Monday, May 19, 2008

SERVICE not INCLUDED at the Sheraton Manhattan

Can we talk about service for a minute? What does the word really mean and how can you rate it? People in the travel industry use the word all the time... "class of service", "service to New York", "spa service"... the word is really embedded into every piece of your trip. The one thing you do know about service... is that you know when it goes right and you dread when it goes wrong.

I just flew into New York City to meet up with our latest Travel Channel Academy students for their graduation. I came in to "critique" their final projects... me, the one who cried when I presented my dreck video only months before. It was fine... the students were all talented and really appreciated the feedback on their work.(Check out for more information on the Travel Channel Academy!)

Anyway, after the graduation I decided to walk the 10 streets up to the Sheraton Manhattan to check into my hotel room. Yes, even after my experience at the Sheraton in Philly... I decided to book the Sheraton again. BAD move.

One of the problems with traveling so much is that you tend to confuse hotel stays. When I was booking the hotel for this trip, I remembered a nice room and a really cool gym on the top floor of the building. I remembered overlooking the Hudson as I was doing 30 minutes on the treadmill. Yeah, that was the WESTIN Times Square (see blog... it smells good) and I mistakenly thought it was the Sheraton Manhattan. I stayed in this hotel over the holiday season when I came to New York for the Travel Weekly Awards. That night was fun... and ended with the Travel Channel team in a club at 3am. So, now I know why my memory is a little fuzzy. Lets get back to the story...

So, I walked up to the Sheraton Manhattan located on 7th and 52nd on the WEST side of the Street... not the one on 54th and 7th on the EAST side of the street. I hear the one on the EAST side of the street is better. Ugg. Anyway, I walked in and walked over to the desk to check in. Mind you... it is 6:30pm and there is just a ton of people in the lobby. There are people dressed to head out for dinner, people lined up to speak to the concierge... the place is a buzz. So, I stand in line to check in and realize that there is one receptionist checking people into this hotel. ONE. The man in front of me is frazzled and he is already running late to a business dinner. He is FUMING when a bellman asks if he can help him... and he tells him that he is wondering why there is only one person working the reception desk. The bellman promptly answers, "Sir, it is 6pm... they are all at church." The bellman then turns to the guy behind the desk and says, "Isn't that right, Guilermo? Aren't they all at church?" They laugh... it was not amusing and I am a catholic.

I finally got up to talk to Guilermo and he promptly checks me into my room and I head over to the bank of elevators that look like they could use a good polish. In fact, the entire lobby reminds me more of Penn Station rather than a quality hotel. But, I am exhausted and I really just want to drop my stuff off so that I can run out and get some sushi.

I head upstairs and I unlock my door. The room is pretty typical and in my mind I am still thinking that this hotel has that cool gym upstairs and I remembered being pleased with that experience. So, I go with it. I put my stuff down and I take a glance at the In Room Dining menu before heading out for sushi. I was shocked to see the limited menu... burgers, salads and pasta bolognese? We are in Manhattan for gods sake! Are we kidding with this menu? So, I called down to the concierge to get some recommendations for a nearby sushi restaurant. The concierge promptly answered on the second ring and I got a "Yeah?" on the other end. So, I said... "Hello, I was wondering if you could recommend any sushi places in the area for takeout." To which he replied, "Mam, yeah... but I have a few people here at the desk right now. You can go to Blue Chili." What? So, I said, "OK, where is that?" Reply: "Its at 51st and Broadway." He continued, "Or, you can try East on 55th between Broadway and 8th." I quickly wrote all of this down and he hung up before I could say thank you. Asshole.

Before I left I wanted to go to the bathroom and check to see if I looked decent enough to take a stroll to get some takeout. When I walked into the bathroom, the water was running ever so slightly and the hairdryer was plugged into the wall. I looked down and there was hair on the floor and I could see that a bar of soap was in the tub. EWWWWWW! I know that I am high maintenance. I get that... but, this is not about being a princess. This is about a dirty bathroom and now I am PISSED.

I grab my bag and head downstairs and I am tired and hungry. This is something that my husband knows is a BAD combination for me... and now you are throwing in a dirty hotel room and NO SERVICE! Watch out Guilermo!! I am coming to the front desk!

