If you’re reading this Saturday’s column propped up in bed in a hotel room, be it comfortably familiar or totally new, take a look at your immediate surroundings. If you’re not reading this in a hotel, think back to your last hotel stay and try to recall the style and details of your room – the approach to the decor, the type of flooring underfoot, the colours and textures on the walls and the style of furniture. What’s the picture that comes to mind? Is it a place where you want to spend a lot of time and could happily hang the Do Not Disturb sign until nightfall? Does it feel like value for money? Will the room be around for the long haul or do its design cues make it feel too “on trend” and temporary?
I spend almost two-thirds of my year in hotel rooms and am confronted by an ever-puzzling picture. Both large global hotel groups and small-scale boutique operators say they want to create a more environmentally harmonious stay for their guests – but they seem to be going about it completely the wrong way.
Earlier in the week I looked at a random sample of the e-mails I receive from PR companies around world (please, please, please stop sending them to me because I don’t take press trips, I’m not interested in safaris, I don’t want to have any adventures on any islands in New Zealand and an autumn weekend break in Serbia is not top of my list of things to do this November) and most of these e-mails have the word “eco” in the headline. In the Maldives there’s a new luxury eco, zero-carbon resort that’s about to make its debut for honeymooners; a big hotel group is building budget “green” hotels all over south-east Asia; and in the US you can have an entirely “green” weekend if you book before Columbus Day.
I tried to imagine what the latter might look like in practice and how appealing the concept would be for a family of five from Chicago, but was even more intrigued by a letter from a hotel general manager asking me for my thoughts on whether or not they should be changing bed-linen daily, and if I was For or Against reusing my towels. In response I asked him if he was For or Against renovating his rooms every three years and if he and his management team had ever thought about the bigger environmental impact of constant room renovation?
Given the beat I cover, I will never claim to be the biggest eco-warrior and am not attempting to leap atop any high horse, but I bristle at the environmental tokenism that most hotels are using as a sales hook to woo guests and create corporate social responsibility stories for their annual reports. If hoteliers want to do something truly meaningful to clear their consciences, make guests feel better, cut emissions and even improve balance sheets, they need to end the constant cycle of overhauling cheaply made hotel rooms.
There’s a very good chance that the hotel room for which you’re paying upwards of €500 a night has a lifespan of not longer than four years, and in extreme cases the whole thing (wardrobe, writing desk, side tables and club chairs) will get carted off to a dumpster in under two years. If you’re in a budget room, it might have an even shorter lifespan (even if the hotel business plan says they’ve invested in long-life rooms) and the room will be chipped, dented and cracked by the end of opening week. Hotels’ PR firms and in-house communications should either pipe down and say nothing about their initiatives or force their management to come up with a real story (this means investment) that is convincing and shows commitment.
A starting point could be to rethink the entire process that currently has contracting and procurement teams working to deliver the lowest possible price and, in many cases, the lowest-quality design solutions. The worst offenders also have little in the way of taste and scruples, and often end up hosting elaborate pitch competitions that bring in talented design teams only to steal ideas and execute their projects in-house.
This results in “mood-boards” from design firms being pulled apart and reassembled, with contractors and accountants making most of the design decisions. It’s also one of the key reasons you don’t find any “grand hotels” anymore because it’s hard to grow old gracefully and create a lasting brand when most new properties are just exercises in lighting, cheap veneers, pungent scent dispensers and bad fabrics.
Add to the equation that the bulk of today’s three-star to five-star hotel furniture has been assembled in sweatshops somewhere a few hours drive across the border from Hong Kong and you can also factor in a human and transport cost.
Grand hotels have bruises, bumps, seams, bald patches and scrapes that give them character, charm and staying power. Grand hotels have these features because they were built to last using materials that were solid and could stand being thumped and walloped. And perhaps most importantly, they didn’t have procurement departments choosing curtain fabrics and lobby flooring.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule