One Pillow, Two Pillow

Lately I’ve been experimenting with different pillow combinations, trying to find just the right form of headrest for a good night’s sleep.

My pillow use history has been pretty vanilla, frankly. I started off my cognizant life with one pillow, because I’m sure my parents would never have thought of their kids having more than one on their beds. I stuck with one pillow through college, but at some point–I’m not sure exactly when–the notion that there could be more than one pillow per person swept the nation, like disco during the ’70s or big hair during the ’80s, and we ended up with multiple pillows on the bed. At that point, the question was squarely presented: do you continue with one pillow, or try multiple pillows?

I quickly decided that the choice boiled down to one pillow versus two pillows; more than two pillows seemed over the top and was uncomfortable, besides. I initially found it hard to get comfortable with two pillows, so I continued on the one-pillow track. This meant that, when traveling, I had to hurl many pillows off the bed in every hotel, because in hotels the beds sprout pillows like the ground sprouts mushrooms after a spring rainstorm. But recently, after long hours of driving, I rolled into a hotel late at night, exhausted, pretty much collapsed onto a bed with two pillows, and got a good, if abbreviated, night’s sleep–which made me think I should give two pillows a try, again.

Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. One pillow is what I’m used to, and seems to provide all of the head support I need. Two pillows, however, afford the luxury of quantity, and therefore provide more options you can flip to get to the cool side on a warm summer night. Two pillows, though, can fall into disarray during nocturnal movements, leaving you with a crick in your neck in the morning. On the other hand, one pillow can develop that dent in the middle that requires you to bunch up the pillow in a futile attempt to provide additional support.

One pillow, two pillow? It sounds like a Dr. Seuss book, but the experiment continues.

Paying For Points

I belong to many different airline and hotel rewards programs (which I am sure the rewards program pros would say is not a good approach, by the way). Lately, it seems like I am increasingly being offered a chance to buy points or miles in those programs. That happens whenever I check in for a flight on one of my rewards program carriers. Similarly, one of the hotel programs recently sent an email announcing that I can get “free” miles by buying points and then having the hotel chain match the points I’ve purchased.

The notion of buying points or miles seems incredibly weird to me–like using real money to buy Monopoly money. Sure, points can be used to buy certain things, but there always are conditions, limitations, and strings attached. Why would you want to take money that can be used unconditionally, to purchase whatever you want, and convert it into something that can be used only to buy one thing, with restrictions? My inherent cheapskate tendencies rebel against that notion. At least some people who profess to be proficient in rewards programs agree that, except in very limited circumstances, paying for points or miles doesn’t make sense. And the exceptions kind of prove my point. You need to spend a lot of time with rewards program provisions to figure out whether your circumstances justifying buying the points or miles–and who has the time to study rewards program fine print?

There’s one other thing about the buying points or miles that bugs me: the program sponsors are being paid for doing nothing. It’s no wonder that prospect of purchasing points or miles is raised so frequently. And it also seems to distract from the businesses’ attention to their core activities, too. Rather than figuring out whether they can entice me to spend money on points or miles, I’d rather that the hotel chains focus exclusively on providing clean, decent rooms in good locations, and the airlines focus on offering safe, on-time, uncancelled flights.

The Shape Of Things To Come?

Staying at a new hotel often can give you a glimpse into the future. If the hotel has recently been constructed or refurbished, the rooms are likely to involve new design configurations, furnishings, fixtures, and space-saving approaches that look to summon the future rather than reflect the past.

I’m staying in a new hotel in Washington, D.C., and the future here looks . . . well, square. Everything in my room is very angular and cornered, from the desk, chairs, and lamps, to the bed frame and, finally, to the bathroom sink and toilet. In my room, the hotel vision of the future involves a lot of right angles and sharp edges.

I was especially intrigued by the square commode, pictured above, that thoughtfully includes both right- and left-handed toilet paper dispensers. After decades of using standard toilets and training new generations of humans in their operation, can square toilets be in our future? Fortunately, this one works like the others. The only real difference is that the square design provides a lot more of a seating area.

Defending America’s “Town Of Motels”

Is Breezewood, Pennsylvania getting a bum rap? The little town off an exit ramp of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where travelers pass a half mile of motels, truck stops, gas stations, and souvenir stands before connecting to the highway that takes them toward Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, has become a social media meme through the above photo. In the meme, Breezewood is presented as ugly, chaotic, and loud–a prime example of tackiness and American wretched excess.

That photo doesn’t exactly depict a garden spot. But now Breezewood’s defenders have risen to respond to the harsh criticism–as in this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The defenders argue that the sneering dismissals of Breezewood reflect a cultural snobbishness about seeing the exposed machinery of American life: the gas stations that must exist to power American car culture, the hotels that are needed to house travelers that are the mainstay of the American tourism business, and the assorted rest stops and restaurants that service the needs of those travelers. And, of course, all of those businesses shown in that photo provide people with gainful jobs, and have allowed Breezewood to continue to exist when other American small towns have withered and died.