I get to the front desk and I refuse to wait on line... Guilermo is still manning the desk on his own. I walk right up there and I say, "We have a problem." ... and I tell him about my mess of a room. He is cool as a cucumber and he tells me that he will give me a better room and immediately changes me up to the 22nd floor. OOO... an upgrade. OK... this could be a good thing afterall. I thank him and he offers to buy me breakfast in the morning. I refuse because I really do not want to come down to have breakfast in their restaurant. Its fine... I am pacified for the time being.

I head outside and walk over to EAST Sushi on 55th between B'way and 8th. The place looks like a whole in the wall until you walk down a flight and see how big it is. I was happy to see a lot of Japanese people eating here along with the constant flow of New Yorkers who probably frequent this place weekly. Kudos to the asshole concierge for pointing me in the right direction!

I order my sushi... a couple of rolls, a miso soup and a seaweed salad and head back to the shithole... I mean, Sheraton. Its a nice evening in New York. A little overcast and they are expecting rain.. but, warm enough to enjoy a light walk.

I head back upstairs and get my things out of the first room and move into my second room. I was figuring a nice upgrade... not so much. Its a bigger version of the room that I just had and the bathroom looks like it used to be a closet. This place is a wreck. Don't even get me started on the bathroom... put it this way, I am wearing flip flops in the shower. I am just too tired and hungry to deal with it.

So, I jump on my Sheraton bed...nice quality sheets and mattress but the synthetic comforter...another buzz kill. Yuck... I kick that piece of trash onto the floor... and I order a movie and settle down for the evening. Don't get all perverted on me... I ordered JUNO which may be my favorite movie of the year. Its great and I highly recommend it if you have not seen it already.I eat my sush... I watch my movie and I settle in for the night.

It is now 9am and I just got back from the gym and finally realized that this is not the hotel that has the cool gym. This is the one where you need to share TVs and you do not have to use headsets. So, there is almost a battle of the TVs in that room.. because we are all blasting the volume to hear it over the cardio machines. Ugg...

I can tell you without hesitation that this experience is about as bad as it can get. The lack of service started at check in and it continues through my gym experience. This hotel will always make money because it is a trap for tourists. BUT... for people like you who do your research... you will know better. So, what is good hotel service for me? Its simple... just make me feel welcome and expected at check in. My room should be clean and I would like the staff to be polite. These are the basic things that you should expect at ANY hotel and the Sheraton Manhattan is now BLACK LISTED for me. If you go there now... don't ever say that I did not warn you.

Travel on...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Orlando, Napa, Philly and home to cook a sauce....

I remember a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago where she asked me when I was traveling again and I said, "You know what, its the most amazing thing... but, I have nothing on the schedule." Then, all of a sudden... all hell broke lose! This last week alone I was in Northern California and Philly. The week before that I was in Orlando. I finally did laundry today with my hubby and I had to clean out two suitcases. Yuk.

So, let's start with Orlando. I had an uneventful flight from DC to MCO. I was going down to see my parents. My Dad has been sick lately, so I was meeting my sister down there to think about next steps for his care. It was definitely not a "fun" weekend in Orlando... and I was kind of anxious when I came through security to meet my mom. Then, just as I was coming into the terminal a little boy next to me said, "Is this the airport that Mickey uses when he goes on vacation?" His mommy looked at him and responded, "You know, I think it is." I watched him look all around the terminal to see if he could spot Mickey... just in case he was here. He is a jet-setting mouse after all! He looked like me walking through LAX... just looking to see if someone important happened to be traveling. In that moment, that little boy reminded me that I was in Orlando... the vacation capital of the US. People were giddy gathering their luggage and it reminded me of the magic of travel and how happy people are when they can just be free from worry... even for a few days. I was here for another reason... but, that minute gave me a little glimmer of fun and I made a mental note.

This past Monday, I found myself in a cab at 6am heading to Dulles for a trip out to San Francisco. I was heading out there for a pre-production meeting for our new season of Cash and Treasures up in Napa. Yes, Napa... yes, a work meeting in Napa. Amazing, I know. I was also really excited to try Virgin America Airlines. They fly Dulles to San Fran... so, I jumped at the chance to try them on for size.

When you board a Virgin America plane, it sort of feels like you are entering a "W" hotel for the first time. It was purple and red lighting and all of the seats are black leather. They also play cool smooth jazz music in the cabin to give you that "Come on aboard" type feeling. The flight attendants are dressed head to toe in black. It feels more club than airplane... but, I went with it.

