A Colorado Road Trip
With one kid away at camp for a few weeks, we’ve become (temporarily) a family of four. Four is a lot easier than five. Most restaurant tables are meant for four. Bedtimes are easier with just two kids. And most importantly, when it comes to travel, we can all fit into one hotel room. So I decided to take advantage of the situation and get out of town for a few nights.
I love ski towns in the summer. The mountains are green and covered with wildflowers. There are fast-moving streams, taking the melted snow away, with their relaxing sound of rushing water. People are in good moods as the weather warms up. And the hiking is great. One of my best college memories was a fun three-day weekend in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, with a lot of hiking up and running down ski slopes. So I figured I would expose the remaining kids to a little of that and I booked three nights in Vail. For a hotel I went to TripAdvisor and chose the number two rated hotel, the Sonnenalp. When I posted where I was staying on Facebook, I received comments like “great hotel”, “loved that place” and “probably the best place to stay in Vail.” It certainly seemed like we made the right choice, and I fully expected to love the hotel. I figured that we may become annual guests; a new family summer tradition.
And sure enough the location was great – halfway in between the pirate playground and Lionshead. The staff members were extremely friendly. The hotel was charming and the grounds were beautiful. It felt like we were in a Bavarian lodge. We liked the hotel a lot. But we didn’t love it. And it all came down to kid-friendliness.
We’ve stayed at some very kid-friendly hotels recently, including the Four Seasons Bora Bora. So I notice when hotels go out of their way to engage the kids. And more importantly, the kids notice. Either the kids are excited to come back to the room in the evenings or they’re not. If they’re not, it takes away a little of the vacation fun. And it makes us less likely to come back to a hotel in future years.
What does it take for a hotel to be kid-friendly?
- An acknowledgement that we have young kids and a recognition that our vacation and requirements are going to be a little different from a couple traveling without kids.
- Something at check-in. We usually travel with paper, crayons and colored pencils. The kids can occupy themselves for hours drawing and coloring. If we forget to bring supplies, we need to go buy them. So it’s always a nice touch for the front desk to bring out something for the kids at check-in. 80% of the time it’s something drawing-related. Sometimes it’s a kid adventure pack or stuffed animals. Regardless, it serves to immediately engage the kids and gives them something to do during downtime.
- Pro-active recommendations of things to do with kids that we might not otherwise know about. This could come from the concierge, front desk staff, or even the waitstaff in the hotel restaurants. It’s always nice to receive a printout of well-thought-out, kid-friendly activities.
- Breakfast and other meal recommendations from the concierge or front desk that take into account kid-friendliness. It’s annoying when staff only recommend the hotel restaurants and won’t tell you about the great place down the street.
- When we do eat at the hotel restaurants, it’s important for the servers to treat the kids like kids. It’s nice to be offered kid cups and straws. But even if you want to give our kids adult glasses, which is fine, don’t fill them to the brim! Some servers really understand this – in addition to kid’s cups and reasonable refill levels, they leave the salad forks for the kids to use and bring spoons without us asking.
- Turn-down at night. This isn’t by any means a necessity, but if we’ve cleaned up before dinner and used towels, it’s nice to get dry towels. And the kids LOVE chocolates or other tiny things that housekeepers leave on the pillows. It makes them excited to come back to the room after dinner.
- An overall kid-friendly vibe. This doesn’t necessarily come from the hotels themselves. Other guests need to be in the mindset that it’s fine for (well-behaved) kids to be at the hotel and sharing the pool and other areas.
Unfortunately the Sonnenalp fell short on all of those. The hotel was nicely proactive before our arrival. They emailed us for details of our vacation, and they called a few days before our arrival to get the ages of our kids. This then translated to…nothing. There weren’t kid-sized robes in the room. There weren’t coloring books and crayons. There wasn’t a packet of information on kid-friendly activities around town. When we asked the concierge specific questions he answered them, but he wasn’t proactive at suggesting things for the kids that other guests have done or that the hotel recommends.
While the servers at the Swiss Chalet were absolutely perfect in interacting with our kids, the staff at the breakfast buffet restaurant (Ludwig’s) gave the kids very full glasses of water and apple juice, and kept topping them off. It’s stressful watching a 4-year-old try to get a full glass of apple juice from the table to her mouth without spilling!
The vibe at the pool definitely wasn’t kid-friendly. Even though the kids were well-behaved, we got the impression that other guests preferred not to have them there. The hot tub was only for guests over 12, and there was no similar option for younger kids.
And turn-down service was a mystery. The first night is was excellent – you could tell that the Sonnenalp takes a lot of pride in the service. The housekeepers made the room cozy, replaced towels and arranged robes, delivered sparkling water, and, most importantly for the kids, left behind fresh-baked cookies. But this was a one-time event. The subsequent two nights we would see the carts in the hallway when we left for dinner and then later open the room door expecting to see the cookies and bedtime atmosphere. Instead we came back to find the room to find it exactly like we left it.
Sonnenalp Customer Service
So here’s where the customer service part comes in. The day after we arrived home, I received an online survey from the hotel. I completed it, noting my disappointment in the kid friendliness of the hotel. In response to the question about whether I would stay there again, I said No. Even though there were a lot of good elements to the hotel, it just didn’t engage the kids, so I figured we would try a different place next time.
Barely an hour after I submitted the survey, on a Sunday no less, I received a call from Stefan, the Sonnenalp’s general manager, and we had a great conversation. He acknowledged the issues and admitted that it’s part of their process to ask the age of child visitors, but that nothing’s done with that information. He truly wants to use my comments to make the hotel kid-friendlier, and offered us a night on them next summer to give them another chance. He promised several times that when we come back we will see improvements in all areas. Wow! So in the course of a couple of hours, I went from being fairly negative about our experience to having a very positive feel about the hotel. That also prevented me from writing a negative TripAdvisor review – I’ll wait until we stay there again to review them and their progress. It’s great to see a property willing to implement kid-friendly things to make future family stays more enjoyable. And that can only lead to new business – if you keep the kids happy, you keep the parents happy. If the parents are happy, they’re more likely to return year after year. And if children grow up with a family tradition like that, they may just decide to continue the same tradition with their own kids.
If you are at the Sonnenalp with kids in the next year, please let me know what you see. Have they implemented any changes? What have your kids liked best?