My own memories of Breezewood are different from the contemptuous prevailing meme, too. When UJ and I were kids Grandma and Grandpa Neal used to take us on driving trips from Akron, Ohio to spots on the east coast, like Washington, D.C. or the Jersey shore. We would climb into the back seat of Grandpa’s Oldsmobile 98, try not to fidget while he carefully navigated the car along the growing network of American highways, always obeying the speed limit, and wait until we reached Breezewood where we would stop for the night at a Holiday Inn close to the Turnpike exit ramp. In those days, a sign announced Breezewood as the “town of motels,” and we were always glad when we saw that sign because it meant we could get out of the car, go for a swim in the hotel pool, eat dinner, and visit Crawford’s Museum next door to the hotel–a “museum” of stuffed animals and curiosities that was basically designed to stir the imaginations of a young kid. The next day we would wake up, have breakfast, and continue our leisurely journey.

In short, I liked Breezewood and have fond memories of it. I’m glad there is pushback against the Breezewood meme. It shows that reality is always more complex and nuanced than a photo and a few words that convey a smirking putdown.

Austin Athirst

It’s fair to say Austin has a healthy thirst for adult beverages. The downtown area features two significant drinking areas—Sixth Street and Rainey Street—where you can wet your whistle at countless bars, cocktail lounges, and saloons, many of which are blasting recorded music or featuring live music. But that doesn’t really give you a clear picture. Here are some vignettes that help to illustrate the point:

• When we checked in to our hotel, the Van Zandt, on Friday afternoon, the clerk asked if we would like a beer or a water. I’m pretty sure the beer was mentioned first.

• One of the bars on Sixth Street is evidently so popular that, as the sign above indicates, people are willing to install the “LineLeap” app and pay for the privilege of jumping to the front of the line—something I’ve heard of for amusement parks, but not bars. How do the other liquored-up people in the line like that?

• When I was taking the above photo at about 2 p.m. two guys who had gotten an early start came up to me and one, with breath that could stop a rhino, challenged me to “rock, paper, scissors, two out of three!” I politely declined.

• We walked down Rainey Street at a little after noon, where I took the picture of the sign below. The bars were already filling up, and it was clear that the cocktails would be lonely no longer.

• When we later returned to our hotel a little after 9 p.m., Rainey Street was packed with people. The music being pumped out by one nearby bar was so loud that the bass reverb was distinctly heard and vibrating the windows in our room on the 12th floor.

Wanted: COVID Concierge

Back in the days when we regularly used hotels, the concierge desk sure could come in handy. If you were in a faraway city and needed directions, recommendations about restaurants or sightseeing opportunities, or reservations, the concierge desk was the place to go. In fact, the good people staffing the concierge desk seemed to know everything you might need to know about the city you were visiting.

We all could use a “COVID Concierge” these days.

We’re at the point in this pandemic, and in the governmental responses to the pandemic, where the rules being applied are becoming a bit overwhelming and hard to process. In Columbus, for example, we’re currently subject to a curfew and regulations imposed by the State of Ohio, plus a stay at home order issued by the county government — and for all I know, the City of Columbus has added an additional layer of regulation. The average person confronts a lot of questions as they go about their lives. How do you know for sure if you’re permitted to walk the dog at 6:23 a.m.? Can you visit your elderly relative at a nursing home, and if so, how? What’s the latest development concerning in-school and stay-at-home learning in your child’s school system?

And if you want to take a trip somewhere — hey, a fellow can dream, can’t he? — you’ll have to figure out the state, county, and local rules and regulations that apply to travelers at your destination, the rules and regulations for any states where you will be spending the night on your journey, and the rules and regulations of your home state and home town that will apply upon your return. Do you need to be tested to enter the state? If so, what documentation must you carry? Has your home state been put on a restricted list by the state of your destination? Will you be required to quarantine for a time period upon your arrival, or upon your return? What are the masking and social distancing requirements at your place of destination? How many gallons of hand sanitizer do your need to bring? And all of these rules can and do change, from day to day, so you need to stay up to the minute on it all.

That’s where the COVID Concierge comes in. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a COVID Concierge to help you navigate through the welter of different regulations and directives, tell you precisely what test you need to take and what documentation will be required, and make the reservation for you? And if you’re looking for a place to vacation because you just can’t stand the thought of being cooped up in your house for another day, the COVID Concierge would be a ready source of information and recommendations about which states would be the most painless to visit right now.

This is a sure-fire business plan in today’s environment. But I am offering it to the public, free of charge, so that anyone can put it into effect and set up their own COVID Concierge service. Just promise to send me the COVID Concierge phone number, will you?

