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A Door Between You and the Children: That's a Suite : Lodging: But some hoteliers will call a standard room a 'mini-suite' or other variant on the term, as long as it sells.


Silly you. You thought a hotel suite was a spacious setup with one room for sleeping in, another for entertaining or watching television. Between those rooms, there would stand a wall and a door, the better to provide refuge for families that want to put children in a separate room, or for business travelers who want to hold meetings without a bed in sight.

But consumers need to remember that suite is a slippery word in the hotel business, especially when preceded by a modifying word. Though my dictionary also defines a suite as "a group of connected rooms," there are many hoteliers out there using more liberal definitions.

They describe a single room as a "studio suite" or "junior suite" just because it has a floor plan or furniture that in some way separates the bed from the sitting area.

Taking that kind of liberty with language, a hotelier can lure even the most wary traveler. In the course of preparing a story on all-suites hotels last year, a Consumer Reports correspondent found himself in a hotel near Disney World, looking at a low dividing wall that separated his bed from a small area with a couch. Except for the low wall, the room was a standard hotel room.

"That's what we call a suite," the hotel manager told him when he complained.

Gary Stoller, investigative editor for Conde Nast Traveler magazine, reports that he has been similarly "surprised and annoyed." Sometimes when he calls to book a suite, Stoller says, "I've had reservations people say to me, 'It's a small suite.' And I wonder, what does that mean?"

When that happens, Stoller follows up with several questions about the lodging's dimensions. If the answers are unsatisfactory, Stoller bails out and finds a place elsewhere.

His example is worth following. More often than not, a junior suite is one room, perhaps a large room, perhaps not. An executive suite is almost invariably two rooms with a door that shuts between them. But then there are family suites and specialty suites and parlor suites and so on.

If a true suite is what you want, you need to ask a reservation clerk some specific questions about the size and shape of the space you're renting. If the reservation clerk doesn't know, talk to someone at the hotel's front desk, or find another hotel and repeat the interrogation process. Expect a broad range of responses from hotel to hotel.

At Comfort Suites hotels, for instance, a reservationist acknowledges that most rooms are actually "semi-suites"--one room with a divider between the couch and the bed. (Rates vary depending on season and hotel location.)

Within the Hilton empire, director of communications Jeanne Datz says "each hotel kind of creates its own categories (for rooms) because every hotel is not built the same way." Thus rates and accommodations vary substantially, and when your Hilton reservationist offers a "specialty suite," that doesn't necessarily mean there's more than one room involved. A pleasant surprise is possible, Datz says. One of the "specialty suites" at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, she recalls, has no wall between living and sleeping area, but features two balconies and two bathrooms, a king bed, a dining area, a sofa-and-chairs living room area and a wet bar. (Standard rates: $290 nightly.)

In San Francisco, the new Hotel Milano opened earlier this year offering "junior suites" that were essentially one large room. After measuring "confusion" among guests, the management backed off and reclassified those rooms as "deluxe."

James Carper, editor in chief of the trade publication Hotels magazine, takes an optimistic view. He suggests that the rise of all-suites properties will force hoteliers into a universally accepted definition of what a suite is: "two rooms separated by a door and not a partial wall. When you check into a conventional hotel and you hear the words parlor suite or junior suite , that's the trigger. The traveler has to ask what that means."

But Ed Perkins, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, says he isn't holding his breath. "As long as somebody sees a benefit to using the word 'suite,' we're going to see that word misused," he says.

Hotel companies began developing all-suite properties 10 years ago, and more than a dozen brand names now compete within that specialty, usually charging about $100 nightly and providing such amenities as mini-kitchens with microwave ovens, coffee makers, glasses and dishes. Though many travelers view all-suites properties as business-oriented places, a spokeswoman estimates that 30%-40% of Embassy Suites customers are leisure travelers, often families.

The largest all-suite chain, with 107 hotels and 27,000 suites in North America, is Embassy Suites. (A spokeswoman reports that all of that chain's suites have separated rooms, with advertised rates running $99-$219.) Other big names include Homewood Suites (bedrooms and living rooms always separate; most rates $89-$109); Marriott's Residence Inns (usually separate rooms or loft layouts; rates vary widely), Guest Quarters (separate rooms; rates vary widely) and Crown Sterling Suites (separate rooms; rates vary widely). In July, respondents to a Consumer Reports satisfaction survey ranked Homewood Suites highest among all-suite hotels.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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