It had all gone so well until I turned the lights out. The hotel room had, until then, pulled off the remarkable feat of not doing anything to annoy me. It’s surprisingly tricky to pull off — usually there won’t be a socket within reach of the desk, the towels will be opposite 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. Nodding sagely, they’ll all agree it’s far more important to have curtains made from the feathers of a phoenix and bathroom rugs hand-woven by a cyberpunk mermaid workshop 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 TVs you can actually switch off seem to be on the way out, too. Chairs that are comfy to sit on rather than looking kooky in photos? Forget it.
I’ve encountered a few spectacular examples of hotel designers getting carried away. My room in Tenerife, for example, had 23 light switches. Every one had to be turned to the right position before the room was dark. And some switched others back on. The designer had clearly taken his inspiration from hitting moles with a mallet at a fairground. 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 met with 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 there was no way of doing anything manually. Sometimes it’s nice to open a curtain without fiddling with settings on a mini-computer.
As a rule, the more expensive and style-focused the hotel, the more absurd design features you have to put up with. And you’ll also get the increased levels of unnecessary service that come with them. If the bed wasn’t pebble-dashed with cushions, flowers, ‘helpful’ pieces of explanatory cardboard and towels shaped to look like swans, you wouldn’t, of course, need to send a maid around later to take them all off again. And, to add insult, the universal law of turndown service 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.
But that’s not as bad as the overly helpful check-in after a long flight. After sitting with a neon mocktail for 15 minutes, someone will grab your bag without permission, ready to arrive at your room with it 20 minutes after you’d hoped to be using the guide book inside.
Worst of all, though, is the receptionist who, rather than pointing to the lifts, insists on accompanying you to your room and embarking on lengthy explanations about how everything works. Last time it happened, I cracked. “If you have to explain how anything in this room works,” I snapped, “then it clearly hasn’t been designed properly in the first place.” I do hope he passed that on to the phoenix-feather collective.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)