Is your hotel too hip for you?

The hallway of the W Atlanta Downtown illustrates the writer's comments.

By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY (Edited down to “blog length” – with apologies – by Dave Hogg)

Some of the hallmarks of cutting-edge urban hotel design — lobbies that double as party lounges, low-slung seating that (for those of a certain age) make getting up gracefully a challenge, complicated in-room control panels that bewilder, oddly placed fixtures (think bathtub in the middle of the guestroom) and lighting so dim it’s hard to see what’s where — are signs that your hotel might be too hip for you.

Joan Eisenstodt, a Washington hospitality industry consultant, recalls having to fumble for a flashlight as she made her way to her room in the W hotel in San Diego. “Ws are fabulous and funny. But they’re clearly not designed for anyone over the age of 35,” says Eisenstodt, 63. “The halls are too dark. They’re not even safe.”

“There are people who skew older but are young at heart and want to hang out in a more youthful environment,” says Chip Conley, 50, executive chairman of Joie de Vivre Hotels. “If the type is too small on the menu, they’ll just put on their glasses and deal with it.” The 35 boutique hotels in the Joie de Vivre catalog were created by using magazines (Real Simple meets Dwell) or movies stars (Gwyneth Paltrow meets Harrison Ford) as guiding principles in their design. The idea is to appeal to guests’ lifestyles.

Boutique hoteliers like Conley may have pioneered this approach, but in recent years the major chains have followed with their own “lifestyle” brands that convey the message: You are where you stay. (Among the new-ish lines: Hyatt’s Andaz; InterContinental’s Indigo; Starwood’s W and Aloft; and Marriott’s Edition.)

But can a hotel be too hip? Yes, says Conley, if it isn’t mindful of its target audience. Hotel consultant Daniel Edward Craig says some hoteliers have gotten so immersed in cutting-edge design, they’ve neglected service. “If the service and staff are warm, they can overcome the initial intimidation you feel when you walk into a foreign environment. The problem is that some hotels have put so much money into design and hired the wrong staff,” he says.

Craig, the former general manager of Vancouver’s trendy Opus Hotel (which created buzz when it opened in 2002 with its glass wall that separates the men’s and women’s restrooms) believes a hotel can do one of two things: “It can make you feel a bit cooler for being there, or it can make you feel not cool enough.”

Greg Myers, 42, was firmly in the latter camp when he checked into the W Chicago last year. “I felt like a senior citizen at a senior prom,” says the York, Pa.(!), sales director. “It was dark. The music was loud. It was the worst experience.”

Adam Goldberg, 43, encountered a similar scenario upon arriving at New York’s Hudson (whose website touts it as the Ultimate Lifestyle Hotel for the 21st Century). “It was like checking into a nightclub,” says the Fairfax, Va., digital TV consultant. “Dance music, dim lights, dark surfaces.”

Other frequently travelers are confounded by the tech-tronics of cutting-edge hotels. Tracy Kulik, 55, spent a fitful night at the James Hotel (now the Hotel Theodore) in Scottsdale, Ariz., when she couldn’t figure out how to turn off the LED illumination on the headboard and bed base. And she found the shower in her room at Washington’s Donovan House hotel so peculiar (it protruded into the bedroom and glowed), she snapped a photo with her cellphone.

Even Steve Carvell, associate dean of the Cornell Hotel School, admits to occasionally being confounded by how things work in some lifestyle hotels. But just as you might trade in your sports car for a van when you have kids, you might have to change hotels as you get older. “The brand doesn’t have to shift. It’s a question of whether you (now) belong in that demographic,” says Carvell, 54. “That’s why (hotel chains) create a family of hotels. They’re looking at you as a lifetime customer.”

Eisenstodt, who spends about 180 days a year on the road, has a different take. “I think hotel designers are going a little crazy in trying to be hip. There are (Baby) Boomers who may want to stay in a cool hotel. But they want light they can read by and furniture they don’t have to struggle to get up from,” she says. “When you’re 60-something and not totally cool and you’re not made to feel welcome, you wonder, ‘Isn’t the hospitality industry supposed to make you feel welcome?’ ”

COMMENTARY:  My family will be staying at the leading-edge-style Curtis Hotel in Denver this summer.  I’ll report back to you how the middle-aged parents – vs. the two teenagers who will be with us – view the atmosphere. I agree with consultant Eisenstodt that hotels’ pursuit of an ever narrower target market can repel some of the fat part of their market. (Double entendre intentional)  Time will tell if these moves are wise.  I have my doubts about them except in the largest U.S. markets.

It’s also cool that Jayne Clark shares an interview with a traveler from our home base of York, PA.  Trust me, we don’t often see that!

Dave Hogg

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