After All: The Importance of Being Homely
Image credit: Christine Bohling
Is there a middle way between modern techno hotels and traditional travellers’ ‘homes away from home’?
To begin with, as tradition dictates, a real-life Yuletide mini-tale.
In October 1988, I came to Britain (and to the West) for the first time in my life at the invitation of the Guardian newspaper. Among other things, I remember being dazzled by all the comforts of my first-ever British hotel: a spare television set in the sterile bathroom, snow-white bathrobes, a vast double bed, although I was on my own, and not a sign of previous tenants’ pubic hair on the bathroom floor - a constant feature of an average Soviet hotel, of which I had seen hundreds.
The well-stocked mini-bar was a special attraction, for I firmly believed that the price of all drinks in it was included in the price of the room (I knew that breakfast was). When it was time to go, I thought it would be a shame to leave behind all those nice-looking mini-bottles, so I relocated them in my suitcase.
“Have you used anything from your mini-bar, sir?” a reception clerk asked me when I was checking out.
“Yes,” I answered, trying to hide my surprise at such blatant intrusion of my privacy.
“What did you use?”
“Er... everything, actually.”
He gave me a special sort of a “Stuff you” look that, as I learnt later, British hotel receptionists and waiters are so good at (you can get a similar look from a Harrods shop assistant if you ask for a pound of used nails), but didn’t say anything.
I suddenly realised that I had done something wrong and could feel my face acquiring the colour of the cherry brandy in one of the miniatures in my suitcase.
On Christmas Eve, it is appropriate to talk about homes as opposed to just houses, and that includes ‘homes away from home’, i.e. hotels. After thirty years of intense global travels, my perception of hotels has certainly changed and has gone far beyond that embarrassing mini-bar episode. “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes,” according to Oscar Wilde. Very true!
Some time ago, I started taking interest in hotel technology – a relatively new, yet constantly growing, area on which I’ve written repeatedly in my E&T features and columns. According to one of the latest issues of Hospitality Technology magazine, most hotels spend more and more on gadgets each year, with the latest trends leaning towards robots, virtual reality and blockchain, which is all very good, but makes me wonder if those trends in their unstoppable techno drive have not accidentally missed out on such old, yet still important, concepts as comfort, cosiness and – call me an old bore – a bit of peace and quiet.
Among the world’s top high-tech hotels these days are: Novotel Munchen Messe, with its ubiquitous touchscreens and a VR concierge (alongside the real one, no doubt – just in case); Hotel 1000 in Seattle, with in-built infra-red detectors allowing staff to know for sure whether the guests are in or out, thus avoiding the embarrassing post-shower encounters; and Tokyo’s Peninsula Hotel, with gadgets that include a nail polish drier(!), a mood lighting pad and an AR digital and interactive Pokemon treasure hunt for the guests’ children in case they (both the guests and their children) get bored...
In a previous After All column, I’ve also written about HI techno hotel in Nice and my ‘techno corner room’ in it.
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? And yet, I cannot help feeling that many of those technology gadgets are not just superfluous but also unnecessary, for, as we know, a hotel’s main purpose has always been to give a traveller a relaxing experience, not necessarily laden with cutting-edge technological gadgets that require an engineering degree to operate. And even those who do have such a degree (like most E&T readers, I am sure) would probably want to take a clean break from ‘engineering solutions’ while on holidays, say. Likewise, would tired travellers be tempted by “Instagram-ready beds”, “hipster leather teleboards” and (wait for it) “furiously fast Wi-Fi”, as per the ads for one of the new Moxy hotels? I for myself would probably feel “furious”.
Having said that, I do not want to sound like a cranky retrograde who rejects all technological gadgets in hotels, except perhaps for a good old ‘Do not disturb’ sign.
There must be a golden mean, or, as Buddhists would put it, a middle way here, i.e. a hotel that combines some helpful modern technology with such traditional features as helpful staff, cosy rooms and comfy beds.
I am happy to report that after years of searching, I have found such a hotel. I stumbled upon it rather unexpectedly. Here’s the story.