The Last Of The Little Bottles

Once, not too long ago, I had an extensive bathroom collection of little bottles — the kind that hotels give (or used to give) to guests that contained small portions of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and hand lotion.

I had dozens and dozens of the little bottles stored in various places in our bathroom.  I would go on trips for work and faithfully bring the unused bottles back from from my travels so I could use them at home.  Waste not, want not, my grandparents taught, so why go out and spend good money on a bottle of shampoo when you can supply your needs through the little bottles the hotels hand out?  It’s not like my grizzled mane needs the kind of luxurious concoctions featured on shampoo commercials, anyway.

When I was traveling regularly, bringing home more bottles every week and month, it seemed like the vast collection of little bottles would supply my shampoo and body wash needs forever.  But over time the little bottle collection shrank a bit, as hotels transitioned to big push dispensers of shampoo and conditioner to protect the environment from plastic bottle waste, and then the coronavirus pandemic hit, all business travel vanished in the blink of an eye, and the opportunities for replenishment of the little bottle collection abruptly ceased.  And now, after going almost half a year without any business travel of any kind, we’re down to only a few of the little bottles left — a mere fraction of what the collection once was.

This coronavirus period has been strange, for sure, but one of the interesting things about it is how quickly we can adjust to and accept the “new normal” of masks, and spending more time at home, and steering wide of people on the street, and the other changes in behavior that become accepted.  You’re going along, living your life in the new way, and then something — like some little bottles in your shower stall — reminds you of just how much things have really changed.

Creamer Bias

When I was on the road recently, I got up very early, as usual, fixed myself a cup of coffee on the in-room coffee machine, and was immediately subjected to a little noticed form of discrimination:  creamer bias.

Creamer bias afflicts those of us who like cream in our coffee.  The hotel chains that have in-room coffee makers typically will provide little cellophane-wrapped packets of coffee-related items, with sugar, creamer, a coffee stir straw, and a tiny napkin.  And that’s where the bias comes in. 

The coffee service packets inevitably include plenty of sugar options.  There are always at least two sugar packets, plus multiple faux sugar “sweetener” alternatives.  The coffee packet at the New York City hotel I stayed at recently, pictured above, included no fewer than six sugar-related items:  two “sugar in the raw,” two standard sugar, and two sweetener packets.  That’s six packets to satisfy the coffee sweet tooth.  Six!  Really?  You could bake a cake with that much sugar! 

And yet, in studied contrast, the coffee packet included one measly pouch of artificial creamer.  You can’t even get halfway to pleasant cafe au lait territory with that meager offering.  That’s a 6-1 ratio in favor of the sugarholics over the creamer crowd.

And have you ever thought about what happens to all of the unused packets of coffee items when you tear open the cellophane and use whatever suits your taste?  Unless you are using it all, there are bound to be multiple packs left over.  What happens to them?  Are they recycled somehow, or does the cleaning service just sweep them into the trash?

Hotels are changing what they are doing to be more environmentally sensitive, which I applaud.  I think it is high time that the sensitivity process move beyond shampoo delivery systems to the in-room coffee service.  I say it’s time to ditch the cellophane wrappers, can the stirrers that people can do without, eliminate the skimpy napkin, and offer creamer and sugar in packets that are kept in a decorative container next to the coffee maker.  And while they’re at it, how about evening up the creamer and sugar offerings to finally address the rampant creamer bias — or at least dialing the bias back from a 6-1 to a 2-1 ratio?

Mobile Cacti

My Phoenix hotel has an interesting way of reminding guests that they are in the desert — as if the near-constant sunshine weren’t enough of a clue. No, the hotel keeps wheeled racks of little barrel cactus plants and other desert flora at hand, ready to wheel out to remind us that we’re in an arid zone.

I like desert plants, so I think it’s pretty cool. In fact, I wish I had one of these gadgets for my office.

Elevator Art

What do hotels consider when deciding whether to decorate their elevators — and, if so, what to use for elevator art?  You’re talking about a space that every single guest uses multiple times during their stay, when they may be in multiple mindsets:  when they first arrive after a day of travel, first thing in the morning when they’re heading down for breakfast, and when they’re heading back up to their room after a long day.  How much care and attention goes into the decision of how to decorate that very unique setting?

You could, of course, choose to leave your elevator unadorned, with just standard elevator walls, the basic mirror facing the door so that people entering can check their hair and their tie, and some information about the hotel restaurant and the daily weather forecast by the row of floor buttons.  Or, as has been the case with some hotels I’ve visited, you could turn the elevator into a kind of tropical rain forest, with photos of exotic birds and insects and foliage and an accompanying sound track with the gentle patter of raindrops and distant thunder to soothe the jangled nerves of your guests.  Or, you could feature compelling photos of noteworthy places to see in the city where the hotel is located, to entice the traveler to leave the hotel premises and explore the city they are visiting.

