The Spoiled Guest hadn’t been to the grand old city of Boston in years, but we were recently invited there by old friends who have moved into the Millennium Tower, a monumental new residential high-rise in the center-city neighborhood called Downtown Crossing. Since the furnishing of their palatial condo, with stunning views of the Charles, Beacon Hill, and the Back Bay (see above), was still a work in progress, they suggested we stay down the street in a brand new boutique hotel, The Godfrey, owned and operated by the Chicago-based Oxford Hotels & Resorts, LLC. (Note: the featured photo was taken from our friends’ apartment in the Millennium Tower, not from the Godfrey, which has only a dozen floors, none with a view.)
Now the word “boutique” in conjunction with the word “hotel” usually sets off the shill detector in the Spoiled Guest’s accommodation radar, and with good reason. Too often this is marketing euphemism for undersized rooms, dubious plumbing, minimal guest services, and hip but dysfunctional furnishings. Still, we were optimistic. The Godfrey bills itself as a “four-star” establishment (though who’s doling out these stars is unclear), and had garnered the usual modicum of effusive reviews by persons of unknown taste and extraction on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. (But if you could believe those sources, you wouldn’t need (or be) the Spoiled Guest.)
It was obvious even before we arrived that the Godfrey is yet another entry in the veritable plague of hotels designed to appeal to “millennials,” that slavishly sought-after slice of the demographic that came of age at the turn of the century. The lineage of this type of hotel stretches back to before most millennials were born, to the Morgans Hotel in New York, created in 1984 by Ian Schrager and the late Steve Rubell, co-owner of the legendary Studio 54 discothèque. Their idea, which has spread virally through the hotel industry, was to dispense with the traditional elements of residential opulence and personal privacy to which most high-end urban hotels aspire, and instead offer spaces that were theatrically bohemian, aggressively modern, and determinedly social. They followed the Morgans with the Royalton, the Paramount, and eventually the Gramercy Park Hotel, and the basic formula of those early experiments can be seen in countless imitators: the Ace Hotels, the “W” and “Aloft” divisions of the Starwood conglomerate, Kimpton hotels, the “Andaz” division of the Hyatt chain, the 21c Museum Hotels, and others too numerous (and too similar) to mention.
In execution, the Schrager-inspired boutique hotel formula, to which the Godfrey closely adheres, comprises the following typical characteristics:
- a site that may or may not be conducive to a hotel, often in an “up-and-coming” (but not quite there) neighborhood, in a repurposed warehouse or factory or, as in the case of the Godfrey, two former garment trade office buildings mashed together so obviously that, in passing from the front desk to the elevators, you’re keenly aware that you’re moving from one building to another;
- a deliberately busy lobby in which the device-enslaved guests are supposed to mingle with locals poaching free Wi-Fi and lounging on the uncomfortable furniture;
- an aggressively modern decorative aesthetic, characterized by lots of chrome and modern art in common spaces and muted, monochromatic palettes in the rooms;
- modern, cheap, often dysfunctional furniture (often euphemistically described as “no-frills chic”);
- a bar adjacent to or, preferably, in the lobby;
- lots of inexpensive technology, like Wi-Fi and large flat-screen TVs; and, most importantly,
- rooms perhaps 66% of the size of a comparably-priced conventional hotel room, inspiring the guests to flee to the lobby and the bar to mingle some more.
It’s the Spoiled Guest’s firm belief that, whatever the original aesthetic merit of Schrager and Rubell’s disruptive vision, their true insight was economic: a hotel needn’t be about comfortable rooms and quality food, which are expensive to create and maintain; it could be about experience and atmosphere, which are much, much cheaper and more profitable to provide than upholstered furniture and livable square footage. You can call it “cheap-chic,” but it’s first and foremost cheap. You can get rehab tax credits when you fix up a derelict old building. And if you pitch staying there as a certification of the guest’s hipness, you can charge the same premium rates that a conventional luxury hotel would charge, and sometimes more.
To pull this off, the first thing you have to do is dumb down the very concept of what constitutes a “luxury” hotel. The formula has found such wide acceptance in the hotel business for the simple reason that it allows hotel operators to make a killing off of the lemming-like gullibility of a generation of guests who have been trained to accept austerity in the guise of cool. Your room may be the size of a shoebox and look like it was furnished out of Ikea or West Elm, the common areas may remind you of the airport you left to get here, but who cares? The Wi-Fi is great! You can play Pokémon in the lobby!
The recycled modernism and boho aesthetic are all very well and good; you either like this sort of thing or you don’t, and some do. The clubby paneled dullness of the old Ritz-Carltons, for instance, deserved a good zapping. But at the heart of the Schragerization of the hotel world is a value proposition that doesn’t quite add up. Its essence is to discover how little the market will bear, the hotel room equivalent of the continually shrinking pitch of airline seats.
Our room at the Godfrey, a “corner king loft,” for which the hotel charges about $1000 per night, was advertised online by the hotel as consisting of over 500 square feet (since our visit, the Godfrey has mysteriously stopped providing room size information online – or maybe not so mysteriously). On entering the room, however, we discovered that almost at third of that was devoted to a long, narrow hallway that had to be navigated to reach the actual living space. There we found a small bath with a single vanity, a toilet, and a shower stall (no tubs in any of the baths, we were told, except those required by the Americans with Disabilities Act), a small desk crammed in next to the king bed, and a desk chair. No other seating except the bed. No bureau, not a single drawer anywhere, no storage space whatever for clothing or other personals, except a laminated wardrobe in the aforementioned hallway.
We might have accepted the cramped quarters and stark furnishings (the bed, at least, seemed comfortable, and there was, of course, a huge flat-screen TV to divert us), but that wardrobe put us over the edge; it lacked even a horizontal hanging bar, requiring that hangers be hung on forward-facing brackets, one behind the other, retail store style, presumably because a deeper cabinet would have sucked up what little floor space there was. Fine for those who dress out of their backpacks, but adults, or those with jobs that require professional dress, and who can afford the steep tariff, will find the room experience bordering on the absurd.
The point here is not just the generational and aesthetic divide between the Godfrey’s presumed target clientele and those of us accustomed to a pre-Schrager standard of hotel luxury. The point is that if the rooms were reasonably priced for what they are, no one could complain, but they’re not. The value advertised (a 500+ square foot room) was simply not provided, the value proposition was false, and the room was what hipsters of a different era used to call a rip-off. Yet we came perilously close to accepting it because the Spoiled Guest actually likes modern décor and at least the concept of turning old buildings into boutique hotels.
Instead, we left (having been told that, alas, due to the Godfrey’s 24-hour advance cancellation policy, not a dime of our first night’s non-stay would be refunded) and moved down the block to the Ritz-Carlton, where we enjoyed, for the same $1000/night rack rate, a spacious king bed suite with living room, an actual closet, a huge bath with twin vanities and separate tub and shower, a second half-bath, and access to the hospitality lounge, which offered free continental breakfast. Your father’s hotel? Certainly. And no, the room furnishings were not cutting edge, but they were substantial, comfortable, and clean, we could turn around without bumping into each other, and there were ample drawer and hanging spaces for our clothing, an attractive bar and restaurant downstairs, and an efficient, professional staff.
You choose. Rise up, hipsters! Throw off your shackles and refuse to be exploited by the corporate interests that have turned a perfectly plausible hotel aesthetic into a cynical money machine at your expense. Demand more!