Checking Inn, Hotels Life’s Style
By D. Michael Taylor
It’s nighttime in Cairo, and a newly modernized elevator still bears the marks of its outdated yet familiar predecessor as it carries you up to your room in the ornate surroundings of an exotic hotel. Tired and bewildered by a barrage of foreign culture, you crawl into bed and do something you rarely do at home: you turn on the TV and order a juicy burger and fries from room service. Somehow it is reminiscent of home, and you feel a little less uncomfortable in your unfamiliar surroundings.
Humans have a tendency to betray their nomadic instincts. Some are content spending their lives in the same place, day after day, and year after year, but many of us roam the globe working, exploring, eating, drinking, and dancing. Hotels are the only real constant for the perpetual traveler, and as such, they thread a sense of continuity throughout the world.
The world’s travel and tourism industries are expected to gross $7 trillion in 2007, a large chunk of which will be spent on making strangers feel less strange. Whether it’s business or leisure that draws us out of our familiar milieus to explore the unknown, the experience is universal. How do we cope in these foreign environments after spending many hours trapped in a plane tired, cranky, and jet-lagged? How can we feel at home when we’re not? In a dizzying variety of ways, the answer is found in the hotels we check into.
Humans are in a continuous state of evolution. Once the dominion of transients and marauders, hotels grew over time to match the needs of diverse emerging classes: artists, musicians, billionaires, celebrities, heiresses, CEOs, and even our beloved pets. Being pressured to keep up with a higher and higher demand for better customer service and variety that caters to these eclectic or extravagant amenities has transformed the hotel industry into one of the more unique urban phenomena of the modern era. Names like Hotel Costes, The Ritz-Carlton, and Savoy resonate with universal recognition. But it is the branding of the corporate chains that own a lions share of these hotel properties, such as Marriott, Four Seasons, and W that has really driven the concept to a higher level, creating a sense of reliability, familiarity, and comfort in an often unreliable and uncomfortable world.
Hotels can be a fascinating barometer of social class. Truman Capote used the Plaza Hotel as a backdrop for shifting the tide of social culture in Manhattan. In 1966, he threw the infamous Black & White Ball in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom to honor Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. Capote captured the zeitgeist of the sixties perfectly by snubbing some of the more established society figures in favor of irascible and unpredictable guests such as Norman Mailer and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra danced the night away with his wife at that time, Mia Farrow, and Capote’s elevator man spent the evening entertaining a well-heeled lady who remained blissfully unaware of his status. A perverse, upscale parallel of Warhol’s Factory scene emerged overnight, making it one of the more legendary events to occur in New York.
Now we have the even more counterintuitive figure of Paris Hilton. Who would she be without the instant privilege that the Hilton name grants her? Just another anonymous blonde who drinks too much, most likely. But she has cleverly used her name, and a lot of bad publicity, to carve out a new breed of celebrity that revels in the foibles of a strange intersection between nouveau riche and a type of white trash extravagance. Love her or hate her, it’s hard to deny that she represents something larger that is happening with respect to American consumer culture. No longer the domain of an established set of WASP families on the Upper East Side, conspicuous wealth and constant media attention are the ticket to status now.
In 1907, an eighteen-story hotel opened on the southeast corner of Central Park in Manhattan. The Plaza was an instant sensation, declared the best hotel in the world by local newspapers; it boasted 800 rooms, 500 bathrooms, and private suites with up to 17 rooms, all accessed by 10 elevators. The hotel lived up to the immediate status bestowed upon it as it greeted guests such as Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, and the Beatles during their first trip to the States. It also became a character of its own in movies such as The Great Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Plaza Suite, and Home Alone 2. Kay Thompson, a Plaza regular who matched wits with Noel Coward on a regular basis, created the beloved children’s book character Eloise with illustrator Hilary Knight in 1955. Plucky, mischievous, and adorable, Eloise lived an adventurous and magical life in the Plaza, and caused an entire generation of children to fantasize about living in a grand and exciting hotel. The Plaza was recently purchased by a foreign development group, which has started renovating the impressive structure into segments that will include high-end luxury shopping, an apartment complex, and a smaller upscale hotel. Many New Yorkers are conflicted about this radical metamorphosis of the beloved icon, but the declining profit margin of the hotel made change unavoidable.
The rise of the modern boutique hotel in the last few decades has perfectly captured the emerging demand for affordable luxury. Ian Schrager, who made a name for himself as the less decadent partner of Steve Rubell at Studio 54, emerged after the disco era to boldly reinvent the urban hotel into a sleek modern model of efficiency and service. Focused on the lobby and shared spaces instead of the rooms themselves, Schrager introduced the modern and sophisticated design elements of Philip Starck and created a sense of high theater for his guests. The Paramount and the Hudson in New York, the Delano in Miami, and the Mondrian in West Hollywood struck a powerful chord with travelers, and soon the bigger corporate chains were replicating the concept to varying degrees of success. No longer a unique concept, Schrager is re-inventing himself now. He is transforming the Gramercy Hotel in Manhattan into a hotel and apartment complex that will share the resources of its staff to create a new form of urban housing, this time with lush classical design elements mixed with a bohemian artistic feel.
Constant evolution, coupled with a sense of recognizable comfort, is the challenge and hallmark of the world’s best hotels. As our planet becomes smaller and smaller, and more of us discover the joy of exploring different places and new cultures, the demand for ingenuity with elements of familiarity will push the boundaries of hotel culture even further. So wherever we find ourselves, we can turn on the TV, enjoy the burger and fries ordered from room service, and relax in the exciting world that hotels provide for us.
First published in movmnt magazine “Hotel Lifestyle” Summer 2007 issue