It’s easy to be seduced by exceptional service.
 

Many hotels claim to be the best in their class. They boast about having the best service, the most luxurious amenities, the greatest concern for their guests. But who judges? Recently the simple matter of taking a shower gave me the chance to apply my own independent test in a hotel reputed to be one of Europe’s finest.

Everything about Geneva’s Hotel Beau-Rivage makes you want to stay longer. The staff treats you with just the right mix of familiarity and formality to make you feel they really care about you. The lobby has a French elegance that lifts your spirits but is cozy enough to feel intimate. The rooms are opulent without being ostentatious, high-ceilinged without being vaulted, subdued in their warm marbles but dazzling with chrome fixtures that say “Orient Express” (literally), and it’s easy to believe that they are originals from the heyday of European train travel. By most accounts the Beau-Rivage is Geneva’s most elegant hotel, perhaps one of Europe’s. For me to be staying there took the good graces of the management to sponsor the Geneva Writers’ Conference, where I was teaching, because there is one thing that makes staying longer difficult: the price.

I had been given one of the two rooms donated by the hotel for two nights because I’d come all the way from San Francisco, but I had to spend my first night in Geneva in the Montbrillant near the train station, a 4-star hotel in a good location that cannot be spoken of in the same breath as the Beau-Rivage. The conference committee had tried to get me a third complimentary night at the Beau-Rivage but management had said no, two free nights were enough. On opening the door to my room that first night after my long journey I observed that the entry was spacious enough to get my luggage into. Another glance showed that the entry was the entire room.

I was exhausted, but slept in fragments that night. When I moved to the Beau-Rivage the next morning and entered the lobby I was mesmerized by its quiet elegance and couldn’t help myself. I knew this hotel would make all the difference, and thinking about having to return to the Montbrillant for my final nights I knew it couldn’t hurt to ask. On check-in I began to melt at the lilting English from the earnest young French speaker who not only handed me the keys but said she would show me to my room. I asked if there was any possibility of extending my stay, and she tapped away at the computer, forehead wrinkling. “Yes, it will be no problem, sir. That room is available until Tuesday.” She paused, an awkward silence, probably more awkward for her than for me because I knew what was coming and so did she. Immediately I felt bad for putting her through this. “The rate will be 490 francs.”

“Hmm. Well. Let me think about that.”

“It is a very good rate, sir. The normal rate for that room is 890 francs.” She sounded as if she couldn’t bear to think that I would leave. My jet-lagged brain had me wondering if it were personal, if she really wanted me to stay.

“Are there cheaper rates for any other rooms,” I asked, stringing out the inevitable.

More tapping of computer keys, then, “Yes, sir, but I’ll need to check for the rate.” She looked at me as if waiting for confirmation that she should go ask, and then I said, “Well, please let me think about it.”

“For now, I will put down that you might want to extend. You can decide later.”

“Yes, that’s fine,” but I knew it wasn’t fine, it was stupid. I couldn’t spend half the cost of the air ticket to get here on one night in a hotel. We both allowed me to save face by pretending I might stay another night. Finally she said, “I’ll say that if you decide to stay, you will let us know. Otherwise you will leave Sunday as planned.”

“Yes, good,” I said. And then she smiled again and stepped out from behind the counter to show me the way.

I had been told the rooms were palatial but they were better than that. A palace would feel too opulent, too grand, too spacious. This was just right for my taste. Lots of room to move about, but not so much to get lost. Comfortable chairs and a coffee table, a desk with lots of room to spread out my work. Two twin beds pushed together to make a larger bed but not those gargantuan king-sized models that so many American hotels use to bedazzle guests. And of course, the bathroom with its marble and Orient Express fixtures, huge porcelain tub that would allow me to stretch out, walk-in shower and large mirror. In short, one look and I thought, “I’m going to spend a lot of time in this bathroom.”

When she led me onto the balcony to show me the view of Lake Geneva and asked with that enchanting French accent if everything was acceptable, I could hardly utter my gratitude. I was in love. With the hotel, with my good fortune to be here, with her.

But that night again I couldn’t sleep because of jet lag. I lay awake until 5 a.m., then suddenly heard the phone announcing 7, time to get up.