Among the responses to my then new blog View from Vitalia to hit my omnivorous email box last spring was a kindly and witty message from a PR person at the Wilde Aparthotels chain, which I described in a previous blog post as a misnomer, for Oscar Wilde’s only widely (and Wilde-ly)-known association with hotels was that he actually died in one. To be more precise, the beleaguered scribe died of meningitis in 1900 in what was then the rather dodgy Hotel L’Alsace, now called simply L’Hotel, in Paris. The wallpaper in his room was old and peeling, and the writer’s last words, as he was staring at it, were reportedly: “One of us will have to go...”
I thought then that calling a hotel after Oscar Wilde was on a par with naming a steam engine ‘Anna Karenina’.
In her email, the entrepreneurial PR lady invited me to have a closer look at one of their new aparthotels off the Strand in the centre of London.
I first did some research to find out how an aparthotel was different from a normal high street Ibis or Travel Inn. The September 2018 issue of Business Travel magazine described aparthotels as a “stepping stone” between hotels and serviced apartments, a hybrid of the two, so to speak, their main characteristic being a somewhat mysterious “design-led ethos”. The original aparthotel opened 40 years ago, and according to ASAP (not the habitual abbreviation for ‘as soon as possible’ but the Association of Serviced Apartment Providers, no less), it “contained apartments within a dedicated building with the added convenience of hotel-type services to guests” and operated according to a “degressive pricing model”, i.e. the longer you stayed, the less you paid per room per night.
Intrigued by the “design-led ethos”, which – according to the same ASAP – Staycity Group that ran Wilde properties was particularly focused on, and guided by Oscar Wilde’s famous pronouncement “I can resist anything but temptation”, I agreed to a short stay at Wilde Aparthotel, the Strand.
Initially, I was a bit sceptical, particularly when the touch-screen check-in in the aparthotel’s compact lobby did not work, and the helpful young receptionist had to check me in manually. I was reminded of the quote, frequently attributed to Oscar Wilde but actually coming from Douglas Adams: “Technology is something that doesn’t quite work yet”.
I’m not sure if it was by coincidence that Oscar Wilde’s famous play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was on that very evening at the Vaudeville Theatre across the road, but the hotel was brimming with proper Oscar Wilde quotes, the first of which (from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’) I saw on the door of one of the rooms as I was walking along the carpeted corridor towards my own ‘Wilde superior studio’: “In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures, and so we fill our minds with rubbish and facts, in the silly hope of keeping our place.”
“What’s that about?” I thought before spotting the following note on the back of the lock-shaped cardboard sign: “Place me on the door before 2pm and we will collect your rubbish”.
It felt as if the hotel administration was falling over backwards to prove that the Oscar Wilde hotel connection was relevant, after all.
My room, sorry, studio, was a masterpiece of cosy practicality. It reminded me of a ‘living unit’ in Le Corbusier’s Radiant City in Marseille where I stayed several years ago.
The dim summer evening light was seeping through the semi-drawn button-operated curtains of the only large window to light up a small neat lounge-cum-bedroom and an even smaller and neater mini-kitchen, with Nespresso machine and all necessary utensils and equipment, including a brand new mini-oven, two induction hobs, a microwave and even a mini-dishwasher, neatly folding into a kitchen cupboard, like a land crab into its hole. Two miniature bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar stood on the shelf. A keen amateur chef, I decided to save on eating out and cook myself a meal there and then... Well, if not a full-scale dinner, then at least an omelette for breakfast.
With some apprehension – remembering my recent trip to South Korea, with its famously high-tech hotel conveniences – I explored the bathroom. To my relief, however, my Wilde Apartments bathroom, while having some shower and towel-heater controls, did not feature a digitally controlled toilet, with buttons to activate such scary functions as ‘hot wash’ and ‘enema’, which led to a couple of shameful near-accidents while in Seoul.
Everything in the studio was ‘mini’ or compact, except for the huge comfy-looking bed, with embroidered cushions and soft toys scattered on its funky cover. So large was it that sleeping in it on one’s own could easily constitute a minor breach of public order. Lifted about 50cm above the floor, as if it levitating in the air, the bed had plentiful storage spaces underneath it: countless boxes, chests of drawers, crates and cupboards for luggage, clothes, books , umbrellas and such like. One even contained a bespoke ‘Wilde hot-water bottle’ (which for some obscure reason made me think of the peeling wallpaper in Hotel L’Alsace and dying Oscar Wilde staring at it). One could easily hide a baby elephant under that bed, if need be.
