilton and the Hilton Garden Inn disappeared for long stretches -- five minutes at the Hilton, 10 minutes at the Hilton Garden -- they apologized for their absences.
Izzet Sozeri, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn, explained that the bartender also brings the room service food to the rooms, which may have explained why he was not there. And he was apologetic for the lack of service at breakfast, saying "breakfast has been one of our stars for our regular clientele. I guess things like that happen. We have to get back to the drawing board and come out of it stronger."
He said he would start having a hostess at breakfast to ensure that no guests are overlooked. The hotel does not have a restaurant for lunch or dinner, he said, as a way of supporting and promoting nearby businesses.
Representatives of the Hilton Toledo and Park Inn could not be reached Saturday for comment.
Gummy bears vs. chocolates
The staffs at the top-level hotels in other cities tend to do more and try harder to please. Everyone from the bellman to the reservations clerk made a point of addressing their guests by name. The bellmen asked permission before entering a guest's room with his bags, they demonstrated the features of the rooms, and they offered to fill the bucket with ice. Some guests may find the service to be just this side of obsequious, but at least the bartenders remain on duty even during the slow times.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the three-star hotels of Toledo and the four-star and five-star hotels elsewhere is the attention paid to the details. Room service is wheeled in on a cart with a linen tablecloth, not carried on a tray, and at the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland the creamy yellow tablecloth matches the decor in the room. Room service also includes a fresh flower in a vase.
Rooms in Ann Arbor's Campus Inn include an assortment of umbrellas and a dish full of hard candies.
The Westin Columbus, which was built in 1897, retains its stunning marble lobby, and its bar is adorned with prints by the writer and artist James Thurber, a Columbus native. The Cleveland Ritz-Carlton provides turn-down service without being asked and includes chocolates on the pillow (in Toledo, the Park Inn placed a small bag of gummy bears on the pillow on the first night). The desk in the Fairmont rooms includes a panel of plugs and jacks to hook up every conceivable electronic device to the big-screen television, and an assortment of cables and jacks is provided to make all the necessary connections.
Electrical outlets at the Toledo hotels, in contrast, were fewer and harder to find. A traveler would be hard-pressed to plug in both a laptop and a phone charger at the same time.
But the biggest difference between the best of Toledo and the best of the best can be found in the attention paid to the fitness centers. In Toledo the work-out rooms can be desultory, with a handful of machines, a pile of towels, and a water fountain. At the Grand Plaza, the room shares a single television (Mr. Koen, the general manager, said that choice was made to encourage guests to look at the view of the river), and the pool is only big enough to splash in. At the Park Inn, the one small TV is nearly 20 feet away from the two treadmills, there are no free weights, and the water is in a plastic container better suited to an expedition across the Serengeti. The hotel offers no stationary bike and has just two elliptical machines, one of which was broken, and they are both under a ceiling so low that anyone over 6 feet 5 inches tall would bump his head.
Meanwhile, some of the finer hotels have spas, and they can be things of beauty. The fitness center at the Fairmont in Pittsburgh features a tray of fruit -- strawberries, pears, and apples -- along with purified water and water with slices of lemon.
It provides three national newspapers to read and has a selection of homemade soaps for sale in such intriguing scents as lemongrass ginger pear and mint raspberry sage. The spacious fitness room is filled with 17 exercise machines and a large number of weight machines, with a separate room set aside for yoga and spinning. The attached spa offers massages, manicures, pedicures, and more, and the hotel's guests can charge the expense to their rooms.
But the fitness center and spa at Detroit's MGM Grand are better still. They make up an island of peace and serenity, a world away from the jangling energy of the casino next door. The brushed concrete floors, white surfaces, and wood trim impart a sense of calm made deeper by the soothing music of a wooden flute. Here, too, the clients can read a newspaper or a magazine and sip iced tea or iced lemon-cucumber water while waiting in a terry-cloth robe for a hot stone massage, perhaps, or a treatment of the feet, hands, or face.
The fitness room is clean and bright, and on each of the 10 exercise machines is an individual bottle of water, a newly sterilized set of headphones, and a tightly rolled towel. A small refrigerator keeps additional towels cool and damp. While working out on the machines, the guest can look out the windows and down onto the pool.
The pool is extraordinary. It is huge for an indoor pool, lightly salted, and heated just enough to keep from being cold, but not to feel like a bathtub. Because of the salt, there is no chlorine smell. It is an infinity pool, the water level even with the pool's edge, and the overspill constantly drops into the surrounding drains so it always sounds like a waterfall. Complementing that sound are the songs of birds piped in through speakers along with more of the soothing wooden flute music. Guests can lie back on lounges in their swimsuits or robes and eat salads and drink mimosas by the side of the pool.
At their best, Toledo hotels make you feel at home. But a four or five-star hotel makes you feel better than home.
Contact Daniel Neman at: email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
(c)2012 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)
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