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Don’t Believe Everything You Read

The entrance to Sanctuary South Beach.

Ever been scared of checking into a hotel? It happened to me this week after I booked what looked like a nice Miami Beach hotel that I found on Jetsetter.com at the bargain rate of $120 a night including a continental breakfast.

Days before arriving, my girlfriend checked out the hotel, Sanctuary South Beach, on TripAdvisor. That’s when panic set in. One recent guest wrote that the manager’s “rudeness and lack of minimum knowledge of [sic] education” ruined her stay. She added that, “It seems [the manager] is on something for he acts like a crazy person with a nervous tick followed by his vast lies and broken promises of service." She said that she wouldn’t “recommend ANYONE, not even a homeless person, to stay in this hotel.”

Another reviewer noted, “hair left in the shower, drippy faucets, light switches that don’t do anything, burnt out light bulbs” and more.

While there were some recent positive reviews, it’s invariably the scathing ones a potential guest fixes on. Don’t believe everything you read.

The inner courtyard of Sanctuary South Beach.

When I arrived to check in quite early in the morning, my room was not yet ready. No surprise there. But I told the nice woman behind the desk that I really wanted to see my room before I checked in. I mentioned the negative reviews on TripAdvisor. My concern wasn’t news to her.

She said she’d call my cell when my room was ready, and I could be the judge. I was. I checked everything out as my girlfriend peeled back the bedding to make sure there were no telltale signs of bedbugs in the piping around the mattress. In fact, the bed turned out to be most comfortable.

One of the positive comments from past guests was that the rooms were uncommonly spacious. Many Miami Beach hotels, former “businessman hotels” from the ‘20s, have only enough room for a fat man and a phone book. My room—and all 30 rooms—are really suites, with a generous sitting area, a wet bar and a 42-inch, flat-screen television. The bedroom holds a bed, an armoire and another, smaller, flat screen television. There is little décor save for a huge, Plexiglas sheet behind the headboard that can be illuminated from behind. But overall, I was relieved and happily checked in.

The next day I sought out the guest services manager, Augusto Aguilera. I asked him for his side of the story. He said the woman who wrote that review was, shall we say, very difficult. He wound up having to call the police to have her removed from the hotel’s lobby which doubles as a separately managed and well-reviewed restaurant called Ola. I observed Mr. Aguilera for several days and found him neither mad nor afflicted with a tick.

Ola restaurant, where continental breakfast is served.

My girlfriend and I had a pleasant, five-day stay, and I visited four other rooms to see if perhaps we’d been given the only nice room in the house. Each was as nice—or nicer—than ours, though the fit-and-finish throughout the hotel, like many other hotels and apartments in Miami Beach, is less than impressive.

Now, could this property be improved? Absolutely.

Like several of the reviewers on TripAdvisor, I encountered two clumps of hair in the shower. The walls are tiled in very dark, blue, small tiles making it almost impossible to see stray hairs. But the hotel’s cleaning staff needs a refresher course in how to thoroughly clean the spacious, walk-in showers.

Three of the five bulbs in my living room’s chandelier were burned out, but they were replaced within minutes of my mentioning it. I did not find the hotel noisy, as some critics did. The bathroom toiletries are by L’Occitane, and the Wi-Fi is complimentary—points earned there—but the quality of towels could be upgraded. And I’d think a hostelry that calls itself a four-star hotel would provide in-room robes. Turn down in the evening is available upon request.

So would I stay at Sanctuary South Beach again? Absolutely, and I’m very picky about my hotels. And herein lays the problem with consumer-review sites such as the popular TripAdvisor.com. A guest who has a grudge against a hotel can ruin a hotel’s reputation with a few sentences.

I shopped prices of other Miami Beach hotels this week when I thought I might have to bail out of Sanctuary South Beach; I could find nothing very attractive for less than $350 a night. I felt I got a bargain: a hotel that needs some tweaking but a staff that made guests feel comfortable.

Photos by Rudy Maxa


I loved this post! Even with sites like jetsetter.com, you never know if you're going to get the quality you expect. I recently had a similar experience in San Francisco with a room bought via a discount luxury travel site; when I checked into the "five-star" hotel, I realized it was surviving more on a name and reputation than the actual service, amenities and room quality it offered. Rudy's advice on seeking out the manager and asking questions is great!

Hannah on 3/1/2011 4:20:15 PM
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Those travel sites and their reviews are often ridiculous and extremely unreliable. Aside from the subjectivity of the writer ("That was the best restaurant I've ever eaten at in my life" - perhaps they've only eaten at McDonalds) or their bias ("That place was old and I like Holiday Inn Express breakfast buffet"), I suspect there is some folk writing into these review sites with malicious intent to degrade their competition or get revenge for problems of another nature not related to the hotel and its rooms. On a recent trip I was planning for New York City I was looking for a place to meet friends for dinner in Greenwich Village or the Meatpacking District. One restaurant had been written about in gourmet magazines and its chef highly celebrated. When I went to the review sites, I found people making unsubstantiated statements that they put rat poison in the dishes. Yeah right... These sites are not to be trusted. Reviews are not fact checked or verified. This does a huge disservice to the traveler and the hospitality industry. Read credible sources!

Richard on 3/2/2011 4:31:01 PM
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I worked in the hospitality industry throughout Europe in my twenties mostly in management positions. I have had experiences where guests have attempted to destroy the reputation of a good hotel as result of a tantrum. One in particular stands out in my mind, a guest came to reception to ask for a ride into town, I explained that the bus had just left but would be back within half an hour, the "gentleman" flew into a rage, yelling that nowhere in our brochure did it say the bus had to be prebooked and now that we have his money we don't care about him etc... it was a small hotel, on a small island with only 50 rooms. He wrote a scathing letter online about us, wrote to the owner, demanded a full refund, really terrible. Fortunately most of our guests were repeat guests and actually called me directly to sympathize. He did however return the following year, just as angry as before. When his taxi didn't turn up, which he had booked, I took him to the airport in my car. He did however upon his return send a letter to the owners expressing his disappointment in his stay and that he was made feel very unwelcome. The extremely long hours we worked, was made bearable by getting along with all guests and having a friendly relationship.

Sandra on 3/7/2011 1:55:15 PM
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About Rudy Maxa

Rudy Maxa

Rudy Maxa is host and executive producer of the public television travel series, Rudy Maxa's World. The 78 episodes he has hosted have won numerous awards, including a 2008 regional Emmy for his episode "Rajasthan." He's a contributing editor with National Geographic Traveler magazine and has written for a host of national travel magazines and newspapers. For nearly 15 years he offered consumer travel commentary on public radio's business show Marketplace as "The Savvy Traveler," which was also the name of a one-hour, coast-to-coast weekend show on public radio that he co-created and hosted for four years. Prior to his career as a travel writer and broadcaster, Maxa was an award-winning Washington Post investigative reporter, magazine writer, and columnist for 13 years, during which time his reporting was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He was a senior writer at The Washingtonian magazine and Washington, D.C., bureau chief of Spy magazine. The author of two non-fiction books, Maxa lives in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.