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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

Dealing With Rooms That Are Faulty by Design : Hotels: Looks can be deceiving when it comes to basic room functions. Design seems to have a higher priority than comfort. Lighting is one of the biggest problems.

September 30, 1990|PETER S. GREENBERG

"We have a lovely room for you," says the front-desk clerk, as you check in to your hotel. Indeed, when the bellman takes you to your room, it does look lovely. He points out the ice bucket, the thermostat, he opens the curtains, shows you the television. Everything looks in place.

And that's the problem. It's not your place, and you quickly discover that nothing works the way it's supposed to work.

The curtains don't open all the way. The bathroom is lit too dimly. The remote control to the television is bolted to the night stand. You can't see the TV from the bed. The closet is too small for your suitcases. And the phone is attached to a cord that is only two feet from the wall--it is virtually unmovable.

Welcome to the nightmare of poor hotel room design.

"You have to wonder," says Edwin Theobold, general manager of the 489-room Churchill Hotel in London "if hotel designers ever stay in hotel rooms. It's like a vast conspiracy to deny you basic common sense, and, therefore, basic comforts."

Indeed, in many hotels, it seems like furniture, equipment and plumbing are designed more for the convenience of the hotel than the guest.

"It's not really a conspiracy against our guests," says Horst Schulze, president and chief operating officer of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. "But bad hotel design makes us just as angry. We finally had to come to grips with the reality that we as hoteliers are not designers.

"What happens is that we sometimes forget about common sense and we get excited about design. Then the designers come in and make their statement. We build the hotel. We open it. And then we have to go in and correct the design."

In many cases, the first problem has to do with room lighting.

"Light switches in guest rooms drive me nuts," says Barron Hilton, chairman of the board and president of Hilton Hotels. "Why can't we design them so they make sense? When I travel, I spend a considerable amount of time trying to figure out where switches are located in my hotel room, and what they turn off and on.

"Invariably, I end up walking around in the dark, trying to find a stupid switch."

It happened again just last week. Hilton was attending the grand opening ceremonies for his new Conrad Hotel in Hong Kong. The Conrad, a gleaming 513-room addition to the Hong Kong skyline, featured rooms with many design conveniences.

The rooms were spacious and the service excellent . . . and Hilton again found himself walking around in the dark. It seems the hotel designers put a master switch near the front door. Guests entering the room push the switch, and all the room lights go on.

One small problem: At night, when guests want to go to bed, there is no master switch by the bed. "So I had to get up and go to the door and turn off the master switch," Hilton reports. "And then stumble back to the bed in the dark, trying not to walk into the furniture or the wall. There will be a memo on this."

Indeed, when it comes to hotel room design, lights and the placement of switches are high on the list of guest peeves.

"What infuriates me," says Graham Jeffrey, general manager of the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C., "is when the interior designer puts stupid bedside lamps that light up the bedside table but not what you're trying to read. That is only exceeded by hotels that put low-wattage bulbs in the lamps. They are equally nonfunctional."

Then there are hotels that spend thousands of dollars buying new furniture that just doesn't fit. For example, at the Portman Hotel in San Francisco, the bed sits higher than the television cabinet. If you're lying in bed, you can't see the screen.

When it comes to lights in guest bedrooms, some hotels install what seem to be an adequate number of light fixtures.

"But it's not the number of lights in a room," says Wolfgang Hultner, general manager of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco, "it's the brightness. If you ever see fluorescent lights in a room, the hotel is trying to save money and it won't be bright enough."

Then there's the problem of telephones. "It drives everyone crazy," says Manuel Garza, general manager of the all-suite Alexander Hotel in Miami Beach. "It's not just where the phones are placed, but if they can be moved. Guests need the flexibility to move the phone as far as they want. But the cords are too short.

"Even our cords are too short," he admits. "We provide longer cords on request, but we shouldn't do it on request. So a longer cord costs a few more dollars. We shouldn't sacrifice guest satisfaction to save a few dollars."

For women travelers, the biggest design complaints focus on guest bathrooms.

"Designers get carried away with pretty ideas," says Hannelore Whittington, head housekeeper for the Athenaeum hotel in London. "But I see the rooms when guests are in them, and what they need is enough shelves in the bathrooms and enough light to put on their makeup."

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