The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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The Death of the Hotel Desk
Thursday, September 28, 2017 -- When InterContinental Hotels last week rolled out another new lodging brand, the company promised Avid Hotels would be "Fresh. Frank. Fair."

Well, here's a little fresh, frank and fair talk: If you check into an Avid Hotel--the first one is due in 2019--it'll be all about what you can't have in your guestroom. There'll be no doors on the closet, no drawers, no bathtub and, frankly, no space. King-bedded Avid rooms will be 220 square feet, a third less than the current industry standard.

While we're being frank and fair, there'll be one other thing that won't be in an Avid guestroom: a desk. As you can see by the model room photo released by IHG, Avid guestrooms will have a ledge attached to the wall and tucked under the television monitor. The shelf appears so shallow that that armless "desk" chair doesn't even slide fully underneath.

We could ignore InterContinental's ridiculous "working desk space" at Avid--a brand targeted to sell for $10-15 a night less than IHG's own Holiday Inn Express chain--if it were a one-off aberration concocted by an IKEA-besotted designer. But it's not. Hilton's newest brand, capital-letter challenged tru, is also proud that it has jettisoned desks.

"We are bucking the tradition of in-room desks," tru's obscenely perky promotional material crows. "Technology changed the way guests work and play--so instead of a desk we have chosen a versatile and comfortable, lounge and task chair, with an integrated work surface."

If you can get through the awful punctuation and treacly patter, Hilton is describing updated versions of the miserable one-piece school desks we dealt with as kids. That's what it's come to: Hotels are sending us back to grade school if we dare try to work in our rooms.

It's not just these "new" brands that have banished desks. Most of Marriott's Moxy hotels in Europe have dumped them. In fact, Marriott was preparing to drop desks at most of its hotels worldwide until a blizzard of criticism forced it to back off. There's still a FlyerTalk thread documenting which Marriott properties went deskless before the company slammed on the brakes.

Marriott now claims all of its rooms have desks. But that's linguistic sophistry. At Marriott and other hotel companies, those glorified window sills and ledges count as a "desk" or "work space." Sometimes, especially in extended-stay properties with kitchens, a table is classified as a desk. In many supposedly full-service hotels, a rolling parsons unit counts as the desk.

Or consider the Hyatt Herald Square in the heart of midtown Manhattan. It opened as a Holiday Inn and then converted to Hyatt in a multi-property transaction too convoluted to explain here. All you need to know is what a Hyatt insider told me: "It's the most controversial hotel in the chain."

Average guestrooms are squeezed into less than 200 square feet. The loveseat has one arm, the closet has no door and the "desk chair" is a rectangular ottoman. The "desk?" A sharply beveled ledge so shallow that it cannot comfortably or securely accommodate a laptop.

Why are hotels eliminating traditional desks and replacing them with ledges or nothing at all? Money, of course. The desire to make as much as they can by spending as little as possible.

The lodging industry has been spatially blessed in recent years. The advent of flat-screen monitors meant hotels no longer had to devote space to big, boxy cathode-ray TVs--and didn't need bulky armoires to store them. Our preference for showers meant hotels could eliminate bathtubs. That allowed average hotel rooms to shrink to about 330 square feet today from the 1990s standard of about 350 square feet. It also explains why the average Hyatt Place guestroom feels spacious at about 310 feet even though it features a sectional sofa as well as a bed and a small worktable.

That wasn't enough for the industry, though. It wanted to squeeze more guestrooms into less real estate. So off came closet doors and out went the dressers. As you've surely noticed, some hotels now don't even have a wall and door separating the bathroom from the rest of the guestroom. And, of course, out went the traditional desks with the bathwater and the closet doors.

The result? IHC is promising developers that they can shoehorn a 95-room Avid hotel on just 1.57 acres of real estate. As I explained last year, Marriott promises investors interested in building a Moxy hotel that "less is more" and rooms measure just "183 square feet of coziness." However, a Moxy opened in Manhattan this month and it has accommodations as small as 150 square feet. Some room furniture literally folds up and hangs on wall pegs. New York Moxy's mantra? "Cozy," of course.

But where are we expected to work if there are no practical desks in our rooms? Apologists for the hotel industry wrap themselves in jargon and claim that millennials prefer to work in the lobby because modern hotel public space resembles coffee bars. And it is true that many young people prefer to work in common space and are perfectly comfortable toiling away in faux-Starbucks environments.

Yet the hotel industry can't point to a single survey that says guests of any age desire guestrooms without desks. For all the patter and the ageism, they have no facts to back up the assertion that millennials don't want real desks in their rooms. And what about those of us who are working on company-sensitive documents and material that should not be laying around a lobby? Or those of us who prefer to work in our underwear? Not everyone wants to sit in a lobby making believe they are extras in an episode of Friends.

Again, we come back to the filthy lucre. If hoteliers make their guestrooms work-unfriendly and drive you into the lobby, they think maybe you'll buy something. You know how it goes. There you are in the lobby bashing away at your laptop and there's the coffee bar or grab-and-go market or cocktail bar across the way and, what the hell ... Next thing you know you're bashing away at that laptop with a mediocre $15 Cosmopolitan or a soggy $10 hummus-and-veggie wrap or an $8 flat white with too much foam.

What's frank or fair about that? How is it right that hoteliers are specifically designing guestrooms small, tacky and flawed so we flee to the lobby to spend money?

It stinks. And next time I get stuck in a hotel room like that, I'm gonna write a nasty E-mail to the general manager. You know, assuming I'm not already in my underwear and don't feel like getting dressed to go down to the lobby and write ...


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