Friday, February 18, 2011

Hotels So Hip It Hurts

USA Today's Jayne Clark recently wrote a timely - and oh-so-true - piece about way-trendy design hotels. Clark relates the case of a 57-year-old shopping mall developer who thought he wandered into the wrong movie when he checked-in to the cutting-edge Andaz West Hollywood and was met by a "host'' kitted out with electronic gear who took his personal information while standing in the middle of the lobby, sans check-in desk.

I know the feeling. As it happens, my wife and I stayed in the first-ever Andaz, in London, shortly after it opened. Operated by Hyatt, Andaz is the latest chic, cool, urban brand of the chain, one that, by the way, doesn't emphasize its corporate parentage. We, too, were initially confused by electronic device-wielding young "hosts'' who checked us in as we sat on very low-slung furniture and sipped house wine. The complimentary wine was a nice touch, as is Andaz's free in-room minibars (though they don't dispense free alcohol). Overall, though, the experience was akin to walking into - and bunking in - a club rather than a hotel.

This is, of course, the idea. It doesn't work for everyone, and it's not supposed to. It skews toward a young, tech-happy demographic. It isn't your father's hotel. And if you're old enough to be a father - especially a middle-aged father, or mother - it's just not your world. At Andaz London, and at some other places I have subsequently stayed, I found myself wondering: Am I young enough? Slim enough? Ironic enough? Have I remembered to shave my head? Am I wearing enough black? No? Pity.

There are common elements in the global wave of style hotels: low lighting is one of them. At a hotel in Edinburgh whose name I have mercifully forgotten, the hallways were so dark, I found myself wishing I had purchased a candle, ala the coaching-inn guests in "The Pickwick Papers'' who did just that in the days before electric lights. Another shared element: sculptural furniture; comfort is beside the point, appearance is all. Another element is a loud, crowded lobby bar serenaded with dance-music tracks. I was at a reception at the W Hotel San Francisco last night, and the first thing I noticed when I walked in was what seemed to be a party just inside the front door. It wasn't an organized party; it was just the hotel's ample bar trade. Then there are the obligatory electronic devices for check-in; the present device of choice is the Apple iPad.

In addition to W Hotels, which are operated internationally by Starwood, and Hyatt's Andaz, there are a number of other ambitious design hotels in the mix. Among them: Boutique-hotel pioneer Ian Schrager's forthcoming Edition brand, Marriott's Schrager-aided, revamped Renaissance; InterContinental's Indigo brand.

I am not altogether thrilled with this trend, but when it works it can breath new life into the hotel "space'' and offer greater choice for travelers. One key to making it work is to avoid hiring so-hip-it-hurts staff and making sure that staffers are well-trained: warm, proficient, informed, engaging. Some cool hotels that work - in large part due to the staff - are London's One Aldwych, Hong Kong's the Upper House, Kimpton Group's Miami outpost Epic, Vancouver's Hotel Loden and most Park Hyatts regardless of location. These places are sleek and cool, to be sure, but not uncomfortable or off-putting.

It's the hospitality industry, remember?

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