What Makes A Top 100 Hotel? (Business Traveler Edition)

The readers of Travel + Leisure magazine  have rated their top hotels, and the magazine has produced a “top 100” list from the results.  The hotels feature a lot of beautiful views, enormous rooms and posh furnishings, and extremely expensive prices.

mint_pillowThat’s all well and good, but it’s pretty much irrelevant to the travel that most of us experience.  We’re business travelers, and except for rare occasions we don’t stay at places by lakes — unless you count those artificial ponds with the spraying fountain in the middle — or any staggering natural beauty.  We’re in downtown areas for the most part, on a block of a city grid that looks pretty much like the next block over.  So, the Travel + Leisure ratings might be interesting, but they don’t have much application to our daily business travel lives.

So, what do business travelers care about?  Speaking for myself, I’d say the baseline needs are a place that is quiet and clean.  Quiet, so I can try to get a good night’s sleep after after a busy travel and work day, and clean, so that I don’t notice dust bunnies under the bed or something left by the person who stayed in the room last night, and I can at least maintain the pretense that I’m not staying in a room that is probably used by hundreds of total strangers every year.  After those basics, I’m looking for a room that has the right functional furniture — a desk is a must — a comfortable bed that isn’t covered in accent pillows that need to be thrown on the floor and that might trip me when I go to the bathroom, and an easy-to-use coffee maker that can make at least two cups of decent regular coffee.  If you then throw in a shower with lots of hot water and decent water pressure, you’ve got a top 100 business hotel in my book.

No need for a mint on the pillow, or turn-down service, or a huge room.  Just make sure I’m not awakened in the middle of the night by a party down the hallway, and I’ll come back.

Get Up Early, Or Go The Night Before?

I’ve been on the road a fair amount lately, and I’ve been facing the classic business traveler’s dilemma:  I’ve got to be in another city for a meeting that begins at 10 a.m.  Should I get up early and take the first flight of the day that will get me there just in time, or should I give up a night at home and head to the location of the meeting the night before?

IMG_6548My position on this unenviable choice has changed.  I used to be all in favor of staying home and spending as much time with my family as possible, and then getting up before the crack of dawn, hitting the airport, and trusting in the benevolence of the Travel Gods.  Then I had one instance where the Travel Gods weren’t kind, my flight was delayed and then rerouted, and I ended up missing an important meeting.  The people involved were gracious about it, but I vowed that I would never let that happen again.

One other thing changed that also altered my perspective:  I realized that I simply never got a good night’s sleep the night before, no matter what the circumstances.  My subconscious brain was so worried about oversleeping that I was tossing and turning all night, waking up every 15 minutes to look bleary-eyed at the clock radio before finally, wearily, giving up on trying to get some shuteye and getting up even earlier than I really needed to to make the flight.

So now I always — always — go in the night before.  If the Travel Gods are unkind, as they frequently are, I’ll just get in even later than planned.  But I’ll still be there in time for the meeting, and in the meantime I just might get some sleep, too.

I Will Never Rent A Car From Avis Again


Avis’ familiar slogan is “We Try Harder.”  Hah!

Today I had my worst car rental experience in more than 30 years of business Teavel.  I flew to Denver with an Avis car reservation in hand.  When I got to the Avis terminal I had to wait in line for more than an hour to get my car — and then when I went to the car I learned that it had also been promised to another traveler.  

There is simply no excuse for this.  I’d be willing to bet that most of the Avis customers had reservations, so Avis had to know how many people were coming — and should have staffed up.  Obviously they didn’t, and they thereby showed that customer service is not their priority.  I won’t forget that.

There are lots of car rental options; I could easily have picked one of Avis’ competitors.  Next time, I will.  Congratulations, Avis!  You’ve just lost one customer forever.



In a hotel room, you always get a sad half cup.  A measly, generic shot of Joe to start your work day.

No actual china or stoneware coffee cup for you, my friend!  No, you’ll sip your brew from a paper cup that immediately gets stained by coffee splatter and looks like something you’d find in a bus station trash can.  It’s temporary and disposable, just like you.  Sure, we call you a “guest,” but we both know that in a few hours you’ll be gone, scrubbed clean from this room like you never stayed here.  So you’ll make do with this cheap paper cup, won’t you?

