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 The Brancatelli File

joe WELCOME TO HOTEL BABEL

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

September 2, 1997 -- We're about to check into the Hotel Babel, so let's start by staking out some common ground: We all hate working on the bed in our hotel room.

We all do it, of course, but there's nothing quite so uncomfortable and quite so universally unproductive as tucking our legs under our tails, surrounding ourselves with piles of papers and squinting under the eerie orange light of our bedside lamps.

So much for the common ground. Now what, exactly, do we want hotels to provide in the way of in-room business amenities?

Big desks where we can spread out our paperwork and maybe open up our laptop? Nice bright task lamps? A couple of phone lines? A great desk chair? Fax machines? In-room printers? Maybe even a whole computer workstation with Internet access? Speakerphones? Dataports? Voice mail? Paper clips? Sticky pads? A few Dilbert cartoons push-pinned to the wall?

Since I look a little too much like Dilbert's pointy-haired boss for comfort, I'm going to make an executive decision here and veto the comic strips. However, all the other commodities are office tools a business traveler might logically expect from a hotel room.

Yet not surprising for an industry that can't agree on where to put the power switches for table lamps, the nation's hoteliers can't agree on how to stock their so-called "business class" rooms. And they haven't the faintest idea whether they should be charging us for the privilege of working comfortably in our rooms.

Generally speaking, hotels huddle up in three camps when it comes to business rooms. Let's call them the Gadget Guys, the BYOLs and the Bleeding Edgers.

In the forefront of the Gadget Guys are chains such as Sheraton, Inter-Continental and Westin. Sheraton's Corporate Club rooms, Westin's Guest Office rooms and Inter-Continental's Business Room all have big desks; ergonomic work chairs; adjustable task lamps; 2-line phones; easy-access electrical outlets and dataports; and printer/fax/copier machines. For the privilege of stuffing this virtual office in the room, you'll pay between $10 and $30 more a night. Sheraton is so high on the concept that it has converted every room in two of its renovated New York properties--the Sheraton Russell and the Sheraton Manhattan--to Corporate Club status.

The BYOL (bring your own laptop) guys are represented predominantly by Marriott and Hilton. They are convinced you want the desk, the chair, the lighting, and the easy-access outlets. And since they assume you travel with a laptop, they figure you've already got your own fax and E-mail, so you won't need an in-room fax/copier/printer. You also won't be charged a nightly premium for checking into a Marriott Room That Works or one of the business rooms offered in Hilton Hotels and Hilton Garden Inns.

The Bleeding Edgers, like Hyatt and Loews, may hold the key to this Babelfest. They've got the desks and accouterments like the BYOLs, charge a nightly premium like the Gadget Guys, but only include low-tech fax machines. The problem with Hyatt Business Plan rooms and Loews Business Class rooms, of course, is that they were created before those snappy printer/fax/copiers were introduced. In fact, Hyatt's Business Plan created the "business room" category in 1994. And being on the cutting edge in 1994 guarantees you're on the bleeding edge by 1997, hanging out with machines that are a generation or two behind the technology curve.

Which is why the BYOL guys don't put printer/fax/copiers in their business rooms. Those machines will soon be outdated and what seemed like a great idea in 1997 will look like…well…like the Corporate Class rooms installed in 14 hotels during 1992. All you need to know about those rooms is that they featured 386 clone computers and Prodigy software. On the other hand, checking into a BYOL room at Marriott or Hilton is unfulfilling right now. After all, what good is having a desk worthy of your laptop if you can't print or knock off a few copies?

With the erstwhile cutting-edge rooms bleeding, the BYOL rooms already inadequate and the gadget rooms on the road to inevitable obsolescence, where do we go from here?

"There won't be just one [business room] of the future but several levels of rooms based on a business traveler's sophistication," predicts Hyatt executive Tom O'Toole. "Some travelers will carry their offices with them, others will demand to have it waiting for them in their room and still others will be content to go to the business center."

Gee, isn't that a cheery thought? Multi-dimensional technology rooms from the folks who brought you 500 cruel and unusual places to hide your table lamp's power switch!

This column originally appeared at thetrip.com.

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.