Wednesday, November 9, 2011

To Be Prototypical

I'm in New York this week, the first half of the week in suburban New York/New Jersey (literally: the state line runs through my vendor's parking lot) and the second half of the week in Manhattan for vacation.

I spent the weekend sick and was generally hating life (and seriously considering canceling or curtailing the trip) through Sunday evening, but thanks to some excellent nursing on the part of Rachel I made it vertical and to the airport: As I sat in seat 21F, the exit row right over the wing, that wonderfully guttural roar of the engines as we took off into the sunset I was generally feeling OK.

Arriving in Newark, for the first time I elected to eschew both the recommended car service and the recommended hotel -- previously I've not been particularly impressed by either and I was able just as cost effectively to rent a car and book at a hotel where I can earn Hilton HHonors points -- recently anointed with Hertz Gold status it was a breeze to just find my name on the board and walk to my car (If I don't earn it for free next year, I'm convinced the time savings alone may make that worth the annual fee.

One of the reasons I decided to go it my own for the hotel was that the recommended hotel is always a bit of an unknown quantity. With "My" hotels, there is the prototype. There are the brand standards. I know what to expect and I am not easily confused (If you haven't read it from one of the times I've posted it before, Larry Mundy's The Hotel Guest With Half a Brain is entirely true).

While I sometimes bemoan the homogeneous prototype it provides a certain level of comfort away from home. But within the prototype you can also judge how much a particular hotelier actually cares. Within the Hampton Inn brand I am convinced that one of the brand standards is that the bathroom amenities will include a minimum of four of the following: Face soap, hand soap, shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash, body wash, sewing kit, shower cap. Now the two soaps and shampoo are guaranteed. Conditioner is a safe bet. But some locations--usually those which are not freeway-side overnight pit stops--go a bit further. Body wash is a usual #5, the mouthwash is somewhat rare but becoming more common either as #5 or a #6.  Both the sewing kit and shower cap are virtually unheard of.

But this location has the full array. So vast, it seems, the assortment at this Hampton Inn barely fits on the cute little brand-standard tray upon which they are presented. Looking further at the amenities, you can tell how frugal the hotel's management is: I select those amenities I need on my first night and place them in the shower. A thrifty hotelier (or Housekeeping Manager) may mandate that once removed they are not replaced for the duration of the stay--which is wonderful when you run out of your 3 tablespoons of shampoo on the 3rd day. Others (like this hotel) replace them daily.

[As an aside I'm still trying to figure out exactly where I can hang my towel that means "Yes, I read the 'Be green' card and I really don't need you to launder my towel every day. I actually prefer towels that are a bit fluffy and haven't been laundered to within a fiber of their lives. Please leave this one where you found it" The hooks on the wall don't do it. The handle/towel rack on the shower door doesn't do it. There aren't many other places in the bathroom to hang something. I'm considering a multi-lingual "Please don't launder me" sign.]

The other nice -- if somewhat freaky thing -- about being prototypical is that I can find my way through just about any Hampton Inn room -- indeed just about any Hampton Inn -- with about as much effort as it takes for me to get from my front door to my bed in my own house. Except when there are subtle differences.

There are three or four clear prototypes in the Hampton Inn family from the original -- narrow roomed, originally-built-for no frills "Roadside" hotels, the first evolution where the rooms got a bit bigger but function didn't really change, the first "Focused Service" evolution with fitness rooms, business centers, and the like where the rooms have gotten slightly larger, and the the current prototype (my favorite) where the room size hasn't really changed but the geometry has: Instead of beds being against the common wall staring at a wall, the beds are rotated 90 degrees with the headboard against the bathroom wall looking to the TV (and window) on the window wall.

This prototype seems to be #3 -- placing the property at roughly 4-10 years old if I had to guess -- and based on the date of manufacture for the phones (2006) it's in the right ballpark.  The typical furniture arrangement for Prototype #3 on the wall in line with the door is trashcan, short chest of drawers, refrigerator/microwave, TV, Chair (or Wardrobe), Desk (that's built into the wall and not a separate piece of furniture)

I realized how much I've become used to the prototype when for the fifth time I found myself walking to the prototypical trash can location to throw something away then becoming confused. Why? In this room, the trash can is in the corner by the desk. Arguably more logical, right? But it's not where it is in every other Prototype #3. It is, to say, like swapping hot and cold on a faucet: You don't realize how used you are to hot on left and cold on right until someone decides to mess with it. And it doesn't seem like a major change either.

Of course, being prototypical has its disadvantages. Every. Single. Hampton. Inn. has the same bleh stock art collection hanging on the walls. The homogeneity is surprising. The lack of local color. There have been times where I've had to look at the phone to remind myself where I am. But it's a bit like comfort food. I know what it will taste like. I know what I'll find in the bathroom. I know what I'll find on the bed.
And ultimately I realized that's why I went out of my way to stay here (at roughly the same cost) vs. the suggested hotel. I've stayed there before. And it's OK. Nothing spectacular -- bland and homogeneous in the Comfort Inn style. But it's not a prototype I recognize. I've always felt a bit off center because I never completely find my travel center at that hotel. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to expect (and I certainly don't get the Hilton HHonors VIP level of service and problem resolution tools.

But each hotel does occassionally add it's touches -- here it's an evening snack evey night in the lobby, a location near Grand Rapids has (had?) a nightly manager's happy hour, the Ann Arbor-North Location (one of the original prototype-narrow room locations) comes by your room with a snack cart for HHonors members each night. And it's those touches that remind you that the hotel is ultimately of people, by people, and for people in a way totally uique to lodging.

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