If the walls could talk: The secret world of great hotels and why I love them

I don’t remember exactly when I fell in love with hotels but I know it was very early on in my childhood. After watching a Helmut Newton documentary recently where he talks about hotels and shooting in them because of their capacity for story, it hit me: The pictures I loved in Vogue were of hotels shot by Newton! Also, around this time I remember my brother and our neighbour Scott started going down to the Hyatt to take the glass elevator up and down and of course I tagged along. It seemed incredibly exciting at the time because we weren’t guests but raggedy kids with nothing to do and we had this transparent experience of zooming up so high into the city and being able to look out at the vista. But what struck me wasn’t so much the elevator as the world of the hotel. The front desk, with the ladies in their impeccable uniforms, the hustle of the bellman and concierge desk parking expensive cars, ushering guests into the hotel, slipping tips into their pockets, smiling, ever smiling, at guests. The hushed cushy silence of the lounge as you went by, where men in suits sat nursing scotches and getting over jet lag. The smell of cologne mixed with banquet food and chlorine from the pool. No detail escaped me and I begged my brother to go again to the elevator, couldn’t we? We weren’t that far away from downtown but I was a ‘girl’ and it was far enough apparently that I wasn’t allowed to go alone.

I remember thinking on one of those elevator rides, I want to live in a hotel when I grow up. There was something about it, a sense of vast spaces and intimacy at the same time, anonymity and the ability to close yourself off and yet be inside a community of hundreds and hundreds of guests, similarly experiencing the same thing. The backstage hum of service and the ability to phone someone for a grilled cheese and have it brought to your door. Was this possible? Indeed, Miss Doyle, it was. Besides, Coco Chanel lived at the Ritz, so why couldn’t I?

I did not end up at the Ritz (yet) but much of my life has included hotels, both personally and professionally. I like the loneliness of hotels. I like the long empty hallways that go nowhere. I like the moment when the ice machine erupts into life for some thirsty soul at 3 am. There’s something both melancholy and erotic going on at hotels (oh, you don’t think hotels are erotic places? Please review Newton’s shoot of Catherine Deneuve and get back to me). This juxtaposition of social spaces and lonely spaces, the playing out of human dramas on every floor is what makes hotels so infinitely interesting to me.  The hotel as theatre, with the actors and backstage help complicit in deceits of all kinds, and also poignant moments, when life bares its vulnerable self and the barriers between service and customer break down. Just imagine the shenanigans of stars, intoxicated and in trouble at 3 am phoning the front desk and the front desk has to send a houseman up to deal with the situation. What does that scene look like? One human in deep trouble, another human trying to help. A General Manager with a headache in the morning. Confidentiality agreements reiterated by PR teams. Discrete gossip in housekeeping. But no headlines. A good hotel never sells its guests’ private stories.

Hotels with deep heritage are what interest me most. Hotels like the Fairmont Kenya, originally the private retreat of William Holden, The Ritz of course, where Hemingway famously drank and apparently single-handedly took back from the Germans once the war was over, the Hotel du Cap Ferrat, The Savoy, The Plaza, The Peace Hotel, The Hotel de Paris in Monaco, to name a few, are teaming with stories and the walls of these grand dame hotels hold secrets better than a MI5 agent. That is their charm. That is their mystery and allure that you want to be a part of, to step into the storyworld of place and enter into a kind of secret club.

These days, I always prefer having a cocktail in a hotel lounge or bar if I have a choice. You find out everything about a hotel in a hotel bar. You can sense instantly whether the hotel has a good GM or not. In fact, I can sense it the second I walk into a hotel lobby. GM’s are like little mayors (or in some cases despots) of their hotel village. They wield a lot of power and they infuse their hotels with their personalities. I can always feel the difference when a good GM leaves a hotel. They take the spirit of that hotel with them sometimes.

I’m thrilled to be staying at The Hotel Vancouver this Monday. Growing up in Vancouver, she was one of those old chic grandmother type hotels that was an icon of my hometown. Our downtown imagery always seemed to centre around the copper green citadel that was the roof of that hotel. This time however, I’m shooting a photo story for Mrs. Everett, who is just beginning her story as a character (see last post). The idea is to market hotels differently through their guests’ story and illustrate how really this is their only true differentiator in their brand story. By using the hotel as a set, creating guest characters (as well as using real ones), crafting a great narrative, you create a place for us voyeurs to enter, to join the special club that stay there, to be a part of the drama that unfolds each day on every floor, elevator, kitchen, ballroom and then finally making the decision to take to belong one day to that world. A good hotel waits with the door open for just such a moment.

I’d love to hear your hotel stories. Do you have a favourite memory of a hotel?

1 Comment

Filed under Non-fiction

One response to “If the walls could talk: The secret world of great hotels and why I love them

  1. I’m thrilled to be staying at The Hotel Vancouver this Monday. Growing up in Vancouver, she was one of those old chic grandmother type hotels that was an icon of my hometown.
    Hotels Near Fortis Hospital Mohali and Hotel Near PCA Stadium Mohali

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