Or, if you’re the proprietors of the hotel in Phoenix where I’m staying for meetings, you could post this big photo of a reclining woman wearing ripped blue jeans kicking up her heels, with a cowboy hat on her airborne foot.

What message are you sending this this image in an otherwise generic hotel elevator?  The cowboy hat signals that we’re in the western United States, for sure, in case the guests had forgotten that fact.  But what else?  That the friendly folks in Phoenix often lie down and balance their hats on their feet, just for kicks?  That, in a world where ripped jeans seem to be everywhere, in Phoenix they are really destroyed?

I’m guessing that the choice of the kicky gal’s legs was the product of a careful process that included some other potential choices.  Wouldn’t you like to know what some of the other finalists were?

Faucet Shock

Back in the ’70s, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the phrase “Future Shock” to refer to the mindset of many people in modern societies.  According to Toffler, “Future Shock” occurred when constant technological advancements and other changes in the world produced a peculiar psychological state in which individuals were overwhelmed by experiencing too much change in too short a time.

Me, I’ve just encountered “faucet shock.” 

That’s the baffled condition you experience when you go into a bathroom in a hotel where you’re attending meetings and the sink complex looks like the controls of a motorcycle, or maybe a video game, with nary a lever or handle or anything labeled with a C or an H in sight.  So, what do you do here?  Which gleaming device supplies water?  Do you grasp the wings sticking out of the central column and twist or turn?  Or just wave your hands around underneath the whole complex, hoping that there are photoelectric cells somewhere that will activate the water flow?

If you’re confronted with this bathroom set up, here’s what I learned after some embarrassing “faucet shock” trial and error.  First, you stick your hands under the little unit to get a dollop of soap foam, then insert your hands under the central column to activate the water flow — with no option to change the lukewarm temperature of the water, incidentally.  Then, after your hands are soaked, you place them under the wing pieces to have a Dyson unit blow-dry your hands. 

Or, if you feel silly doing that, as I did, you just grab a few paper towels, briskly dry your hands the old-fashioned way, and back away from the whole enterprise.

Keeping Up With The Devices

In 1950s America, people spoke of “keeping up with the Joneses.”  The phrase captured the desire of suburbanites to match whatever they noticed their neighbors were doing in the area of home or family improvements.  If the Joneses bought a new car or one of those newfangled TV sets, the pressure was on for the Smiths to make the same upgrade.

In hotel management classes these days, you might talk instead about “keeping up with the devices.”  It refers to the efforts of hotels to equip guest rooms with all of the plug-ins that a traveler might need to hook up the array of electronic gear they might be lugging along. 

This effort by the New York City hotel I stayed in this week is a good example of what hotels have tried to do — and why it seems forever doomed to failure.  It offers one measly electrical outlet, but a smorgasbord of other options that seem awfully dated — and hence not usable (by me, at least).  It’s got a labeled plug-in for an iPod, for example, the three yellow, red, and white holes that I associate with TVs from the ’90s, an old-fashioned phone jack, and a weird, bulky white plug that looks like it might be needed to power a Russian listening device.  And that curious gadget just highlights the additional challenge facing hotels in cities where foreign travelers are commonplace — it’s bad enough to try to keep up with American technology, but it becomes overwhelming if you add in the different kinds of connectivity people from other countries might need for their gizmos.

Of course, most of these options were useless to me; I used only the electrical outlet for my laptop and then had to search for another outlet elsewhere to charge up my iPhone.  And that, I suppose, might be a good takeaway for hotels.  Give up the self-defeating quest to identify and anticipate what your guest might need so that you look like you’re on the cutting edge of personal technology, I say!  It’s never going to really work, and within a nanosecond you’ll just be dating yourself.  Since all of devices currently known to man need electricity, do yourself a favor:  supply plenty of outlets and leave the other hook-ups to the traveler.

Welcome To The Twilight Zone

Sometimes you really do have to wonder about hotel interior decorators.

The goal of hotel room design should be simple: to provide a setting that is warm, welcoming, and functional for the weary traveler. Weirdness should be avoided, not embraced. And designers should remember that no one goes to a hotel room hoping to enjoy its avant garde flourishes or revel in its cutting edge accent pieces.

So how do you explain a hotel room that prominently features a large vase in the form of a human head missing the top part of its skull that looks like it is rising from the countertop with eyes that follow you around the room? It’s the kind of piece that Dr. Hannibal Lecter might have kept in his kitchen as a cookie jar. It’s the kind of unsettling touch that encourages the guest to make triple sure that the door is double locked and there are no unpleasant surprises lurking in that darkened closet.

Apparently nothing says “welcome” like a dead-eyed representation of human head that is prepped for brain surgery!