Most hotel artwork is pretty generic, but this piece by artist Paul Villinski in the lobby of the Van Zandt Hotel in Austin is pretty cool. Those birds flying from the old Victoria are made of all kinds of old, reshaped records—including one by Townes Van Zandt.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
Sometimes I don’t know what American hotel chains are thinking. Consider this increasingly commonplace hotel scenario. You check in, get your keycard, lug your bags into the elevator and up to the room, use the key card to access the room, open the door, and . . . .
There are strange voices coming from inside the room. Murmuring, distinctly human voices, but at a volume where you can’t immediately make out what the heck they are saying. Then you go into your room and discover that the TV is on, set to a channel where people are talking, and you have to walk over and turn it off.
Why is this the latest trend? It’s inexplicable. You used to go into your hotel room and, in many cases, find that the TV has been set to a music channel. But now the music welcome has been junked, and it’s always a TV channel where people are talking. Sometimes it’s the channel that carries those long vignette ads for the hotel chain itself, and sometimes its the local NPR station. But it’s almost always human voices in the background these days.
Why is this so? I suppose somebody thought that the sound of human voices in the room would make the weary lone traveler feel a little less isolated on his or her trip. Or maybe they just figure they’ll hit you with a few seconds of free hotel advertising time during the time it takes for you to drop your bags, march over to the TV set, wrestle with the remote, and figure out how to turn the TV off.
This has become standard operating procedure in most hotels, so you’d think I’d be used to it — but I’m not. Instead, I inevitably think as I open the door — “Hey, have I gone to the wrong room?”
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.
That’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.
The bottom drawer of the vanity in our bathroom has a pretty good collection of hotel soaps, shampoos, conditioners, hand lotion, and mouthwash I’ve brought home from business trips over the years. Now the New York Times is reporting that the days of tiny hotel bottles of shampoo may be ending.
According to the Times, the little shampoo bottles are the focus of efforts by the large hotel chains, and lawmakers in states like California, to reduce plastic waste. A bill working its way through the California legislature would outlaw the tiny bottles, and some hotel chains are already moving to refillable dispensers instead. (Of course, the Times being what it is, it quotes “home organizers” who can explain to high-brow readers that some of us in the hoi polloi bring the elfin bottles home to use, and who can tsk-tsk at the unseemly clutter they create.)
The Times article suggests that some people bring the tiny bottles home as souvenirs of place they’ve stayed. That’s not my impetus — I do it because I’m cheap about stuff like that. It’s not like my grizzled mop needs high-end shampoos and conditioners; I’ll use whatever. If I can bring home bottles of shampoo and soaps so that I don’t have to buy them myself, why not do so? I haven’t bought shampoo in years. It’s a small savings, I know, but I figure that all of that penny-pinching will allow Kish and me to enjoy a few extra “Early Bird Special” dinners after we’re retired.
I’ve stayed at hotels with the new wall-mounted soap and shampoo dispensers. They’re fine, of course, although they definitely do have a more institutional feel to them — like you’re staying at the Hotel Kabul youth hostel rather than at a nice hotel. Nevertheless, I’m all in favor of reducing the plastic waste that is clogging the oceans and landfills, and those tiny bottles seem like a good place to start. I’m sure I’ll get used to the dispensers. Besides, I only use small dollops of the shampoo to work my hair into a good lather, so with the collection of tiny bottles we’ve got in the bottom drawer I’m covered for a good long while.
The success or failure of a hotel chain obviously is going to depend upon how successful they are in appealing to potential patrons. It stands to reason, then, that hoteliers must have a lot of information about the preferences of their guests.
My recent experience suggests that hotel chains believe that visitors want to watch a lot of TV — and on the biggest TVs imaginable. In fact, seems to be a competition, pursued with nuclear arms race intensity, to see who can install the biggest TVs in their rooms. This TV, in a room at the Hyatt Arcade in Cleveland, is the largest one I’ve yet encountered. It’s gigantic, takes up the entire top of the dresser, and dominates the room. It’s got to be 50 inches across — if not more. It’s like having a drive-in movie screen in your room, situated directly opposite the bed.
I’m clearly out of step with other hotel guests, because I almost never watch TV in my hotel room. And frankly, I’d be afraid to even turn this TV on. With a creek this size, the volume would probably blast me out of the room.
I’m on the road today, staying at a hotel I’ve stayed at before. When I arrived at my room last night, I found something new positioned on the TV remote control — a notice encouraging me to make “the green choice,” turn down housekeeping, and earn 250 bonus “rewards” points in the bargain.
Like most — if not all — business travelers, I’m a participant in various rewards programs for airlines and hotels. Unlike some people, I’m not a fiend about it. I don’t have a credit card associated with an airline or hotel chain that would give me double and triple rewards and allow me to really maximize point accumulation, and I don’t plan my travel around using one airline or staying in one hotel chain to concentrate my points and earn rewards faster. I know that this costs me the ability to rack up rewards more quickly, but I’d rather take the most convenient flight and stay in the most convenient place, regardless of whether it’s my preferred rewards option, and if that means it takes a lot longer to get those free nights or free flights, so be it. Convenience today is more important to me than potential free vacations down the road.
It’s interesting, though, that the rewards programs now seem to be morphing into an even more general behavioral modification device and incentive program. I’ve been receiving emails from one hotel chain promising me points if I take surveys that will take 5 or 10 minutes to complete, for example. And now a hotel chain thinks that an offer of 250 rewards points might just tip the balance and incentivize me and other travelers to hang the “no service needed” notice on the outside door handle of our rooms. I suppose that there are some people who are so focused on getting points that the bonus points offer really could change their behavior, decline maid service, and save the hotel on housekeeping-related costs. (I decline the maid service as a matter of course, points or no points.)
It would be interesting to know what kind of studies were done to develop these points incentive programs, and how successful they are at producing the desired behavior. How did the hotel chain decide that 250 points — as opposed to 500 points, or 1000 — was sufficient to entice people to reject maid service, and is the program working as intended? I’m not an expert in these programs, obviously, but 250 points doesn’t seem like a lot. Was part of the points decision-making process in that case to make the “bonus” large enough for people to care about, but small enough that people would need to engage in the kind of long-term behavioral change that would really produce savings for the hotel chain? And how many people are really willing to answer detailed surveys about their backgrounds, personal interests, and preferences in exchange for 1,000 of those coveted points?
For some people, maximizing point accumulation apparently is an imperative, and we can expect the airlines, and hotels, and other rewards program businesses to continue to use the programs to encourage us to change what we do and how we do it.