I have travelled all around the world, from Chile to Cambodia, Fiji to Nepal, and the cheapest hotel I ever stayed in was the five-star Hilton Melbourne South Wharf, which cost me $1.
When I began my journey as a backpacker, I was interested in the lives of poor people in developing countries. Now I know how they live: they keep chickens, cut out pictures from magazines and stick them on their walls, carry stuff around on their heads, and wake up very early in the morning. They often don’t have toilets in their homes. Apart from that, they’re just like us..
These days, I’m more concerned with the culture of rich people, and I’ve devoted the last couple of years to trying to discover what we can learn from these simple folk, who are only concerned with luxury and money.
Business travellers inhabit a hidden world of airport and executive lounges. They belong to frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs, which provide them with free stuff like beer, wine and food.
Let me explain how this worked for me. A couple of years ago, I flew twice to Europe with Qantas, and also took a number of Qantas domestic flights. I became a Gold Qantas Frequent Flyer, which entitled me to use Qantas Club. These are bland and uninspiring facilities, but offer great opportunities for rich-people watching.
At about 5pm each day, the cold buffet (with one choice of soup) is augmented by a hot food selection (usually a fairly crappy pasta). As soon as this occurs, dozens of business travellers hurry to their feet and rush the servery because, even though you wouldn’t pay five dollars for the meal at the restaurant, the chance to get something for nothing is valued very highly in the uncomplicated philosophy of people who wear suits to work.
In late 2010, in an attempt to win a bigger share of the business-travel market, Virgin Australia offered to ‘status match’ Qantas Frequent Flyers. In other words, if you were Gold with Qantas, they would make you Gold with Virgin, even if, like me, you never flew Virgin because you mistakenly believed their flights were always cancelled.
And here’s the good bit: the Hilton Honors program status-matched Virgin Frequent Flyers, so I was automatically a Gold Hilton guest, although I never stayed at Hiltons either. This meant that, at Hilton hotels throughout the world, I became entitled to an automatic upgrade to an Executive Room, free wi-fi and a buffet breakfast.
I paid $165 for a room at the Hilton Melbourne South Wharf. The extras – wi-fi and breakfast – were worth about $50, which theoretically brought the price of the room itself down to $115. Realistically, however, I’d have spent only $10 on breakfast and $5 at an internet cafe, so let’s call it $150.
But Gold Hilton Honors members also have use of the Executive Lounge, which serves free beer, wine and canapés from 6pm to 8.30pm. I arrived with a friend and her daughter at 6pm on the dot. We immediately began drinking Boag’s Premium and eating plates of antipasti – bread, cheese, olives, cold meats, nuts and salads, until the hot food arrived.
The samosas were delicious, although my friend preferred the gyoza, and we could go back for more as often as we liked. I ate five small plates of hot food, which amounted to one big plate. My friend and her daughter probably had another six between them, and there was a cheeseboard for dessert. In a mid-range restaurant, we would have paid about $30 a head – and at the Hilton we had a view of the Yarra.
So, by now, the room itself had cost me only $60. To my shame, I drank six Boag’s and a glass of white wine. My friend had four drinks, her daughter drank a single Coke. At $5 for each alcoholic drink – which would be cheap – and $4 for the Coke, our drinks bill in a bar would’ve totalled $59.
That’s how my room at the Hilton cost me $1. And that’s why rich people are rich.