The experience, gushes the hotel website, will be delightful, with staff who will be your new best friends; luxuries beyond the dreams of Caligula. Just look at this shot of a couple lounging in bathrobes that are so fluffy they’ll have to sit on their suitcases when they steal them.
Yet it’s not really infinity pools, spas, and marble staircases that create a hotel experience.
Somewhere way, way, down the pyramid of basic human needs lurk the real things that define our stay. We confront them when we’re at our weakest: jet-lagged out of our gourds, sweaty-palmed, and panicky an hour before our big keynote or, on the last day of the Cannes festival, too slammed on Martinez rosé to remember our own name, let alone room number.
Hotels could have risen to the challenge of designing for those of us mentally and physically incapacitated by long-haul travel, stress, alcohol or a day on the floor of CES. After all, designing for vulnerable people has led to some great breakthroughs. Oxo Goodgrips are a range of kitchen utensils created for arthritis sufferers. They became bestsellers because we can all benefit from a more comfortable potato peeler. That Aeron chair you’re probably sitting on was designed for elderly people. Nike’s Flyease, created for people with disabilities, is becoming a mainstream hit.
Instead, hotels seem to have decided that the average business traveler is Daredevil.
Daredevil can sleep no matter how much stuff glows in his room. Daredevil is too badass to care about showers that sit on a knife-edge between freezing and flesh-searing. Daredevil’s job doesn’t depend on his abilities to upload stuff on Wi-Fi. Most of all, Daredevil is brilliant at knowing where stuff is in the dark. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal superpower. It does when you’re trying to find the bathroom at 3 a.m. in the Hyatt in Tokyo.
I test products for a living. Often, I find extreme ways to test those products, to understand where they really break down – and why they really perform. If hotels tested rooms on groups of consumers who were drunk, or stressed, or deprived of sleep for twenty-four hours, I’m certain they’d rethink everything.
So in the interests of science, I have inflicted all of these states on myself on a recent trip to the US, and have reached some conclusions that I would like to give the hotel industry for free as a service to them, and to road warriors everywhere.
Test One: Seven hours of jet lag and three Old-Fashioneds in Milwaukee, WI.
I’m tired, that third Old Fashioned was a mistake and I just want darkness to descend. I switch off the main light by the door. Everything goes dark. I switch it back on. I hit the switch by the bedside lamp. It comes on. I walk back to the door. Click. Darkness. The switch by the door turns everything off. Perhaps it doesn’t switch the desk lamp off. I repeatedly turn the knob on the desk lamp, which doesn’t come on. No, because there’s a switch on the flex as well. Back to the main light. Click. Darkness. I am in the puzzle room from hell.
In Daredevil mode I walk back to the bed in the dark, banging into the pointlessly enormous chest of drawers. Every hotel room has a giant chest of drawers. Why? Am I The Unsinkable Molly Brown with a steamer trunk full of crinolines? More to the point, who unpacks their suitcase? Even if I’m staying a couple of weeks, I’ll be living out of my carbon fibre Samsonite, the king of carry-on wheelies. Just give me somewhere to park it where I won’t bang into it in the dark
I limp into bed. Sometime in the night I will get up to go to the bathroom. I already know that the bedside light switch won’t work and I will be Daredevilling there and back again.
Test two: Three days of sleep deprivation in New York
Finally, the back-to-back workshop deathmarch was over, and I could have an early night. Most hotels have wonderful blackout curtains that completely cut out urban light. Then they spoil the darkness with giant glowing clocks, because what we all want behind our eyelids after eighteen hours in a plane is a little bit of Shinjuku neon winking away at us. Often they are hardwired into the wall so I can’t just wrench out the plug. Why? Do people steal them? Does anybody want a thing that glows with the intensity of a dying star in their bedroom at home, or do they just need somewhere to dock their eight year-old iPod? I put the hardwired ones in a pillowcase then slam them in a drawer. I’ve put post-its and even duct tape over wall-mounted ones. (Also, memo to Jonathan Ive: that little white pulsing heartbeat of a Mac laptop is not cute in a dark hotel room. It wakes me up. I have duct tape on that, too.)
Test 3: Send emails while trying to eat in Chicago
When you go to a restaurant, does the waiter say, We’ve hidden the menu and you will have to solve some riddles to find it? No, they don’t. Because if you were tired and hungry, you would either walk out of the restaurant or waterboard the waiter until he told you the specials.
So why do so many hotels put room service on the fifth page of the television menu? Do they not want us to spend ludicrous amounts of money on a Caesar salad? Finally, it’s ordered. Now to do those emails. Hotel rooms generally have lots of plug sockets and lots of comfortable places to sit. But they don’t put the two in the same place. Who works at a desk when they can work in bed? Or in a nice armchair? Or on the balcony? But batteries are getting smaller and leads are getting shorter. (You again, Ive. See me after class.) A socket by the bed would be nice. As would one of those little fold-out tables you get in hospitals. So if I wanted to sit in the armchair, I had to get the emails sent before the batteries ran out.
Although this happened two months ago, I can tell you that the Wi-Fi password in my hotel was AvE1cD. It is imprinted on my mind forever because I re-typed it into my laptop, phone, and tablet every 15 minutes. For four days.
As anybody who’s worked in experience design will tell you, it’s not about grand gestures: the Renoir in the lobby or the Starck-designed bar. Experience is the accumulation of a thousand tiny moments, most of them almost invisible. My final tip for hotel designers is this: before you finalize a design, go out for a few drinks. Come back to the room about 4 a.m. and ask yourself, does this still make sense? Right now, a lot of stuff won’t.