Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

View more articles from Leo D'Angelo Fisher

Not a class act

Published 04 May 2012 14:13, Updated 09 May 2012 07:06

+font -font print

Australia an egalitarian society? A classless society? Don’t you believe it. Not as far as marketing strategists are concerned. Dividing customers into classes of varying status enables service providers to focus on high-yield customers who can afford to pay maximum fees and charges for a superior level of customer service. There’s money to be made appealing to the egos of first-class customers: bad luck for the rest of us.

Last week I was in Sydney to make a presentation to the Australian Marketing Institute and stayed overnight at the Harbour Rocks Hotel. It’s a gorgeous boutique hotel located in The Rocks and the attention and courtesy of staff was evident from the moment I approached the front desk. The room seemed to live up to its “Heritage Deluxe” status. “Very nice,” I thought to myself.

But as I prepared to wind down for the evening and eagerly anticipated placing my room service order for a beef burger – my standard hotel treat – I noticed that there was no dressing gown. When I rang reception I was informed that dressing gowns were only provided for guests in the hotel’s suites; guests in the standard and “deluxe” rooms did not get dressing gowns. This was the hotel’s policy, she explained, but noting my displeasure she promised to have one brought up.

A few minutes later, she called to apologise that no dressing gowns were available. I remonstrated with her – gently, because I knew this was none of her doing – and complained that I was not happy and that I could not understand why the dressing gowns were not a standard offering. She could only repeat that it was hotel policy, but if I liked I could speak to the duty manager. “No, I don’t need to speak to the manager. It’s just a silly policy and you can pass that on if you like,” I concluded in exasperation.

A few minutes later the manager rang and with great courtesy he attempted to explain the hotel’s dressing gown policy. I was not assuaged.

“When I stay in a hotel, I expect a dressing gown as a standard offering, which is why I have not brought a dressing gown with me. Am I supposed to spend the evening wrapped in a towel? I am greatly inconvenienced,” I fumed.

“I’m at a loss to understand your policy. If you didn’t provide dressing gowns at all, I would simply have to accept that, but the fact that some of your guests receive dressing gowns and others do not is frankly absurd. Here I am in the deluxe room, but not so deluxe that I get a dressing gown. May I suggest that you at least change the name of the rooms?”

The discussion went to and fro and finally the manager promised to bring up a dressing gown, which he did personally. Wonderful hotel; stupid attitude.

Airlines, of course, are very big on dividing their passengers into classes. They know that there are some travellers who will pay handsomely for the privilege of sitting at the pointy end of the plane. And that’s not to mention the multi-level frequent flyer programs; and airline clubs that range from standing room only clubs for anyone who pays their membership dues to rarefied invitation-only lounges whose names must never be spoken unless accompanied by a secret handshake.

I notice now that Qantas (and I believe Virgin) have priority check-in lanes at departure lounges; these are straddled by grey-carpeted lanes for lesser mortals in mob class. Premium passengers in a hurry to get to their seats get to walk down a red carpet. Oh, please.

Now, I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say that even if I qualified for priority check-in, I would feel foolish – possibly pretentious? – poncing down a red carpet. And what is the advantage of the red carpet treatment? Getting to your seat a few seconds before the economy schlubs?

Whenever I do fly, I prefer to fly Virgin, which does not seem to take itself as seriously as Qantas. But Virgin is after the lucrative business market these days and what was once the people’s airline has now introduced a new forward class which, ridiculously, it calls “premium economy”. Elitist and egalitarian all at once.

Some time last year, when I flew with Virgin to Adelaide, I checked in my suit pack as luggage and a friendly Virgin staff member told me that she would upgrade me. “Good,” I thought. “That means I’ll get a paper.”

When I sat in the very comfortable premium seats I noticed that there were no newspapers forthcoming, although others in the section were reading newspapers. Then a flight attendant brandishing a passenger list leaned over me to speak to the fellow next to me and offered him a complimentary drink. She then proceeded to offer others in the sparsely populated premium section a drink.

But not me. I quickly realised that while I may have been upgraded to premium, I was not an official premium passenger, and thus I did not qualify for a drink. What a bloody cheek! I couldn’t believe such rudeness – especially as the attendant was serving somebody right next to me.

And all this based on my passenger status. I lost not a little regard for Virgin that day.

Don’t talk to me about the classless society.

Do you agree? Write and tell me your views.

Harness the power of knowledge - become a subscriber to access 20 years of BRW’s archives.