It’s not exactly an inspiring way to start the travel work day, but sometimes it’s better to be slapped with the harsh realities of the world before you go too far down the road.

The At The Airport At The End Of A Long Day Roundelay

IMG_20140417_211130I’m at the airport, sad to say
I sing the airport roundelay

I left before the dawn’s first ray
Long hours ago, to my dismay

I’m at the end of a long day
At which I’ve had all work, no play

The seating area has a strong bouquet
The guy next door brought Chipotle

I’m hoping there’s no flight delay
Were I religious, for that I’d pray

So don’t tell me of travel’s cachet
I sing the airport roundelay

That Generic Hotel Lobby Atrium Look

IMG_4918Some time in the distant past, someone designed, for the first time, a hotel lobby with a towering atrium and glass elevators and concrete walkways that allowed you to look down on other patrons far below.  It apparently was a hugely successful design, because it has been copied again, and again, and again.  My current hotel is just another example.

So many hotel interiors have that interior atrium design that the look has become generic, giving business travel a kind of mind-numbing sameness.  It’s one big reason why I like to stay in old hotels if I have that option.  At least the old hotels tend to have a dash of individuality and flair.


O’Hare.  Mention it to any business traveler, and you are likely to hear a groan and a war story about some travel mishap.

O’Hare.  The fifth-busiest airport in the world.  Named for World War II flying hero and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Edward Henry (“Butch”) O’Hare, who bravely faced down a group of bombers heading for his aircraft carrier.

O’Hare.  It’s unavoidable if you live in Columbus and need to go just about anywhere to the west.  You’re likely to be routed through O’Hare on the way out and on the way back.  You keep your fingers crossed that there won’t be a line of thunderstorms, or snow storms, or wind storms that blow out your travel schedule and bring the nation’s air traffic system to its knees.  Otherwise, you’ll find yourself wandering through one of the bustling concourses at O’Hare, wondering how you’re going to get to where you want to go.

O’Hare.  I spent the night there once, after my flight in from the west coast was delayed and I arrived at O’Hare at about 1:30 a.m. to learn that every hotel room in the airport was booked and my flight out would leave at 5:40 a.m.  There was no place to sleep and no where to go so I walked back and forth on the concourse, like one of the dazed passengers on The Poseidon Adventure, counting down the minutes until my flight left.  It was probably the longest four hours of my life.

O’Hare.  I’m heading there today, and I’m hoping it doesn’t rise up and bite me, again.

On The Tarmac

How many times have you looked out the window and seen this scene?  The sun low on the horizon, the shimmering tarmac, the airport control tower etched black against the yellow sky . . . you could be at any airport in the world, ready to leave or just landing.  (In the case of this photograph, it’s Houston.)

Business travel seems exciting when you’re a kid, but eventually you come to feel that overwhelming sense of sameness, deep in the marrow of your bones.

In The Back Seat Of The Cab

If you’ve traveled frequently for work, you’ve probably spent a lot of time in the back seats of cabs.

More time than you’d care to think, I’d wager.  If, at the moment you depart for that Great Airline Terminal in the Sky, you added up all the time spent in cabs over your working life — all those 45-minute trips from the airport to your hotel, all those crosstown rides through hopelessly snarled traffic when the UN is in town, all those half-awake dashes to catch an early bird flight — you might have spent a week or maybe even two in the back seat of a cab.

We tend not to focus on our “cab time.”  This is a good thing, because cab time sucks.  When you are in the back seat of a taxi, you’re checking your flight information, catching up on your email, or groggily wondering whether you’re overdue to experience some form of travel hell.  You don’t focus on the cabbie’s driving, and you especially don’t pay much attention to where you’re sitting. God forbid!  If you did think about such things, you’d ask some unsettling questions, and you’d start carrying a can of Lysol and a plastic sheet on every road trip.  How old is this cab, anyway?  What’s that smell?  Hey, is that a stain on the floor?  Just who were the passengers before me?  Were they doing something unsavory?  Were they suffering from some debilitating communicable disease?

