I'm not sure how a fully inflated beach ball got in my hotel room.
The ornamental blue vase next to the flat-screen TV? Not entirely certain about that, either.
But shortly after we checked in for the weekend, the two met. My 4-year-old son couldn't wait to get to the beach so he could play with his new toy. He pitched it to me, and when I bounced it back -- crash! -- the blow-up ball collided with the ceramic decor, splintering the vase into a thousand tiny shards. Chaos ensued.
I mention this oopsie because it could repeat itself a time or two during the coming months. It might even happen to you.
Hotels typically renovate at the end of the year because occupancy rates are at their lowest levels, according to Dean Singer, a designer with Design360unlimited, a Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based design firm that has worked on renovation projects for hotels such as Fairmont, Loews, Hyatt, and Marriott.
The upgrades don't always go as planned.
I phoned the front desk at our resort to report the shattered container, and to my surprise, the receptionist was apologetic. "I can't believe they put those vases in the new rooms," she told me. "Especially since you're here with three kids." Housekeeping arrived soon afterward to vacuum the bits of glass off the rug. But those weren't the hotel's only redesign flaws. The next morning, I almost lost my thumb when I closed a sliding bathroom door.
Needless to say, newly refurbished rooms like the one we happened to be staying in sometimes don't meet guest expectations.
When Traci Fox, a college instructor from Philadelphia, checked into a Comfort Inn that had recently upgraded its rooms with high-speed wireless Internet access, she thought she'd be surfing the Web at high speeds. She didn't. "The wireless speed was slower than dial-up," she told me. "I mean, completely unusable."
Greg Salter, a business analyst from Golden Valley, Minn., remembers arriving at a hotel and finding a "dishwasher sitting in the middle of the floor," he says. "The staff was embarrassed and apologized profusely." (They eventually installed the wayward appliance.)
How to prevent these design screw-ups? "The best cautionary measures any hotel can take, to prevent major design blunders, is to have a trained, experienced design director or consultant overseeing the changes," says Oliver Soh, a partner at Seventh Art Group, a New York design firm. "Also, they have to know their core clientele and the clientele they're looking to attract."
What should you ask before you stay in a remodeled hotel? Here's what the experts told me:
1. Do the Rooms All Look the Same?
A cookie-cutter design may be a sign that the hotel hasn't taken enough time to consider its renovation project. "The focus needs to be on creating more personality and less corporate, cookie-cutter designs," says Michael Wolk, chairman and creative director of Miami-based Michael Wolk Design Associates. He says properties where "everything looks the same" are passé, and suggests that when every room appears to be identical, it also indicates a hotel is looking for a quick fix to an outdated design -- a change that may or may not work.
2. Did They Ask What You Wanted?
If you're a frequent guest at a hotel, and they've never bothered to ask what you'd like in a redesigned room, chances are they're doing the upgrade for all the wrong reasons (like adding a star or diamond to their rating).
Francois Leclair, who owns the Casa Laguna Inn & Spa in Laguna Beach, Calif., says guest feedback and adequate testing are the keys to a successful hotel room upgrade. In his hotel's case, he invited his friends and family to test the rooms before opening them to guests. "I make it my duty to sleep in each of our rooms a few times a year," he says. "I am always able to get a few ideas or notes from that."
3. Is It Cluttered or Noisy?
Poorly designed hotels tend to scrimp on things you don't see, like insulation. "There's not enough between the walls between the rooms," says boutique hotel designer Campion Platt. As a result, you hear everything happening in the next room.
Cover your ears, kids. Another problem is clutter -- items that make the room look busy, but don't do anything (like the ill-fated vase in my room). A successful redesign reduces the clutter so that it "feels more comfortable" to guests, he says.
4. How About the Little Things?
Sometimes the small stuff can be significant, according to Fredo Valladares, a TV host and president of the international design firm Design Nuovo. "There are a couple of fine details that are sometimes overlooked and could cause accidents or injuries," he says. For example, sometimes, when a floor changes from carpet to hard floor, the resulting unevenness can result in hitting your toes, or stepping with the ball of your foot on the edge of the stone. "Believe me," he says, "they're both very painful."
5. Are You Confused?
If you can't figure out how to turn the lights on and off, or aren't sure how to operate the TV, chances are, you're in a thoughtlessly renovated hotel, says Stanley Cairns, a partner at Cope Linder Architects in Philadelphia. Also, look for "inaccessible power and data locations for computers and irons" (if you can find them). The problems extend to the bathroom. "Some trendy faucet and sink concepts do not contain the splash from the faucet," he says.
6. Are They Confused?
Sandra Espinet, an interior designer in Los Angeles, says sometimes, hotels get confused, too. Like the boutique hotel in West Hollywood she recently stayed in. "Not sure whose brainchild this was, but they surely did not have the customer in mind," she says. "The concept is too cool for school. No employee uniforms. Great, so we can't find the employees? No front desk. Great, so when we are in the lobby we have no idea where to go or who to speak to?" As a result, the foyer was filled with guests "all looking at each other and mistaking each other for a front-desk person." The only color used in the hotel was gray: gray wallpaper, gray carpet, gray tiles. How confusing -- and monotonous.
How do you avoid getting stuck in one of these tragically redesigned rooms? "I always ask to see a room first," says Barclay Butera, a Los Angeles designer. He looks for all of the obvious design flaws, and if he sees them, asks for another room.
At the very least, I'm now aware that checking into a renovated hotel doesn't necessarily mean my stay will be better. And I think twice when I see an inflated beach ball rolling around on the floor.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.