Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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19/7/15: what information do hotels actually need?

I mentioned in passing to the mathematics group a few weeks ago that I really don't know, when registering in hotels in Southern Tanzania, how I am supposed to complete the section 'Tribe', and normally put, 'Mzungu' (white person) hoping that this will be understood for what it is, ie. a genuine attempt to answer a question which in my context doesn't really make any sense.  Much to my delight students responded, "You should put Kikuyu - Meru - Maasai' - ie. their own tribe.  I find this quite touching, that my students would want me to become an honorary member of their tribe for this purpose.

But this raises for me the question: why do hotels need this information?  Let me answer this question in principle, however quickly the reasons can be dismissed in practice.  Is it because some tribes are allowed to register in the given hotel and others are not?  Or, if it happens that members of warring tribes should register at the same time the management needs to monitor things carefully?  Or because knowing the tribe will help track down defaulters on bills or those who damage or steal from the rooms?  Or to build up a picture of who registers to inform future advertising campaigns?  Or because it's required by law?

These are the reasons I can think of, maybe there are others which I haven't.  But none of these reasons make sense to me.  The question does not, in my experience, get asked in hotels catering for the foreigner market, which would seem to indicate it's not a legal requirement - and even it was, the question as to why legislators made it a requirement would still remain.  One of the lovely things about Tanzania is that there are a large number of tribal identities, something like 120 I believe, which in practice means that, to a very large extent, there is peaceful coexistence with no one tribe predominating, alas not always the case in neighbouring Rwanda and Kenya.  Which would seem to dismiss the first two reasons.  And I really don't believe that knowing somebody's tribe helps to track them down - and in any case, there is no checking of this information, presumably if I was intending to leave the hotel without paying I might be inclined to give false information.  Not to mention that oftentimes one is required to pay upfront for the stay.

But this is not the only reason why I have had reason to wonder why hotels require the information they do.  When I was booking a hotel in Lesotho - a visit required in this post - I used the Internet to find a hotel which fitted my parameters, complete with an email address and a phone number.  Not being short of time, I sent an email asking for a booking, hoping for but not necessarily expecting a reply.  Sure enough, no reply came, so I reluctantly picked up the phone to find that I was speaking down a very crackly line to somebody without much English.  After a while I managed to communicate what I was wanting and was taken through a series of questions, eventually getting to: what is your email address?   I mean, what is the point of asking that question?  If you use email you would already have my email address, I emailed you yesterday.  If you don't, why on earth ask the question?  And of course, the nature of email means that only 100% accuracy is sufficient, anything less and you might as well not have bothered.

Another occasion when I took issue with questions I was asked as I registered was my first stay in Kilifi, Coastal Kenya, recorded in this blog post.  The question was: what is your date of birth?  This was at the end of a long day, working in Dar es Salaam in the morning and then travelling through the afternoon and evening.  Why do you need to know that, asks I?  Well, if it's your birthday while you're staying here, we'd like to celebrate it with you, comes the reply.  It's not, I respond, so does that mean I don't need to tell you when it is?  It's OK they say, we can get it from your passport (which I'd already handed over for photocopying).  Yes, yes, yes, but that doesn't answer the question as to why you need that information!

But the reason this issue is particularly on my mind is because I made another brief trip to Southern Tanzania this last week, and was staying at a hotel with a form to fill in with a section for foreigners.  Questions included: nationality / passport number / date of issue / date of expiry / reason for being in Tanzania / date of entering the country / how long I intended to be in the country / visa number.  I wouldn't mind so much if this information was actually checked against my passport, but it wasn't, it was all taken on trust - so the idea that this would help them track me down if I defaulted on payment doesn't seem to apply.  I mean, visa number?  Will they refuse to let me stay if it's prime?  Or even?

I spent 12 years working in initial teacher training in the UK, and recruitment was quite a large part of the job.  Essential to know what questions you can and can't ask in an interview situation - so, for example, on one occasion I took a certain amount of flak from school based colleagues for recruiting a student close to retirement age who did not complete the course and caused a number of problems whilst with us.  But the fact of the matter is that this person fulfilled all entry criteria, not to have admitted on the grounds of age would have been illegal under UK law.

And also our masters students are just about to return to their homes to undertake fieldwork for their dissertations.  So I find myself commenting on drafts of questionnaires. I frequently find myself: given your research questions, what you are trying to find out, why do you need this question?  This might be interesting to know, but it does not apparently relate to what you are saying you are trying to find out.  If in doubt, delete!

So, what information do hotels need?  Some larger hotels use emails as a means of keeping in touch with customers and encouraging repeat business, that seems fair enough and easy to understand.  Questions to do with identity are fine if checked against passports / driving licences / other forms of identification.  If undertaking surveys for market research fine, but make that explicit to the customer - and give the right to opt out of answering the question.  Basic principle - ask the minimum number of questions you need to fulfil your purposes, with a clear rationale for each question asked.  This applies both to hotel registration forms and my students' questionnaires.

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