The problem started when I checked in late and was assigned to seat 26D. I always request a front seat... not first class, just close to the front. For me, it's more about the odds of surviving in the nose section of the aircraft, but I must admit... I like getting off the plane quickly. Regardless, I am in the back for this flight... which I figured I could deal with. I was exhausted and every seat has a TV, games, music, chat options and I also hear that you can order food. Not sure where it is coming from at 36k feet.. but, I was into finding out.

As I walked through the cabin, I realized that not only was I in the back of the plane... I was in the last row in the house. I was kind of happy to have an aisle seat until I realized that I was sharing my row with a 2 year old and her mommy. Now, I am a mother of a two year old and I have chosen not to take her on a 5 hour flight just yet. This mom thought her girl was ready.... and I guess I was going to find out first hand if she is.

I sat down and once we were in the air, I started playing with my little TV/Game console thingy on my seat. I had read in one of my industry mags that I could "ping" (text) someone elses seat if I wanted to chat. One of my friends was up in row 16 and I thought I would try it out. Nope, that function was not ready yet. OK, I'll just watch TV. I flipped through the channels and realized that they were set to West Coast time and it was only 4am out there. So, I just fell asleep instead.

When I woke up, I wanted something to snack on... so, I touched the "order food" button and eureka!! It worked!! I asked for a diet coke and a granola bar. They also had sandwiches and other snacks... all very reasonably priced. All you had to do was click what you wanted and then swipe a credit card at your seat. Not two minutes later... BAM... a flight attendant dressed in all black delivers your food to your seat. I had to admit... that was cool.

After reading for a few hours (BTW.. I am reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and I HIGHLY recommend it) I decided to try the TV again. This time I was looking for the morning shows. Still nothing but infomercials from the satellite provider. So, I buzzed for help and one of the attendants walked over and I asked him if there was a problem with the TV. He said (and I quote...), "You know, we are really high up and sometimes we just do not get a signal." So, I responded..."But, I fly Jet Blue all the time and I never have a problem with the TVs." TO which he replied, "Yeah, their system is better." Oh, it depresses me when a company has such a cool idea and then the reality hits... style has to equal substance or style is just for style... and that was my experience with Virgin America. Next time I am going Jet Blue to Oakland. Better airline... better airport. (Did I ever mention how much I hate SFO? It is hands-down the WORST airport in the country.) Oh, and the little girl at my seat... she was an angel. Might have been the best part of the flight.

It takes about an hour and a half to drive to Napa from SFO. Its a pretty easy drive and when you finally get into the wine country... you start to see the vineyards and small markets offerng tastings. I felt my whole life relax... ahhh... this is pretty close to heaven.

The entire Cash and Treasures crew were meeting up at the Napa Lodge in Yountville. It is a charming boutique property that is really just a motor lodge that had a few million dollar face lift. Now, it is a "boutique lodge" instead of a "motor lodge." Yes, it is far nicer that a motor lodge... the rooms are roomy and most of them have verandas over looking the pool area. The bathrooms are well appointed with rain shower heads and granite and my room had a working fireplace. Nice.

We used their meeting room at the hotel for our production meeting and then headed out that night for a nice dinner and wine. You really cannot go wrong in this area for food and wine. So, just bring your appetite and a clean palette.

The next afternoon, some of us went up to the Rubicon Estate to do a tasting. Rubicon is one of Coppola's wineries and it is really beautiful. The drive up to the estate looks looks like a Tuscan villa with fountains and cypress lining the roadway. We went in and did a tasting and I purchased a bottle of their sovignon blanc for my mother for Mother's Day. I'm a good kid.

After the tasting, we made the drive back to SFO (aka hellaport)for my very first red eye back to DC. I just never needed to do a red-eye before... so, I was able to avoid them until right now. We got to SFO in plenty of time and grabbed a bite before boarding our 9:40pm flight back to DC. We boarded our Virgin America plane and the music and black clothing gave a chill in my spine. Its a good thing I had a seat in the front.. this flight had to be better than the one yesterday.

The good news is that not only was I in the front of the aircraft, I also had the entire row to myself. The bad news... the armrests between the seats do not really go up. Another bad part... you can never plan for turbulence. This might have been the bumpiest flight since my post-traumatic stress causing one on a US Air flight from Buffalo to LaGuardia when I was in college. That flight was so bad, they had us in crash position... twice. I SH!T you not. If it were not for Travel Channel, that incident might have changed my entire career. There is something to be said about getting back onto the horse!

