If you saw the BBC's recent documentary series, Inside Claridge's, you might have been amazed at the lengths that a luxury hotel will go for its guests. In one episode, staff were filmed ripping out a bathroom suite and replacing it with a Jacuzzi for a particularly demanding guest.
Rock stars, royals and the mega-rich habitually test the patience of hoteliers, and it's not (only) because they're spoilt prima donnas. It's because they understand the purpose of a five-star hotel: to provide its guests with whatever they want.
In contrast, ordinary folk tend to be a little overawed by such luxury. They're simply happy to be there.
Staying at a luxury hotel isn't cheap but it needn't be shockingly expensive. At Laterooms.com, I found several London five-stars reduced to around £200 a night, including the Westbury on Bond Street, where a double room was down from £470 to £202. Admittedly this is January, one of the quietest months of the year. But if it's luxury on a budget you want, this is a great time to get a deal.
So what can you expect when you turn up? Five stars above the door doesn't just mean plush carpets and marble bathrooms. Service is what you're paying for, and if you're smart you will take full advantage.
The pinnacle of service at a true five-star hotel is the concierge, a highly-trained and well-connected fixer whose services are at your disposal throughout your stay. He (or she) is often the key to squeezing the most out of your five-star hotel stay.
Once you've made your booking, contact the hotel to let staff know how they can make your stay more comfortable. Perhaps you prefer a particularly hard mattress or a certain type of pillow, or you favour a certain variety of tea. Exchange emails with individual members of staff to build a rapport. Once they see you're a discerning guest they'll go to great lengths to ensure you're happy - and you won't be fobbed off with a sub-standard room.
If you plan to combine your stay with a night at the theatre or a concert, don't buy tickets from a tout. Phone the concierge desk well in advance of your arrival. Often they can secure the best seats in the house at face value.
On check-in, ask about any events or activities offered free to guests. There may be a wine tasting, a yoga class or a manager's cocktail party.
When it comes to finding places to eat, throw away your guidebook and speak to the concierge, who can make personal recommendations and ensure you dine at the best tables. Even at the famous Danieli in Venice, the concierge found me a great-value local trattoria away from the tourist hordes.
A good concierge will rise to any challenge, whether it's retrieving lost luggage from an airline or finding a tailor to copy a favourite shirt. If you don't want to lug around shopping bags, leave them at the store and ask the concierge to pick them up.
At the hotel bar, ask to taste a few wines before ordering a bottle. A good barman will happily talk you through the wine list, give you free samples and throw in some posh nibbles. And it never hurts to be on first-name terms with the barman, does it?
Want your shoes cleaned? Leave them outside your door at night. Fed up with cartons of UHT? Call room service for fresh milk with your tea or coffee.
If you're lucky enough to have a butler, put him straight to work as soon as you check in. Ask him to unpack your bags while you enjoy a drink at the pool or explore the hotel. Although not a service widely advertised, many five-star hotels that don't have butlers will find a member of staff to pack or unpack for you - if you ask.
Butlers will also iron shirts and skirts, press suits, run shopping errands and generally act as your executive PA.
If you want some exercise, ask for a jogging map. And if you don't fancy doing the route alone, ask for a member of staff to join you. Sometimes one of the gym staff will accompany you - treat it as a free personal training session.
Whatever you do, don't feel bad at asking staff to go the extra mile. Why let the rich and famous have all the fun?
Mark Hodson is editor of 101 Holidays
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When I hit a market, I like to canvas the vendors to see if there is consistency in pricing, and do a few practice runs for goods. I was surprised to find consistency in opening prices in Morocco for basics like slippers, tangines, and tea glasses. Normally, I go two rounds of offers, where I let the vendor give me a price, and then give them an arbitrarily low price to get their reaction. If they don't counteroffer, then I know my price is too low to negotiate. If they do make a second offer, then I go up 10% more to see if they are still willing to deal. My goal is to find the lowest price to elicit a counteroffer. In most countries, anything more than two proposals and counterproposals means that you're a serious buyer, and I don't like to lead them on too much during this phase of due diligence.
