An Enduring Fondness for the Fairmont

When I returned to one of Fairmont’s Vancouver hotels last week, I got to thinking about what hotel chains represent in our minds - the worlds, even the eras in history, that they conjure up for us: romantic and grandiose or tacky and lowlife - sometimes all it takes is a name. The Fairmont’s portfolio contains two such properties of the romantic and grandiose kind: The Savoy in London and The Plaza in New York. Those legendary names  immediately evoke a more elegant, glamorous era. That’s what grand hotels give us and that’s why, on a harried city day,  when traffic noise, digital displays and shop windows filled with trashy mass-produced clothes are starting to get me down, I often wander into the foyer of a  grand hotel. Like Dr Who’s Tardis but for people with a hankering for marble halls, chandeliers, sweeping staircases, opulent bouquets and a bit of Cole Porter to accompany it all,  we step into another world once we go through their revolving doors.

 My first big commissioned trip as a travel writer came in 2000, from an idea that I had sent to “The Sunday Telegraph” about locations of Hitchcock films around San Francisco.  “Vertigo” featured beautiful footage of the city.   I got to follow in the tracks of James Stewart and Kim Novak.  And my first stop was at the Fairmont, San Francisco. This was the first ever Fairmont - and what a grand, gracious building it is, set right on top of Nob Hill where the cable car lines intersect. The management put me in a room overlooking the elegant Brocklebank apartments. This was where Kim Novak’s mysterious character, Madeleine, lived. Researching the feature evolved into spending  many happy hours gazing out at the glorious views of the city and I started a life-long love affair with elegant Fairmont hotels.

The Fairmonts also own all those grand hotels that waited at the end of great transcontinental railway journeys in the early days of Canadian travel. Once known as Canadian Pacific hotels, such romantic and legendary names as the Royal York in Toronto, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, the Banff Springs, the Jasper Park Lodge and the Chateau Lake Louise hotel all came under the Fairmont name when the chains amalgamated a few years back and the decision was made to keep the more general “Fairmont” title.  Each of those hotel names evokes New World glamour - great castle-like structures on frozen lakes or rivers with a backdrop of vast forests and mountains that were awe-inspiring but just a little menacing in their dramatic beauty. Plush warmth and comfort guaranteed a welcome release from snow and ice and train rides that could last for days. Roaring log fires, palatial dining halls, stupendous scenery viewed from a cosy window seat were, and still are, the order of the day.  Out in the gentler climes of Victoria on Vancouver Island, at the far end of the second biggest country on earth,  is the grandest old Fairmont lady of all - the Empress Hotel.

In a complete contrast, my most recent trip took me, appropriately to one of the most recent Fairmonts. The Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver was built to coincide with the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Joining the venerable Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, the glitzy Fairmont Waterfront and the Fairmont at the airport, the Pacific Rim overlooks the green grass roof of the new Vancouver convention centre. We’re a long, long way from Quebec’s Chateau, the Savoy’s Art Deco and its sedate San Franciscan ancestor.  This is a brand new 21st century hotel in soaring glass that looks out over Vancouver’s harbour, forest and mountains and takes its name from one of the world’s most dynamic regions. Over a decade after those happy days in the Fairmont on Nob Hill, I sat in my own private hot-tub, ate luxury chocolates made in-house  and gazed once again at the busy life of the worlds’s greatest ocean: Container ships from China waited in the harbour, float planes took off for the surrounding islands, joggers and cyclists headed for Stanley Park. Once again, for just a brief moment, a Fairmont had transported me to another world.

John Coltrane sets off coffee shop revolt

Artigiano is my favourite Vancouver coffee shop. They make the best coffee in town and were tracing hearts, leaves, trees etc in that perfectly thick, creamy cappuccino foam when most coffee houses thought a sprinkling of cinnamon (ugh) on watery froth would make us feel that we might just be sharing our latte with Fellini on Rome's Piazza Navona. Artigiano, with its true Italian ancestry knew better - until they let John Coltrane loose in their West Broadway branch this past Labour Day.

This was John Coltrane in his later career, his sax screeching and screaming in the wild, abrasive upper registers - and screeching and screaming, and screeching and screaming some more. The coffee shop was empty. I would later wonder if this was a coincidence. I yelled my order at the cashier - she yelled her response. Somewhere in the stratosphere Coltrane got more agitated. And so did I. As did the man in the line behind me who was muttering to his partner about "this awful jazz'. "Could you please change or lower the music?" I asked. Now, anybody who has ever asked for music to be changed knows that there is a new law in the Universe that allows a mysterious force to hold sway over music in stores, restaurants etc. And this mysterious force has TOTAL CONTROL. It is usually located out of town and does not allow the simple act of turning a volume dial ever to be performed. I know because I've asked the people in Shopper's Drug Mart if they can change their music and I'm always told that it comes "from Toronto". And Toronto, apparently, wants loud, dumb music to be played at all times.

But I'd had higher hopes of Artigiano. Their music has often been truly background, soft and smooth like the sumptuous foam on those lattes. My companion had suggested they actually switch the music off but I knew that was like asking the Queen to friend you on Facebook. You just didn't ask because you knew it would never, ever happen. The girl behind the counter had disappeared into a back room. Now she came back smiling, mission accomplished - except for one thing, Coltrane was still riffing away up in the stratosphere, getting madder and more frazzled by the minute. As were we. The man in the line behind me asked for the manager.

Enter Desiree Olexi - a very young, pleasant-faced woman. But as she strode towards us, I could see on her pretty features, the new face of customer service. Not that old 20th century model where 'the customer is always right', and the customer's satisfaction and happiness are paramount. Oh no, here came 21st century customer service. It follows the model of what I call "The New Defensiveness." This model says that "you may be the customer but we are right and we will dig our heels in and insist on how right we are even as you are walking out of the shop."

Desiree set about explaining why the music could not possibly be changed/muted/stopped by entering into a complex, technical monologue that involved a lot of incomprehensible jargon about the iPod that ran the music being broken and, apparently, stuck on John Coltrane - which every single customer in the place very obviously was not.

"You have a customer rebellion on your hands," I said, gesturing to the unhappy half dozen of us in the shop. My friend came back from seeking refuge at an outside table to report that 'it's even louder out there and the people out there hate it." But Desiree was not to be swayed. The music had been turned down, she said. (It hadn't). Today, at least, she could do no more. Perhaps tomorrow the recalcitrant iPod could be fixed.

The man behind me in the line tried a new approach. He explained, calmly and politely, that he himself works in management and the one thing he had learned over the years is that, "it is not what you are saying but how you are making the person to whom you are saying it FEEL." He looked over at me and I confirmed that I felt patronized and insulted.

But Desiree Olexi wasn't really having it. Locked as she, and so many young managers are, in the need to be right, she failed to see that the time had come for some serious damage limitation. Instead, John Coltrane won, Desiree won. We drank our two miserable lattes faster than I've ever drunk a coffee in my life, and we left. We won't be back. There's an excellent French coffee shop, Baguette and Co, further along Broadway. They serve the best croissants in town and they don't deafen their customers. I hope Desiree and John will be happy together but it's a shame things went that way. One flick of a switch, one recognition that the people who pay your wages need to be heard and my imaginary mid-mornings with Fellini could have continued. Oh, and by the way, the great Federico once commented during a French tv interview, that he could not understand the fad for background music - music while you shop or eat . "Music is for listening to," he said with a shrug.