I’m in a cab right now, trying not to think any of these disquieting thoughts.  It’s time to play Spider Solitaire on the iPhone, zone out, and trust the unknown professional behind the wheel to get me to the airport on time.

Friendly Faces In Faraway Places

When you are on the road, it is a real treat to be able to depart from the normal at-the-hotel routine and get together with friends and family.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Heidi, Larry (who had to leave before the picture above was taken), Miles, Max, Andrew, Patty, and Heidi’s dog Stella (whose name always makes me think of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire bellowing “Stella!  Stelllllla!”).  We met at Heidi’s Long Beach pad, enjoyed an excellent feast of home-cooked Mexican fare, beer, and cupcakes, and had some spirited discussions about typically off-limit topics like religion and politics.  It was terrific to catch up and to see what my always-interesting nephews are doing with their lives.

Thanks for hosting the get-together, Heidi!  It made the trip a very special one.

The Tao Of Hotel Room Ironing

You awaken in a strange, darkened room, perhaps to the shrill jangling of the unfamiliar alarm of a clock-radio that you don’t know how to turn off.  You stumble to the bathroom, hoping that you do not crash into furniture that is not where you expect it to be.  Moments later, as you check your iPhone or Blackberry, you become dimly aware that you need to get ready for the morning meeting.  This necessarily means your shirt must be ironed, because it is impossible to pack a man’s dress shirt in a suitcase without the shirt become wrinkled, and wearing a wrinkled shirt to your meeting would be . . . unseemly.

You must use the iron and ironing board squirreled away in the hotel room’s closet.  You fumble with the ironing board, lifting it from the hooks that allow it to hang suspended against the closet wall.  You open it and hear that high-pitched screeeel of metal on metal, a sound that is made only by the act of setting up a hotel room ironing board.  Perversely, you are comforted by the annoying, yet familiar, noise.  You retrieve the iron from its slide-in storage rack and plug it in, perhaps struggling with either the miles of cord found in half of American hotel irons or the balky, push button/feed out/scroll back cords found in the other half.  As you slowly, clumsily perform these simple tasks, you realize that the morning fog is beginning to lift from your slumbering brain.

You check the temperature of the iron, and the sizzle of hot metal against your wet index finger feels good.  You place your shirt on the ironing board, dragging it so that the collar and shoulder of the shirt are hard against the squared end of the ironing board.  You iron the plain fabric of the back of the shirt first, your ironing strokes becoming more assured as you progress.  You move the shirt around the board as you go along.  By now, the cranial synapses are engaged.  Be careful you don’t plunk the pointed end of the iron into the row of buttons with too much force!  Snap that sleeve and smooth it to make sure that the act of ironing the top fabric doesn’t leave unwanted creases on the bottom side!  You’ve done this hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times before.

And then you are finished.  You confidently snap the shirt as you remove it from the ironing board and place it back on its hanger.  It looks fine.  You unplug the iron, and as it cools you close up the ironing board, anticipating that sound yet again, and lift it back onto its inner-closet hooks.  Finally, the iron is snapped back into its closet holder.

You have successfully completed the morning’s first chore.  The hotel room shower beckons.

Oh, For The Glamour Of Business Travel!

Back in the days when the firm unwisely allowed me to interview law students, I would occasionally ask what they hoped they would do with their practice.  Some of the fresh-faced, dewy-eyed students responded, with complete sincerity:  “I’d really like to travel.”  It was all I could do to avoid bursting into laughter at their ludicrous naivete.

Here is the scene that confronted us at Gate B77 at Bush International Airport in Houston this afternoon.  Gate B77 is in one of those infernal pod areas, where about 8 gates are crammed into a circular area.  The boarding area was packed with people and their carry-on luggage.  Clusters of people were standing in the open areas, blocking easy passage.  People were sitting on the floor, eating their fast food.  In the distance a kid was screaming.  At one point, a man walked by, carrying a live chicken under one arm and leading a goat.

Okay, I made that last part up, but the noisy, trashy, chaotic scene made me think of what the debarkation area at Ellis Island must have been like.

This, then, is the glamour of business travel!