I swung unsteadily out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom, looking forward to a shower. It was a European design, a hand-held shower head that can be fastened to a rod and slid up or down to the desired height. I swung it to the side and turned on the water to get the temperature right, then swung it back to get underneath. But the shower head swung right back against the wall as soon as I let go. I tried again and it swung away. And again.

So I tightened the fastener to control this unruly beast and let go expectantly. Back to the wall it swung. Oh my. I wasn’t steady enough to deal with this. Two hours’ sleep. Jet lag. A full day of teaching ahead. New environment. So many people to meet. To impress? I need a shower.

I tried several more times to steady the shower but had to settle for a one-handed soaping and shampooing, holding the shower head with one hand to keep it above me. Some of my contortions almost gave me a stiff neck, but I got scrubbed and rinsed and prepared to go to the conference.

When grabbing my things I saw a card that asked me to report on the back any problems with the facilities and give it to reception. Hmm. I wrote simply that my shower wouldn’t stay fastened, explained its tendency to swing against the wall, and prepared to drop it off on the way out after breakfast. When I did, I handed it to my reception clerk, the same conscientious woman who had checked me in. She accepted the card with a smile, then her face fell when she read my note. Looking up she could hardly contain her embarrassment. “Monsieur, this is not normal. We will fix this immediately. This does not happen here.” Again, that French accent melted me, but I walked out thinking, how interesting. Now we’ll find out if the Beau-Rivage can claim to be the best hotel in Geneva, one of Europe’s finest. It’s Saturday. I’ll be away for about 14 hours. Will my shower be fixed when I return?

After a stimulating but exhausting day, then dinner and festivities, I made it back to the hotel almost drunk with fatigue. A note lay under my key in its cubby, and the concierge glanced at it, then read it, then looked up, then said, “Your shower will be fixed on Monday, sir.”

Well, how about that? They failed the test. Upstairs I took another one-armed shower before bed, soaking and soaking with the hope that I’d be able to sleep, but it wasn’t to be. My jet-lagged brain bounced around and suddenly latched onto an idea whose logic was unassailable. A hotel of this caliber would never put a new guest in a room with a broken shower. They would leave this room vacant after I checked out on Sunday and book it only after the plumbers had completed their work on Monday. Thus I would suggest to management that it would cost them nothing to allow me to stay one more night. On the contrary, it would gain them another loyal patron who would sing their praises far and wide as one of Europe’s finest hotels. Why, I would even offer to pay what I would have to pay at the Montbrillant. Yes, it was only one-sixth the price of the Beau-Rivage, but it was something. Anyone would see that this was smart business. I concocted the best way to present my proposal, even addressing the unseemly nature of my request to make it appear less so, and I spent the remaining sleepless hours content in the knowledge that I would get one more night in this princely place.

Finally my wake-up call came. Again I had hardly slept a wink. I stumbled into the shower again, now more unsteady than ever. But this time when I turned on the water the shower swung the other way and lodged against the glass. Huh? I moved it back into the center, but turned the head so it pointed down and to the left. Sure enough, it swung to the right. I tried again, this time pointing it down and to the right. It swung left. My heart sank. Even though Newton’s theories have been left in the dust by quantum physicists, some of his laws still apply. I was pretty sure one would apply here.

I carefully moved the shower head so it shot straight down, then let go, and yes, there it was, stationary as a shower should be. I stared at it a long time before getting under, the fateful awareness growing until I had to accept it. I couldn’t ask for a free night. The shower was fixed.

But the best hotel in Geneva, one of Europe’s finest, shouldn’t have showers that require addle-brained and jet-lagged guests to remember their high school physics and have the wherewithal to adjust a shower head to the nearest millimeter, should it? I was convinced that it shouldn’t, but had to be content to soak and soak and soak, washing away my last minutes in a very fine hotel.

When I finally did check out, very late thanks to the generosity of management, I had to leave without saying goodbye to my reception officer. She was nowhere to be seen. She was probably at home, feeling unwell, crying her eyes out, knowing I’d be leaving on schedule, with perhaps a blemished opinion of her hotel.
About Larry’s Corner:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.