Knowing your limits is a pure numbers game. In negotiations, it's referred to as your reserve price. This is the maximum price that you're willing to pay. Of course, you want to pay as far below that as possible. The yin to this yang is your opponent's reserve price, which is the lowest they'd be willing to sell for. As a good negotiator, your task is to flush out this price. In other words, it's Game On.
This is sometimes disputed, but a Machiavellian negotiator once taught me that you should almost always make the first offer. It's referred to as anchoring, because it anchors the expectations of your opponent. This is why due diligence is important before you start wheeling and dealing. This first offer should be low, and from personal experience, throws the merchant off since they usually make that first offer. Anchoring works best in China, Morocco, and Turkey. In these countries, I have no qualms about throwing out a low-ball offer based on my recon. There's no need to be overly aggressive, though; make the offer in a friendly way. In the Chinese markets, get ready to haggle down to the penny and don't be afraid to walk away. If time is on your side, you can wear them down, which is often their negotiation technique. In France, however, you're going to have to be far more refined. The relationship -- and showing appreciation for what you're buying -- are integral to getting a successful deal.
As Kit in "Pretty Woman" once wisely advised, don't get emotionally attached. It's the only way you'll maintain your upper hand. If you're willing to walk away, it will often give you more leverage in the negotiation.
In a multi-factor negotiation, you can create more value for you - and your opponent - by compromise. Certain things that are important to the other party may not be important to you and can be used as a bargaining chip to further your own agenda. And, of course, this works the other way around. Unlike a scorched-earth approach, here you're working with the other party so that you both get a bigger piece of the pie, instead of leaving value on the table that no one acquires. I was initially a skeptic about this approach, but days of negotiation exercises proved this to be true. It does pay to be honest about priorities. When negotiating in the artisan markets, it's well worth thinking creatively about ways to structure your deal. Test your counterpart on the importance of shipping terms, cash payments, using a certain type of credit card, tax, bulk purchases, higher-quality goods and items that they can throw in as "gifts" that may mean nothing to them are yet another notch on your belt.
<strong>6. Good Cop, Bad Cop </strong> It's always good to have a partner in crime, where one person is interested in an item, and the other feigns total disinterest. One partner can lead the negotiation, needling them down in price, while the other partner can have the foot out the door, creating a sense of urgency for the shopkeeper to close a deal. You can create an upper hand if there is a time constraint. My husband and I accidentally fell into this routine in Morocco, the first time we purchased a rug in Tangiers. I was genuinely uninterested in buying a rug, but my husband, in his infinite wisdom, spotted an investment grade piece. After telling my husband several times I didn't think a rug was necessary, the price on the rug began to drop precipitously. It got to the point that both my husband and the shopkeeper were pleading with me to agree to the purchase, which I did when he threw in high quality plates, one of which had intricate metal work and was an antique.
Like most rules, they are made to be broken. One of the most interesting places I've negotiated is in Easter Island, which defies conventional negotiation wisdom. This is one of the few places in the world where money doesn't seem to motivate the people. For the true Rapa Nui -- there are about 4,000 of them -- it's all about the appreciation of their spiritual island and culture. When we started on the task of buying replicas of the famed Moai statutes, we witnessed throngs of other tourists walking dejectedly away from vendors. The vendors weren't willing to wheel and deal; many of them adopted a "take it or leave it" approach. I went to the best - and, yes, the most expensive - artisan of Moai statues. Louis' work had intricate handmade carvings in the finest wood available on the island. I didn't approach him about buying, but rather about learning. We engaged in deep conversation for almost an hour, touring his shop of $10,000 statues. I explained my situation as a humble writer, and how much I really loved - yes, I used the word "loved" - his craft. Note that this approach qualifies as "kissing on the mouth." Louis asked me to pick what I wanted, which turned out to be a $500 perfect replica.. He asked if I could pay $250, and with that, I took my little guy (the statue - not Louis) home. My travel companions were successful at another shop, where in addition to the statues, one brave soul scored a tattoo, but that's another story.
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