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Modern Inconveniences

First came the trouser press, and now the iPad concierge. Why do hotels insist on confounding us with useless gadgetry?

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Harry Campbell

travelessayLike most people too old to name any member of One Direction, I am uncomfortable with social networks. Take LinkedIn, a site whose main function seems to be to facilitate professional stalking. It is a rare day that my inbox is not bulging with emails inviting me to become synergistically entwined with a middle-management type in Baltimore or the CEO of a sardine cannery in Dubrovnik.

I found myself thinking of these random outreaches recently when I received an email from a stranger offering me a heat massage. By stranger, I mean a representative of a hotel I had booked to stay at later that month. She had noticed, she informed me, that I was due to check in late after a long flight and wondered if she might help me unwind by covering my body with scalding stones in the comfort of my room.

A week later, my smartphone buzzed with an email from a stranger offering to share details of his favorite Parisian whiskey bars. The offer, it turned out, was from another employee of the same establishment.

When I mentioned these intrusions to a friend who works in hospitality, she was not remotely surprised. Apparently, sending electronic missives is only one way hotels are trying to connect with millennials who never look up from their communication devices. This year, she assured me, will mark the beginning of the end of the room key—and possibly the reception area—as guests check in and unlock their doors by waving their smartphones about.

Across the world, hotels are becoming digitized and automated. Soon, our concierge will be an app, our chambermaid a robot and our sightseeing guide an Oculus Rift. If we do happen to make eye contact with an actual human being during our stay, it’ll probably be via Skype.

As for the reasoning behind this: Who knows? By my reckoning, there has not been a single positive technological innovation in hotels since the introduction of the passenger elevator in the mid-19th century. All the same, hotels have insisted on introducing a succession of useless gadgets, ranging from the trouser press to the bathroom telephone. A phone in the WC? What kind of emergency are they envisioning?

And things are only getting worse. Today, hotel guests are routinely confronted by coffee machines that look like modern art, showers with more settings than a space shuttle and flatscreen TVs embedded in vanity mirrors.

Even the most basic of human activities has been rendered impenetrable by hotels’ efforts to impress us with their forward thinking. There can hardly be a single one of us who hasn’t, at some point, stood blinking in our underwear trying to turn on the lights while the blinds open and close over and over again. As for why we are subjected to these trials—this is a question that can be answered only by hospitality experts, and then presumably only via Twitter.

Of all these developments, it’s the eradication of human contact that troubles me the most. Until now, we’ve taken it for granted that picking up a hotel phone (bedside or bathroom) will result in a friendly and accommodating voice on the other end. This, surely, is what hotel marketing departments should be making noise about, rather than the fact that they have a special app that allows us to order from the pillow menu three weeks in advance.

In my opinion, hotels should actually confiscate our electronic devices when we check in, rather than reminding us to take them to the spa—to stow in a locker that requires safecracker skills to get into—just so we can operate the elevator afterward. In fact, I’m going to make a point of suggesting this to the general manager of the next establishment I stay in—as soon as I’ve friended him on Facebook.

London-based editor and writer Boyd Farrow would like to point out that he is not a complete Luddite and actually enjoys those spinning shoeshine machines hotels sometimes provide.

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