Not so long ago, staying in a hotel was the stuff of fantasy; today it can seem more like crashing with friends
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Paul Blow
Like most men, I am a fantasist. Every time I get into a taxi, I have to fight the urge to say “Follow that cab!” In supermarkets, I’m incapable of pushing a cart three yards without making a skidding sound like a car chase in an underground car park. I can’t walk through Arrivals without squinting for my name on a welcome sign, even though I am unknown and unexpected in that city. Naturally, I wear shades just in case I’m recognized.
For someone like me, there is no better place to be than a hotel. Pass the guy in the tall hat and you can be anyone you want. Here, people greet you like a hero just for crossing the lobby; order a sandwich and you’re royalty.
Half the fun is pretending that all the attention is irritating, dismissing offers to carry your newspaper with a weary flap of the hand.
In such blank-slate surroundings, it seems almost rude not to invent a new walk, a new preferred tipple, a new life. Or lives. You can be a litigator in the gym, a rock star in the lobby, a vampire in the bar. And if you get bored with what you’ve become one day, you can start from scratch the next, after your new favorite breakfast—your supporting cast happy to play along as long as your credit is good.
Not only has the hotel industry indulged us in such delusions, it has been complicit in creating them, concocting ever more theatrical sets to excite our imaginations. After all, it’s hard to be yourself when the reception looks like a nightclub, the elevator looks like an aquarium, the bellhops look like a boy band and the floral displays look like The Day of the Triffids. If we can pull off a Ryan Gosling–esque nonchalance in our marble nooks flanked by supersized artworks, who cares if it’s too dark to read the sports page?
Lately, though, something weird has been happening to hotels. One trendy place I stayed at recently had a more casual vibe than the apartment I had left behind. The lounge furniture was similar to the furniture in my living room, only a little more uncoordinated. The usual lobby click-clackery was mixed with indiscriminate rugs and knitted things. I ordered lunch, and a sloping burger arrived, looking like a third-grader’s craft project. All that was missing was a spaniel chewing the remote and a refrigerator wheezing in the background.
Or so I thought. The missing fridge, it turned out, was in my room: a “Dexter”-size number with a generous freezer compartment right next to the bed. How long did they think I was staying? Still, at least the appliance clashed far less with the bedding than the garish drapes did.
My experience in that hotel pointed to what people in the industry call “a trend.” And the trend is this: Hotels are becoming a lot less like our fantasies and a lot more like our daily lives. It has something to do with authenticity, or maybe individuality. These are worthy things to aim for in principle, but it has to be said: There’s a fine line between a pleasing lack of pretension and crashing with friends.
More and more, this is what staying at a hotel feels like. Restaurant managers beseech us to raid their pantries; bartenders urge us to sample drinks from their microbrewery/laundry room; minibars creak with snacks from hippie neighbors. Not only are dogs allowed, the head porter can probably lasso you a stray. And don’t even think about asking for a car to take you to the airport.
“Here,” the scruff-chinned concierge will say, pointing to a rusting Cannondale leaning against the lobby wall, “borrow my bike.”
While this cheerful back-to-basics stuff can be irksome at first, it does grow on you (an unfortunate choice of words, perhaps). So what if the business center is a yurt? Turns out, nibbling a spirulina cupcake on a sofa made from repurposed shoes can be just as enjoyable as balancing on a designer spike while pretending to be a spy. And it is helpful to be able to distinguish between a light switch and an objet d’art, thereby locating your drink without the use of a flashlight. Who knew that irony could be so accommodating?
Stay in enough of these new-style hotels, in fact, and you’ll find yourself undergoing changes, too. “I may just borrow that bike tomorrow,” you find yourself thinking as you cross the lobby linoleum, not even bothering to suck in your stomach. “Yeah, I’ll check out some of the local artisans. Maybe there’s a crafts fair. Pick up some local produce to put in the fridge by my pillow.” Perhaps you’ll even remember that engaging with real people was why you enjoyed traveling in the first place.
Hemispheres contributor Boyd farrow’s preferred persona when staying at hotels is that of incognito new wave keytar player.