Now that I have more or less recovered from my jetlag, I guess I should relate some of the high and low points of our travelling group's experience with service providers in our three-week holiday that included a 10-day cruise on board the Ms Eurodam (pictured)
Our group of 10 took the ship, one of many operated by the Holland America Line, from New York to Quebec. At the end of it, most of us rated it the worst of all the cruises that we have taken.
One of the reasons perhaps was that many of the places that we stopped at were not particularly unique, historical or spectacularly scenic. Unlike those many of us had experienced along the Mediterranean, Alaskan and Baltic coasts.
I guess our timing had a part to play, too. We got there much too early to catch the Fall colours which would have made a difference to city folks like us.
And what certainly didn't help in making this holiday a memorable one was the service standards that we encountered on board the Eurodam.
It started off badly when some members of our group had to wait a long time to check in. The luck of the draw saw them being attended to by inexperienced staff who were apparently still learning on the job.
After the check-in, what created a worse impression was having to wait for our cabins as they were not ready for occupation. I was surprised that the management could not get this basic thing right after being so long in the cruise business and whose promotion tagline is "A Tradition of Excellence".
Another surprise was the discovery that we had to pay for bottles of water in our cabins. I don't remember having to do so in all our previous cruises with other companies.
If the reason was to cut costs, the management could have easily included the expense in the price of the cruise. To us, it was a matter of convenience. Obviously, it was something that did not cross the minds of those in charge.
Those bottles of water consumed during our cruise did not amount to much, but by charging for them, it certainly did not earn them any goodwill.
As the cruise went on, it became apparent to us that the management was not paying sufficient attention to detail. A good example was the confusion we experienced over dinner bookings at its various restaurants.
On several occasions, our group had to unravel booking schedules because of failure to co-ordinate among staff members of the food outlets.
Although the service personnel were generally friendly and helpful, their inability to focus on "the little things" could sometimes prove embarassing to the point of being irritating.
Another example of poor service: My friend EC sent a pair of his favourite pants for laundry with very specific instruction that it should be dry cleaned. When it came back, he found to his horror that it had shrunk. The reason? It was given the normal wash.
When EC complained, the cruise office denied any wrongdoing. However, after some haggling, it offered to compensate him US$50 but with a catch: he had to hand over his pants.
EC was flabbergasted to say the least. His pair of trousers had cost him a few hundred dollars and here he was being insulted with an offer of miserly compensation --- plus the possibility of losing his pants
He decided he needed to speak to someone with authority. So he left word with the cruise office that he would like to speak to the "Hotel Manager".
Those were magic words indeed. The next thing he knew, word came back that he would be allowed to keep his pants, have his US$50 and be compensated further after he has sent the pants for alteration.
Well, the bitter taste in EC's mouth was somewhat soothed. But the question is, why must the management wait for EC's attempt to escalate the matter before it decided to do the right thing?
Our experience with poor service did not end with the "Case of the Shrunken Pants". On our last night on board, we dined at the Tamarind, the Asian restaurant where we had to pay for our meals.
When it came time to settle our bills at the cruise office, two couples in our group discovered that they were double-charged by the restaurant.
But what took the cake was when our friend Bob pointed out the mistake, he was told by the office staff to go upstairs to the restaurant to sort it out. He rightly refused to do so.
Holland America Line management should not be surprised when they read our answers to the most critical question in its feedback survey ---whether we would be cruising with the company again.
OUR EXPERIENCE ON LAND
* WE FOUND the service staff at restaurants generally helpful, friendly and knowledgeable, and we had some good meals in New York, Boston, Bar Harbour in Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal.
While we appreciated the service that was rendered, somehow at the back of our minds we could not help wondering whether they were doing it just for the money.
Quite often, it was difficult to tell how geniune these people were. After all, tipping is part of the culture at these places and it is understandable why they sometimes have to put up a show.
For me, I much prefer the Singapore system of taking off 10 per cent for service. It removes my predicament of how much to tip and whether I have tipped these service people sufficiently.
* THERE are tour guides and tour guides. In our land tours, we came across three versions -- the Good, the Bad and the Witty.
The Good was in Boston. Steve is probably in his late 50s or early 60s but he was clearly enjoying his job as a guide. Apart from bringing us to the place where we had the best lobsters, he also knew his history and could easily trot out all the significant dates and the backgrounds of the places and events.
What really impressed us was when we stopped at a statue of Paul Revere on his horse and he started reciting The Midnight Ride by the poet Longfellow. When he ended 10 minutes later, he was greeted with loud applause from his listeners.
THE Bad was a woman in Halifax. She went through her routine of showing us the town without showing any spark. It led to "Lullaby in Halifax" as many of us dozed off along the way. However, we were awakened not long after when the bus stopped for us to take a stroll in a garden that did not impress at all.
THEN came the Witty in beautiful Quebec City. Not only did she have a sense of humour, she also had a mind of her own -- and was not afraid to show it.
She was a natural entertainer. We enjoyed what she told us about the history and the social trends of the place, and had no trouble mixing it all up with just the right dose of wit.
* I SHOULD not end without mentioning a concierge named Kelly at Millennium Broadway Hotel in the Big Apple. To me, he was a model worker. He was helpful, engaging and was able to strike up a rapport with his customers without any effort.
It was only later that I realised why he had such a personality. He told me that he had his own band playing in a club and he was the leader. He had also played minor roles on TV.