How difficult can it be? These five little words go through my head every time I check into a new hotel. The question usually crops up well before I reach the front desk or even pull up the kerb.
When the Four Seasons opened its new hotel in Toronto (also home to its global headquarters) a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering why it hadn’t bothered to invest a little more in landscaping and how the hotel managed to end up with a few scraggly trees near the entrance rather than handsome oaks or maples.
When I visited the bar shortly after opening, those five little words came up again, as my eye was drawn to mountains of down jackets and chunky wool overcoats piled on chairs and in corners. Did someone not factor in a coat check or some recessed hanging areas? Why wasn’t the restaurant manager on a mission to find a proper home for them?
At a Hyatt in Düsseldorf, I was shown to my room and, on entering, found myself in the bathroom. “Is this the second entrance to the suite?” I asked the desk attendant accompanying me. Looking thoroughly embarrassed, she took a deep breath, forced a smile and said, “I’m sorry Herr Brûlé, this is the main entrance to the room. I think the designer thought it was a new way of rethinking the space.” Perhaps terrified that the conversation was possibly being recorded or even filmed, she raised her eyebrows with a look of complete dismay and alarm and said nothing more. “Hmmm,” I said. “Who on earth wants to enter their room staring at the sinks, shower and toilet? Moreover, who wants their room service wheeled through the bathroom to the bedroom?”
How difficult can it be to design a good hotel room? If you pose this question to the manager of a hotel brand, the answer will be, “Very.” He or she will explain that a hotel brand is worth nothing if the company isn’t working with strong owners. Talk to the owners about room design and their response is likely to be that it is “extremely difficult”. Over drinks, an owner will let slip that the brands have too many guidelines that often don’t work locally and are trying to force a cookie-cutter approach on the market. Speak to the designers and the architects and, with a degree of drama, they’ll tell you it’s impossible to do something “interesting” without good owners and a strong brand partner guiding the construction and focusing on the details. They might even mention the importance of deep pockets.
I’ve been on the road for a week (Stockholm-Heidelberg-Tokyo-Okinawa-Fukuoka-Kyoto-Tokyo) and can see there’s truth in what all parties say. It is, however, important to decode words such as “interesting” when speaking to designers and architects. I can well imagine that a designer suggested to an owner that “it might be very interesting to reimagine the hotel room and have guests be welcomed into an oasis of calm (read: bathroom) and then gently transition into a haven of comfort (read: bedroom) with the twinkling skyline (read: low-rise Düsseldorf) unfolding before them”.
I can confirm, with a high degree of certainty, that 99.7 per cent of guests are not looking for an “interesting” hotel experience. What they are looking for is good service, high quality and smart design.
Moreover, they’re not looking for a revolution in how things are done. The basics have been the same for centuries – get me to my room with a minimum of fuss (no, I don’t want to sit down while you scramble for my details, I’d like you to take me direct to my room); make sure the room gets all the necessary things right (soundproofed walls and doors, good ventilation, a comfortable bed, good blackout blinds, dimmers for every light fitting). Worry about extra touches later: focus on one good restaurant and bar rather than having 10 mediocre options. Finally, staff the hotel with engaging, efficient people who understand their guests and what a well-travelled customer is looking for.
It’s for this reason that I rarely return to new properties (Japan offers a couple of exceptions), since anything built in the past decade has too often either been engineered exclusively with savings in mind – rather than creating a valuable, enduring asset – or has been designed with clear intent to be “interesting” and is, therefore, dated from the moment the doors are thrown open.
When I ran through my itinerary with my colleague Helen a few weeks ago, I decided to substitute a Kyoto favourite (the ancient Tawaraya) with the new Ritz-Carlton along the river, while keeping the rest of my bookings at my dependable staples along the way. Next week I’ll tell you how this low-slung and very costly new-build fits into a city famous for delicate design and peerless service.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine