Listen to this article
A friend of mine who works as a consultant for hotel designers says that there is only one known factor that will empirically tell you whether a hotel experience will be good or not. That factor? A recent renovation. “Given the choice of a dowdy five-star grand old dame of a hotel or a clean, mean, freshly made-over three-star, go with the three. It will simply be better. It’s a fact.”
I remember when hip hotels started happening in the mid-1990s and, when you were going to one, people would say, in mystified tones, “Ooh . . . so you’re going to a hip hotel, are you?” Who would have thought that 20 years later nearly all hotels would aspire to some dimension of being hip, and that old-style hotels would be mostly gone? Now it just depresses me when I hear the ambient trance music as I enter the lobby; it’s like the musical equivalent of a fedora hat. No wait . . . wrong simile . . . it’s more like a black hole that sucks all joy out of the building.
Hotels used to have landlines beside the toilet, and even back in the golden age of landlines this seemed kind of weird. Honey, you won’t believe where I’m calling from! Oh, to take a microbial swab and put it into a Petri dish and see what grows. You occasionally find these phones in hotels. I dare you to make a call with one.
For two reasons I go to travel sites and inspect the ratings of hotels I’m thinking of staying in. One, some of the finest writing in the English language exists inside one-star hotel reviews on Tripadvisor.com. Something about the anonymity of the midnight reviewer unleashes emotion and flaming creativity in a way that all the creative writing courses on earth can never do. Two, it’s a good way to find out if there’s construction going on. There’s a one-in-four chance the hotel you’re going to is jackhammering something, and chances are it’s above the room you’ve been thinking of renting. Why lose sleep needlessly?
Some hotels don’t want the bother of maintaining their fitness centres, nor do they want the insurance costs. The solution? A sign saying, “Fitness Centre in Mid Renovation. Sorry for the inconvenience.” Wait a second . . . they’re not sorry at all!
One major problem with hotel service is that much of it is dispensed by young people who’ve never stayed in a grown-up hotel in their lives. Spring break in Daytona doesn’t count. The point where this becomes an issue is after 11pm when the shifts in most hotels change and suddenly, if you’ve just come in from the airport, you’re dealing with night staff who are a week away from their high-school prom — or who would appear to live in the back seat of a 1997 Toyota Camry with dry-cleaning plastic taped over the missing hole where the left passenger window is supposed to be.
Also, by 11 all the hotel’s good rooms are gone, so you’re assigned the worst room in the building, at which point you enter what comedienne Fran Drescher calls “the third room” phenomenon.
“Just take me to the third room.”
“What do you mean?”
“The first room is obviously going to be a disaster, so then we’ll go to the second room, but there’ll be something wrong with it like the bed’s headboard is right against the elevator shaft, at which point you’ll take me to the third room, which is passable. So what I’m saying is just take me to the third room first.”
Most hotels also have a daily allotment put aside for people who got assigned the donkey suite and who justifiably flip out, so the potential for upgrade is always there as long as they haven’t used up their daily quota. Luck of the draw.
On the day after Labour Day in 1992 I was in Edmonton, Alberta, checking into a big chain hotel.
It was extremely quiet in the lobby area so I made a comment to the effect of, “Wow, it’s a quiet night tonight,” to which the front desk guy said, “You’re actually our only guest here tonight.” I thought: cool! I’ve never had a huge hotel to myself before. And then the guy gave me my room key and he gave me room 1313. I looked at the penned number on the cardboard sheath and said, “Ha ha, now what’s my real room?”
This is where it got odd. “That’s your real room, sir.”
At this point I surprised even myself by blowing up: “You have 200 rooms available and you give me 1313? What is wrong with you?” He then got pissy and sullenly assigned me 1315.
A dozen years later I was staying in a big chain hotel in Toronto during Sars and I walked in one night and ALL of the hotel’s staff in the lobby made an almost borderline comical point of saying, “Welcome, Mr Coupland!” So I asked what was up and it turned out that I was the only guest in the hotel that night. It was spooky cool, but I also got mad that the large American medical conference, who really should have known better, had cancelled their convention, leaving me solo in the building. In any event, I felt like Howard Hughes for a night and it felt great.
Douglas Coupland is artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. He also has works in the exhibition ‘Electronic Superhighway’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. Instagram @douglascoupland
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios ©Douglas Coupland