Regular readers of this blog will know that I absolutely adore the Westin Diplomat outside Fort Lauderdale. It’s without a doubt the best Starwood property for Platinum recognition. They have about 86 suites in the upgrade pool for platinums, many being corner suites with wraparound balconies looking out at both the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway.
Additionally, they have an absolutely lovely club lounge on the 33rd floor with both indoor and outdoor seating, also looking out both at the ocean and waterway. The club offers three food presentations daily, nice flatscreen televisions, and a bountiful selection of newspapers (I can even grab my Sunday New York Times there without much difficulty).It’s a big property to be sure, but they’ve always managed their size well. In the past the valet has been quick to grab my car – I call down from the room and it’s always waiting out front when I get there. And there have been plenty of pool and beach chairs to boot.Of course I’ve never gone during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and the drawbacks during that time to an excellent operation like the Diplomat’s are illustrative of a broader point about travel.
I knew well in advance that a suite would not likely be forthcoming on this stay. For the past several year the hotel has taken the extraordinary step of emailing Platinum members of the Starwood program to let them know well in advance that suites were unlikely to be available. This practice generated some controversy on Flyertalk, because some folks misinterpreted it to mean that the hotel was unwilling to upgrade platinums. Not the case, in fact I do know someone who received a suite last Christmas. Instead, they have about twice the number of platinums in the hotel as they have suites… and they sell out of suites (either through paid stays or award redemptions using double the points) in advance.
I checked with the hotel in advance of my arrival and they didn’t have any suites available for the length of my stay. That’s alright, they did provide a nice oceanfront room right by the club lounge, so not bad at all.
The lounge itself wasn’t the usual respite from the hustle and bustle from an almost-thousand room property. It was very busy, at times without any outside seating available, and they even found themselves out of coffee for periods of time in the morning. The staff just couldn’t keep up! One night evening desserts — which begin at 8pm — were completely gone by 8:05pm! One family came in, took the entire display for themselves, and the lounge didn’t have any additional trays. They said they just weren’t expecting very many people that night.
I’ll never visit the Westin Maui or other similar large resort factories, because I don’t like the practice of getting up at 6am to ‘reserve’ a chair at the pool by leaving a book or other personal items. This was never necessary on any of my previous visits to the Diplomat. This time was a different story — looking down at the pool area from my balcony I saw every single lounge chair around the pools covered with personal items at 7:30am one morning… and not a single person at the pool! (Some hotels are good about removing personal items left unattended for a period of time, a practice I consider to be much more civilzed).
Of course you could rent a cabana…. but when you only wanted an hour or so of sun it hardly seemed worth it.
Meanwhile the Diplomat had a different approach for rationing beach chairs. Unlike in the past where only the beach cabanas came with a fee, every Diplomat beach lounge chair was being charged a $10 fee (plus tax and mandatory 15 percent gratuity!). At least the price system served to ration the chairs and kept them available for those willing to pay.
My first night there I had to wait 30 minutes for the valet to bring around my car. The parking manager promised to remove the day’s parking charge from my bill, but unsurprisingly did not (it was taken off without fuss at checkout). Every subsequent time we called for our car we made sure to ring a good 20 minutes in advance, which worked out to be pretty much right.
All in all it was still a pleasant stay. I probably won’t return the week between Christmas and New Year’s, but I’ll definitely be back to the hotel. It’s beautiful, they managed the crowds relatively well all things considered, and they treat platinums wonderfully. But there are just too many people there for it to be relaxing and I don’t enjoy the long waits for my car, navigating crowds in the lounge, or scrounging for a chair at the pool.
Very few hotels would have been much different in South Florida that week. Every place was at capacity. And even the smaller more boutiqueish luxury properties would have found themselves taxed compared to their usual level of activity. And that’s why I don’t like going where the crowds go when the crowds go there. Prices are at their highest and the service is stretched too thin to be at its best. In other words, you’re paying more for less. Sure, school vacations may be a convenient time to travel to many of these types of destinations. And for those who find it difficult to get away any other time I suppose it makes sense, but for me it seems worth a little effort to be flexible in dates of travel, in order to receive a better experience once you’re there. The two wisest words in travel are often: shoulder season.. when the weather cooperates enough to make a destination worth visiting, but the crowds don’t push a property to its absoltely limit of capacity. Not only is service better, but status-based upgrades are also much easier to come by, and room rates will frequently be easier on the wallet.
I visited Khao Lak, Thailand in the lowest of low season this past year — late June/early July. The Meridien hotel was only about 20% full. This isn’t usually the ideal time to go, the seas are a bit rough and rain is pretty likely (it really never rained while we were there, but I wouldn’t have bet on it). Many of the restaurants in town were closed, and even some of the resort’s facilities were being renovated. On the other hand, the restaurants that were open — along with the spa — were offering 20% or 25% off of everything. And it was no problem upgrading from the one-bedroom presidential oceanfront villa to the two-bedroom at no additional charge…
I probably wouldn’t intentionally plan to be back in Khao Lak in July again, it just worked out that those were the best dates for my travel. But I would try to visit when the rest of the world wasn’t trying to stay there as well. And I very much look forward to returning to the Diplomat in March or perhaps October…