Apart from that super-perch of a bed, with the soporific in itself Hypnos mattress, the only other objects in the room that were not foldable were a 43-inch smart TV, where – among other things – one could stream Netflix movies, and a complimentary smartphone, from which guests could make free calls anywhere in the world – and not just from the room, but from anywhere in London.
Despite its small size, the room looked and felt homely, and that was also due to numerous useless, but pretty and well-designed, Irish-made knick-knacks: vases, toys, figurines etc. Often it is not the furnishings but those seemingly tawdry, yet memorable, ‘lifeless pets’ that make us feel at home. My house, for example, has several rather tacky cow statuettes displayed in the lounge – a reminder of the recently implanted bovine heart valve inside my chest.
The main test of my studio’s technology took place during the night. As someone who wakes up several times per night to use the bathroom, I hate most hotels’ elusive, as if deliberately hidden, electric switches that make me bump into walls or open wrong doors in the dark. On a couple of occasions I even sleepwalked into a (thankfully) empty hotel corridor in my pyjamas... In one brand-new Moxy hotel where I stayed a couple of months ago, the lights would automatically come on under the bed the moment your feet touched the floor, so each time I got up, I had a very clear view of my slippers (it was nice to know they were still there), but of nothing much else.
In contrast to that, the switches in my Wilde studio apartment were all easy to find and even easier to operate – perhaps not a cutting-edge technology, but an extremely important and handy one.
In short, I really enjoyed my stay at the Wilde aparthotel. It felt (albeit very briefly) like having my own little flat in the very centre of London – something that even Roman Abramovich probably cannot afford any longer (particularly after his British residence permit was not renewed).
A masterpiece of practicality, with a perfect balance of technology and tradition, my studio was indeed a ‘stepping stone’ between a hotel room and a serviced apartment, and I felt nice and cosy inside that comfy and aesthetically pleasing ‘stone’.
Who said that life was too short to stay in bad hotels? Was it Oscar Wilde? Probably not. But he could have easily done so. And who knows: had he not had to stay in some bad hotels with peeling wallpaper, he might have lived a little bit longer.
Prices for double rooms at Wilde Aparthotels by Staycity, London, the Strand start at £189. You can book your stay at www.staycity.com
Those smart pillows
Earlier this year, while in Krakow (Poland), I stayed at the Metropolis Design Hotel, which rather intriguingly promised in its brochure (among other treats, like “a desk with LED lights”), an “independently selected light colour” for each room. My favourite colour is blue: it tends to soothe me and to calm me down (unless of course I spot it on something I am about to eat), so I was looking forward to relaxing in my colour-designed hotel room.
Well, the coveted relaxation proved hard to achieve, for no matter how hard I tried I was unable to sort out the TV and lights remote controller, given to me at reception. With just four buttons on its small coloured panel, it appeared easy to operate. And yet, no matter how persistently and in what combination I had been pressing the buttons, I was unable to colour the lights in my room blue (they stubbornly stayed yellow – a colour I detest!). Neither could I manage to switch on a large-screen TV set which I was supposed to do with the same remote controller.
Cursing my lack of technological prowess, I went downstairs and asked the receptionist for help. She said that the batteries could be the problem and replaced them. I returned to my yellow room, but the result was no different, at which point I decided to give up, my only consolation being that the receptionist was unable to make the remote work either.
The hotel, by the way, was otherwise very charming. Pity it allowed faulty technology to let it down.
Having stayed in the past at several other establishments proudly calling themselves ‘techno hotels’, I came to the conclusion that one did not necessarily need cutting-edge technologies for a quiet overnight stay. A clean warm room, with a comfy bed and a soft pillow would do very nicely. By the way, the pillows at Metropolis were superb and fully corresponded to their description in the brochure: “That pillow knows you and adapts to the way you sleep. Memory foam helps you relax by moulding to the shape of your body.”
Yes, it was very nice to meet my friendly bed pillow, although I was secretly pleased that, despite all its ‘memory foam’, it failed to “mould to the shape of my body”. Perhaps, it didn’t “know me” all that well yet...