It had all gone so well until I turned the lights out. The hotel room had, thus far, pulled off the remarkable feat of not doing anything to particularly annoy me. It’s something that’s surprisingly tricky to pull off – usually there won’t be a plug socket within reach of the desk, the towels will be on the opposite side of the bathroom to the shower and there will be no shower gel, just a bar of soap. Or, perhaps, the TV will be strategically placed in the one part of the room where it’s impossible to watch comfortably from either the bed or the chair.
This time round, the lights were off but the room was still very bright indeed. By the side of me was a wonderful piece of technology that doubled as an iPod dock, an alarm clock and quite possibly a time machine. Most pertinently, though, it could have been used as a beacon to communicate with extra-terrestrial life forms. I tried turning it around and covering it with a shirt, but still it blazed, bathing the room in sleepless artificial illumination. Yanking the plug out of the socket and killing it was the only option.
It often occurs to me that most hotel designers have never stayed in a hotel. I think they all stay in one Big Brother-style flat together, trying to impress each other with new ways to make their creations stylishly impractical. It’s far more important to have curtains made from the feathers of a phoenix and bathroom rugs that were hand woven by a cyberpunk mermaid collective in Atlantis than it is to have things that work properly.
Cool counts for more than good. Unfortunately, indicating which way is hot and which way is cold on a shower seems to be terribly uncool these days. And televisions that you can actually switch off seem to be on the way out too. Chairs that are comfortable to sit on rather than looking kooky in photographs? Forget it.
I’ve encountered a few spectacular examples of hotel designers getting utterly carried away with themselves. For example, in Tenerife, I encountered a room with 23 separate light switches. Every single one of them had to be turned to the right position before the room was dark. And some of them switched others back on again. The designer has clearly taken his inspiration from hitting moles with a mallet on a fairground sideshow. I gave up in the end, and pulled the key card out of the slot by the door, before gingerly stumbling back towards the bed in pitch darkness.
In Las Vegas, I encountered the worst obsession with technology yet. Absolutely everything – TV, music, temperature, lights, curtains – was controlled by an electronic pad. Once I’d worked it out, this seemed pretty cool. Then there was a power cut, and I realised that there was no way of doing anything manually. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to open a curtain without fiddling with settings on a mini-computer.
As a general rule, the more expensive and more style-focused the hotel, the more absurd design features you’ll have to put up with. And you’ll also get the increased levels of unnecessary service that comes with it. For example, if you don’t pebbledash the bed with cushions, flowers, ‘helpful’ pieces of explanatory cardboard and towels shaped to look like swans, you don’t have to send a maid around later to take them all off again. The universal law of turndown service, of course, is that it can only be attempted while a guest is getting ready to go out for the evening. An inconvenient state of nudity is compulsory.
Worst of all, however, is the overly helpful check in after a long flight. I hate having to sit for 15 minutes with a neon mocktail that tastes of E-numbers, sugar cubes and Lee Evans’ sweat. I hate it when someone grabs my bag without permission, ready to arrive at my room with it twenty minutes after I’d hoped to be using the guide book inside. But mainly I hate getting the receptionist who, instead of pointing me towards the lifts, insists of accompanying me to the room and embarking on lengthy explanations about how everything in it works.
Last time it happened, I cracked. “If you have to explain how anything in this room works, anything at all,” I snapped. “Then it clearly hasn’t been designed properly in the first place.” I do hope he passed that on to the idiots that installed everything.
This was originally written as a column for National Geographic Traveller, which you should really subscribe to.
All content copyright David Whitley.