The flight got into Dulles at 5:30 the next morning and all I remember is getting my bag, grabbing a cab and coming into my bedroom to see Eva sleeping next to Peter. I remember dropping my bag, climbing under the covers and waking up three hours later. I do not remember the cab ride, paying for the ride, or coming into the house. The rest of that day is also a blur... I think I did a little bit of work before crashing again at 2pm. I have to say... the red eye sucked. I would have been far more productive if I just stayed the extra night in San Francisco and flew out the next morning. The good thing was that I was home with Eva the entire next day... and when you are a traveling mom like me... that time is precious.

The next day I was back with suitcase as I was heading up to Philly to test our new Sam Brown show. I took the Acela from Union Station up to 30th Street Station and it was perfect. I was able to work on the train and I felt refreshed and ready for our meeting that night. Now, the hotel situation was just what I expected. We chose to stay at the Sheraton City Center because it was walking distance to where we were going for the meeting. Now, remember... I am a huge fan of Westin properties and Sheraton is just the middle child of that family. I was expecting a not so polished version of a Westin. Well, this middle child was the kid who always wore the hand-me-downs and was in dire need of a good haircut. The hotel itself was huge... it just needed a makeover. Everything had a dirty film like cast... the wall paper was a navy blue and red stripe and was tattered here and there. The carpeting in the hallways looked like it had not been changed since the 1980's and the overall smell can only be descibed as Endust over a musky odor. The rooms were a little better... not great... but, I could sleep there. Overall rating = poor. The Embassy Suites only a block over had larger and newer rooms... minus the asbestos cleaning it was a better experience (did you read that blog?)

I was back on the Acela the next morning and was back in my new office at the Travel Channel by 10:15am. I was glad to be home... and to be going home tonight to see my family.

Yesterday we took Eva down to Union Station in DC for National Train Day. She loves the "choo-choo", she enjoyed the model trains and all of the fun stuff they had for the kids. It was a charming way to spend an afternoon in DC... and I can already see a glimmer of the travel bug in her eye.

Today is Mother's Day and in honor of my mother and my mother in law... I am passing my "gravy" recipe on to you. This recipe came from my Italian Mother... Serafina Porco of Cosenza, Italy. She was my second mother and insisted that we all make a good gravy. So, this is really her recipe that I just call my own. I love it... and thanks to Annie for suggesting that I add this to my blog. I know my mom will get a kick out of it.

Ciao, Bella.

Serafina's Sauce ("Gravy")
-good olive oil (EVOO... enough to coat your pan)
-one onion, chopped
-3 cloves garlic, minced
-one package pork neck bones
-parsley (a hand-ful)
-oregano (hand ful... fresh is better than dried)
-fresh basil (I insist on freshly chopped)
-2 cans whole tomatoes (never crushed... tomatoes are best whole)
-1 can tomato paste
-1/2 can water (use the large can from the tomatoes)
-bay leaf (2)
-salt (sprinkle)
-sugar (3/4 c)
-grated peccorino romano cheese (3/4c is fine... but I could argue for a cup)

Coat the bottom of your sauce pan with the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and them cook until happy (about 3 minutes). Coat the mixture with basil, oregano, and parsley and let cook one more minute. Add the pork bones and let cook until browned and the flavors are combined.

Meanwhile, crush the tomatoes in a bowl using your hands. (Be sure to puncture each of the tomatoes with your thumb or you will get a spit on!) Pour the crushed tomatoes into the sauce pan over the pork mixture. Add the can of paste and the water to the mixture and bring to a boil. Continue to stir the sauce to avoid sticking.

Sprinkle some salt over the top and add about 3/4 c of sugar (yup... you read that right) to the sauce and stir. Add about 3/4 c of the cheese to the sauce and bring turn the heat down to a simmer.

Allow to cook 2-hours (covered) on this low heat - stirring every 15-20 minutes. I usually take the cover off for the last 45 minutes or so of cooking to allow the sauce to thicken.

Serve over good pasta - the "bones" are to be eaten on the side of the pasta. W

Warning - cooking this pasta might attract Italians to your home. Be sure to have a salad on hand and it always helps to have a few chicken cutlets to fry in the fridge... just in case.