$600 a night and not a drop to drink

KAWS statue at The Standard New York

Everyone's a critic: The KAWS sculpture weeps for luxury values at the Standard

On the first day of this month, the New York nightmare happened to me. The apartment beneath me caught fire. The girl who lives there wasn’t at home, but I’m lucky I was, because I had just returned from three weeks away. I’m fortunate my apartment wasn’t empty, because I smelled the smoke, then I heard the crackle of a large blaze, and finally I called 911 as the air in my home became rapidly unbreathable. I stopped the flames, but I everything I own was smoked. I’ve been living in hotels ever since.

The first thing I have learned is that having insurance is worth every penny. Believe it.

I’ve had to switch from hotel to hotel because Fashion Week logjams swept in and swept me out. So now I’ve moved four times, which has enabled me to see New York as a visitor sees it. It’s not a pretty picture.

A hotel may have comfortable beds and a pretty structure, but it always reveals its true attitude toward guests through its amenities. The rooms were built by architects and designers who have long since moved on, but the administration of amenities shows what the people who now run the place really think of you.

Forgive me if I’m cranky (I warned you about that in my last post), but I haven’t slept in my own bed for nearly a month now. And although I do understand these hotels need to make a buck, I also recognize that the nickeling-and-diming of the American traveler has eroded the proud values of the hospitality industry to the point where it’s not often worthy of that name anymore.

John Cleese recently said that what interested him in doing Fawlty Towers was all the hotels he’d been at where things were run for the convenience of the staff and not for the convenience of the guests. He said he could tell in a minute after setting foot in the lobby which hotel he was in. Only some hotels truly care to be hospitable to people stuck away from home. The selfishness of the hoteliers in the other category was what inspired him to create Basil Fawlty.

When I checked into the Standard New York, the model/clerk asked how I was. I told him I was checking in because of a house fire at home. He didn’t say another word until, “Here’s your key.” Not hospitable, no, but perhaps the awkwardness won in that instance.

Soon, I realized that chilliness was endemic to The Standard. The Standard’s rooftop bar, featured prominently in its marketing, was usually closed to guests. It was always rented out at peak cocktail hours. One night, a friend of mine asked whose party was happening, he was told by a model/host, “I’m not going to tell you that.”

W Hollywood Pool

Putting the traveler second: The W Hollywood Pool, pictured here without hotel guests

I found the situation just as prickly last year in Los Angeles, when I tried to use the pool as a guest of the W Hollywood and was told to go away. My complaint caused quite a furor, was covered in The Economist, and elicited some non-apologies from the hotel management. But the trend persists.

The hotel also advertises free wi-fi, but once you check in, you learn the truth: The free wi-fi is a crappy version that tops out at 512 Kbps and kicks you offline during downloads. If you want to do much of anything, including watch movies or YouTube, you have to pay a ghastly $20 a day for the high-speed variety. Were they kidding? Andre Balazs Properties, which was charging me $700 on some nights, actually went through the trouble of creating two wi-fi networks — one of them intended to be junk for the have-nots? They can’t throw in high-speed internet for rates like that?

This week, CNN wrote about this issue, which I’ve been pointing out for years at Budget Travel and AOL: The expensive hotels rip guests off on Internet, while the cheap ones know that including quality wi-fi will guarantee future repeat business.

I think someone should create a blacklist of hotels that advertise free Internet access that, in reality, stinks. Just because a hotel tells you it was wi-fi doesn’t mean it works. Last month, I found the same wi-fi bait-and-switch at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Avenue in Chicago: It advertises free wi-fi that, in truth, is often impossible to use.

In fact, I’ve found that about a third of the time, it’s lousy despite the fact it’s listed as an amenity. You’d never tolerate algae in the swimming pool, or a faucet that only yields a trickle, but we seem to shrug and overlook clogged or inadequate web access.

The Dream Downtown, famous for having windows in the bottom of its pool that are visible from the lobby lounge, was kind of a mess. It boasts about fancy in-room bells and whistles, such as a desk-side panel where you can plug your MP3 player in. Except there were no instructions or cables, and no one who worked there could explain how to use it. Unfortunately, rates of $600 a night are too steep for members of the Geek Squad.

Nate Berkus

Style icon? Or just a bigger celebrity than Lisa Simpson?

Like so many new urban hotels, The Dream Downtown is essentially a life support system for its event spaces, so guests are not prioritized highly.

On the first night I was at the Dream, Nate Berkus was on hand to get an award from US Magazine as one of the city’s best-styled people. (He accepted it in, um, a grey tee shirt and an open denim button-down.) The next night, Marc Jacobs had his show’s after-party there. So those were two nights I pretty much had to stay in my room. On my last night there, I tried to get up to its buzzed-about rooftop bar. I was a paying guest — a heavily paying guest at that — but at the kiosk I was told it would be up to “the doorman’s discretion” whether I could have a drink there. No, thank you. Not gonna submit myself to rejection at a hotel I’m paying already to stay at.

I joined the plebes at the ground-floor bar instead. It had run out of several ingredients, making my order impossible. The next lady who sat down beside me wanted a pinot and they were out of that, too. At the sound of her voice, I glanced aside and saw that it was Yeardley Smith, who voices Lisa Simpson.

It was gratifying to know that it wasn’t just me. Even multimillionaire celebrities get the shaft at Manhattan’s overtrendy hotels.

Then at 11:45, the half-stocked bar declared it was last call and trounced us all out, leaving us with only one option: the bar where the doorman wouldn’t look twice at us because we were not 22 with perky boobs.

The company that manages the bar replied to my tweet about it — incidentally, that’s what the W Hollywood did, too; it blamed my dissatisfaction on a contractor — but the way I see it, I laid out the problem in plain English already. It’s not my job as a customer to jump through hoops, to keep emailing customer service reps, to make sure it’s rectified. It’s theirs as professionals who claim to be in the “hospitality” industry.

These hotels look pretty, even if they all charge for $17 for the most basic of cocktails, which I have required several of during these trying days of contractors and movers, and I can only imagine how delightful they would be if they rose to their price bracket and truly treated customers with luxury. Then again, value has never been at the forefront of fashion.

I peck, but it’s not all bad. I did have a good time at a third hotel I’ve stayed in, the Soho Grand Hotel. It let me borrow a fish during my stay. And it even had an amenity that the Standard and the Dream would never permit to clutter its hyper-styled decor: a free coffee machine for guests.

It was so thoughtful, for a minute I thought I’d died and gone to Best Western.


Standard Hotel wi-fi sign-in screens

They don't warn you that cruddy Internet comes standard at the Standard

5 Responses to “$600 a night and not a drop to drink”

  1. Sean Frankino

    Great read. I just went through the Internet ridiculousness in Anaheim at a Hyatt. 1200 people at a business conference with wildly expensive internet. When I complained they had absolutely no sense of how crazy it was. Thankfully, the pool was always available. I love the last line of your post. Glad you are getting fodder from the comedy of errors. Best. Sean

  2. PaulineF

    Fascinating and depressing. Perhaps you should try some of the cheap ones to see how they compare, an AppleCore property perhaps or a Brooklyn B&B. Would love to read that blog. Hope you’re back in your apartment soon!

  3. David

    I look at it this way: people who skate from hot hotel to hot hotel looking for excitement are suckers and deserve whatever they get. Two words: Loyalty program. Get status, maintain it and live happily ever after. Yes, this is the boring and safe choice, but if you’re traveling for the hotel, you’re wasting time and money. Go some place to be there. Not stare at it through a plate glass window.