The Houston In-And-Out

The modern world is a pretty amazing place.  Yesterday morning I went to soggy Port Columbus, checked in, and boarded a Continental flight.  Three hours or so later I was in sunny and warm Houston, Texas, in a conference room on the 41st floor of a downtown office building, looking at the view shown above.  A few meetings, a conference room lunch of shrimp etouffee and red beans and rice, and a few phone calls later and I was back in a cab, zipping by in the taxi lane to George Bush International Airport.  A few hours after that, I arrived in cold and snowy Columbus, getting home at a little after 9 p.m.

A few airports visited, two thousand air miles traveled, latitudes and longitudes spanned, enormous weather systems leaped, cultural divides crossed — and all in the space of a few hours.  We tend to take these kinds of trips for granted, but perhaps we shouldn’t.  It really is a pretty amazing thing.

What Makes The Ritz The Ritz?

In the St. Louis Ritz-Carlton lobby

On my recent trip to St. Louis I stayed in the Ritz-Carlton.  After staying there, I learned why “the Ritz” is used as shorthand for luxury and top of the line accommodations and why “ritzy” has entered the language as a synonym for elegant.

A vase in the Ritz-Carlton lobby

What makes the Ritz the Ritz?  Well, the lobby, for one.  This is not one of those cookie-cutter hotels with tile floors, a bland neutral color scheme, and a cheap chair and table tucked in one corner of the check-in area.  No, the Ritz lobby features a roaring fire, chandeliers, fine carpeting and furniture, and gilt-edged paintings.  There are multiple seating areas for quiet reading, confidential conversations, or a quick check of the Blackberry.  The tables feature golden clocks, or fine vases, or a Remington-like sculpture.  The entire lobby ambiance exudes comfort and sumptuousness.

The guest rooms similarly have that fine, posh feel about them.  The rooms themselves are considerably larger than normal hotel rooms and are well designed.  (My room had a small balcony, too, but I didn’t venture out to check the view given the arctic temperatures.)

The bathroom soap dish and glassware

The bed, linens, lamps, and chairs are top of the line.  The coffee cup for the coffee maker has the Ritz-Carlton seal and the coffee itself is excellent.  And the bathroom is resplendent in marble, with polished dishes and glassware.  The shower is bright and spacious, with plenty of hot water.

The staff of the hotel were friendly, professional, and quick about their work.  We had breakfast in the dining area where the service was prompt and the food was hot and freshly prepared.  And when we were leaving the doorman held the door open and the bellhop capably carried our bags to the taxi.

What makes the Ritz the Ritz?  Just about everything.

Hotel Pillow Talk

Why do so many hotel rooms look like Parisian bordellos these days?

If you’ve been on the road for business travel lately, you know what I mean.  You get to a hotel room, unlock the door, turn on the light, and flop your stuff down on the bed — and it is covered in pillows.  There are the hotel-miniaturized versions of “normal” pillows, which usually are hidden from view.  Then there are the weird sausage-shaped pillows that look like they were swiped from a Tantric sex clinic or a Lamaze birthing class.  And finally there are the large, faux silk-covered “throw pillows” that are, I suppose, designed to make you feel like a Turkish sultan.  (Here’s a tip for hotel room interior decorators — Turkish sultans didn’t buy their harem pillows from a Target supplier at $2.59 apiece.)

I cannot imagine that anyone uses any of these weird pillows for the purpose of head rest during sleep.  You could not possibly sleep on the hotel bed with the pillows in their initial configuration without risking permanent neck injuries or disk dislocations.  So, the weary traveler must instead try to figure out where to put the extraneous pillows so that the shrimpy “normal” pillows can be accessed.  Usually, the weird pillows  end up on the floor, where they serve as obstacles when the traveler stumbles to the bathroom for that inevitable middle-of-the-night visit.

I can understand hotel designers wanting to add a bit of zing to otherwise cookie-cutter rooms, but I think the pillow approach is an irritating, abject failure.  The hotel experience is bound to be generic  to a certain extent.  I encourage hoteliers across America to resist the weird pillow syndrome, save the few bucks spent on acquiring the unusable pillows, and use that money to provide free wireless instead.