The Future of Hotels:
Small, Hard and Silly
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2019 -- I have seen the future of guestrooms in American chain hotels--and you're not going to like it.

The future is small. It is hard. It is silly. And it is defined by what you cannot have.

No closets, hangers or drawers. No real work desks and genuine desk chairs. No coffeemakers. No soft surfaces like rugs and natural-fabric curtains. No decorative art. No wooden furniture. And sometimes no defined bathrooms and bars of hand soap.

You're naturally befuddled by the rush of new hotel brands being invented, mostly by Marriott and Hilton, but also Hyatt, InterContinental, Accor, even Best Western. The goal of brand proliferation--Moxy and Home2 and Tru, oh my!--is not to serve customers or even fill actual needs in the lodging landscape.

The goal is to invent brands and flood geographic regions with properties to fill the coffers of the major chains, who these days don't own buildings or even manage properties with their brand names affixed to them. The more hotels they can inject into a market, the more the chains can inflate their franchise revenue from the sometimes gullible building owners and companies that manage the hotels for them.

But more brands also require that chains invent brand "concepts"--and that's where it gets incredibly silly. So silly, in fact, that I recently stayed in a newly built hotel that made room for a tarted-up, old-style rotary phone but couldn't make room for a room that actually encompassed the toilet, the shower and the sink.

I've run into the lodging lunacy a lot lately because I've made it my business in the last year to seek out and stay in the new brands. Whenever possible, I've eschewed the comfort--and the upgrades--of my traditional choices and checked into one of the new brands. What I found has not been very pretty and the best way to tell you about these new hotel concepts is to review brand by brand from the "worst" to "best."

You can't fully understand the horror of Moxy unless you've been in one. Furniture, such as it is, literally hangs on the wall. And you must consult an in-room video to understand what it's all supposed to do. A folding jack doubles as a desk chair and a luggage rack. A little circle of hanging pressboard doubles as your workspace and your table. There are spacious, tiled shower stalls and toilet space, but the sink is stuck in the guestroom entry hall and configured with odd, barely functional spigots and taps. Want to hang clothes? There's a row of wall pegs, but no hangers, closets or drawers. Rooms are microscopic, some clocking under 150 square feet. All this weirdness is pitched to rule-breaking millennials who Marriott believes will accept less space and dumb furnishings because they value style over substance. I was honestly shaken after visiting my first Moxy, so I called some millennials and asked their opinions. They weren't impressed by Moxy, either, but liked the old-fashioned bottle opener bolted to the back of the room's front door.

Tru is a bit better than Moxy. Rooms are larger (225 square feet or so). No furniture hangs on a wall. In fact, there's often nothing on the walls. One room I checked into had no decorative touches at all, just walls painted dreary shades of prison grey. As Hilton's lowest-price brand, you'll feel the chintz. There are no doors on what passes as the closet--mostly, it's a wire rack for hangers--and no drawers. Having just passed the 100-unit mark, Tru has already adapted a bit. It jettisoned its first-generation workspace--a weird combo chair/workslab that resembled a schoolroom desk--and replaced it with a usable rolling workstation and a sliding chair. Incongruously for a new chain, there is an alarm clock at bedside, but no USB charging points there. Shower stalls are large, but the bathrooms feel cheaply constructed. And if you hate hotels switching to large-form common-use bath amenities, you will despise Tru. It installed ungainly squeeze bottles, not only in the shower stall, but also at the sink. Lots of luck squeezing the bottles with wet hands. You won't like the Tru lobby much, either. It feels like a grab-and-go market at the airport.

Home2 is Hilton's newish extended-stay brand, pitched below its established Homewood Suites chain. Rooms are large, but lots of the space is cut to waste with an odd double-desk area. Curtains are used on the "closet" and to separate the "bedroom" from the living area. There's a microwave and dishwasher, but only a small fridge, tiny bathroom sink and mediocre shower. I noticed some mismatched kitchenware, indicating a lack of attention to the day-to-day details. The breakfast area flows into the lobby--service stations are secured with ugly roll-down shutters when mealtime ends--and the food is rather dreary. There tends to be a good selection in the hotel convenience store, however. By the way, Home2 feels nothing like home. No extended-stay hotel does, of course, but Home2 seems to go out of its way to remind you that your life on the road is an endless series of dreary, uninspired boxes with chipped, laminate furniture.

Here is a rose among all these new thorns. Marriott bought the affordable lifestyle chain from Spanish founder Antonio Catalan (AC, get it?) and dramatically restyled the operation. Hotel developers were promised a room design with limited soft surfaces. That extends the lifespan of guestrooms and drives down replacement costs. Developers were also given a breakfast room that converts to an evening bar that can drive revenue from the public areas. And here's the good news: the AC Hotels you'll see in the United States and Canada are pleasantly upmarket and quite comfortable. While guestroom storage is mostly open, surfaces less than sumptuous and the flooring laminate, the bathroom and bath amenities are excellent, the rooms fairly sized and the vibe modern without being on the bleeding edge. Marriott considers AC Hotels a limited-service operation, but you won't feel you're missing anything. Rooms are outfitted with coffeemakers, mini-fridges, snappy glassware and adequate workspace. Beds feel plush. And you won't dislike the buzzy lobby and that breakfast area cum lobby bar.

It's incongruous to talk about a 21-year-old chain as "new," but if you haven't been in a SpringHill Suites lately, you'll like what you find. Marriott has been overhauling its older brands--Courtyard, TownePlace, Fairfield Inn, Residence Inn--and they are all weirdly similar now. The furnishings look the same, the in-room amenities are the same and you'll even recognize the bedspreads. But SpringHill stands out. Its new design has a West Elm feel, no surprise since Marriott partnered with the Williams-Sonoma-owned furniture chain for new rooms. The mid-century modern style works, especially given the spacious (450 feet or so) accommodations that are standard for SpringHill. You'll find good workspace (if not genuine desk chairs), decent sofas, actual closets and drawers and mini-fridges and microwave ovens. Breakfast is included and pretty decent and there are adequately stocked convenience markets in the lobby.

It's a sign of these dynamically priced times that I didn't include nightly rates in these descriptions. The reason: Room rates are now a function of demand, not the specific chain's price range. I've seen nights where Tru hotels charged more than a nearby Hilton, nights when a Moxy cost more than a Marriott or when an AC charged more than a Ritz-Carlton. All things being equal financially and geographically, I'd choose a Courtyard or a Hampton Inn or a Hyatt Place before I'd stay at a Tru or Moxy. But I'd choose a SpringHill over any of them. Home2 properties just don't excite me regardless of price. And I'd put an AC Hotel on par with any Hilton, Marriott or Hyatt, mostly because they are new.