The Curse of the Millennial Hotel
How the corporations killed the vacation
I remember very specifically it was 2008 because the first Fleet Foxes album came out and I couldn’t escape “White Winter Hymnal” even though it was summer. I was dating a woman who made what felt like an astronomical amount of money to me. Maybe $80,000 or so? I was a barista so I wasn’t even making half of that and the discrepancy in incomes could be felt. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere and didn’t feel OK with somebody else paying for me so it wasn’t meant to last. That, and I also couldn’t totally understand what she did. She told me she was in “branding,” which sounded a little vague, but she explained that the big project she was working on was helping a major hotel chain create a hotel that would appeal to millennials. I didn’t exactly get what that meant, but a year later when the first Ace Hotel in New York opened up and I found myself working on a laptop in the lobby, sipping an iced coffee from Stumptown, with Questlove sitting on one side of me and Edward Norton doing an interview with a journalist on a couch nearby, it started to click. I’m not sure if Ace was the first hotel that was adult millennial-friendly (god, typing that makes me want to hurl my breakfast up), but in a few years’ time, it felt like every hotel was trying to capture a similar vibe. And that was the rise of what I like to call the millennial hotel.
I recently stayed at a millennial hotel. Actually, before the millennial hotel, I stayed at a millennial hostel disguised as a millennial hotel. In Chicago, it was the Freehand Hotel, which I only picked because of the location and because they had bunk beds. Since I was traveling with a friend, it made sense as opposed to all the other super expensive options during a busy week in the city. When we got there, it was all the trappings of your modern millennial hotel. Everything was funky. The decor was all over the place. There was some wallpaper with a nature scene that looked like the Pacific Northwest, a display with some cologne with a label that I’m sure had axes or a bear face on it, and lots of books. Not books to read, mind you. They were for decoration. Purely and nothing else. A decade ago I wrote about the books as decoration thing at menswear shops of the time and it’s been funny to see the trend take over anything aimed at people who grew up on the internet. Like it’s some signifier of the move from print to digital or something like that—except it’s not. It’s just a lazy, easy way to take up space. Old books! Just put them anywhere!
Freehand was a pretty gross place to stay. The carpeted floors felt like they’d been covered in soap and the soap hadn’t been quite washed out. There were weird smells all over the building, no room cleaning service and a wall-mounted air conditioner that—surprise—didn’t work! It was pretty miserable and although it’s a hostel, which means you’re supposed to not expect the sort of amenities you’d get in a regular hotel, it was indicative of a bigger issue with the millennial hotel I’ve found. It’s all flash—old books as decoration, a couple of vintage-looking couches in the lobby, some post-Vampire Weekend-sounding band on the speakers and random quotes in BuzzFeed “OMG” style fonts posted all over the place—and nothing else. It’s the idea that this is what you get, it isn’t much even though you paid whatever you paid, so enjoy it and shut up.
I’ve stayed in more than a few millennial hotels over the last few years and the results are widely varied. I’ve spent a night or two in various Tru by Hilton locations and, more often than not, those have been solid and usually under $150 a night. They give you free snacks, they’ll clean up your room and it’s honestly a pretty decent night’s sleep. But damn, they’re so ugly and soulless. That’s sort of the thing about all millennial hotels, there’s not much to them.
These last few nights, I stayed at the Wayfarer in Downtown L.A. Also a Hilton hotel. I think this is the step up from the Tru brand of the company’s millennial hotels. This one had a restaurant in it (weirdly called The Gaslight. Yeesh), and the books as decoration at least had some local feel to them and didn’t feel like whatever they found at the nearby thrift store—James Cagney biography, a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem ominously hanging from the ceiling, but surprisingly no copy of Dianetics to be found. It was fine. Perfectly fine and not much else. But good lord, the art. The art! It was…awful.
Who needs that? What is the point? Why did somebody think that was a good idea to put that above the desk that’s built into the wall with a weird chair that’s just a little too low so trying to get any work done means you’re going to need to take some Advil for your back and neck when you finish? I was trying to understand the point of anything in the millennial hotel I was staying in and then I realized…there is no point. It’s just smoke and mirrors. Everything is just gussied up to look “cool” and make people think they’re in some nice hotel when really, it’s just sort of whatever but they charge like it isn’t.
And that’s what really gets me more than anything. These hotels are all dressed up to look like some circa-2009 corporate idea of what a “hipster” would like and not much else. But what’s worse is how dated these places already look. Trends come and go faster than ever, but I do think there is something to be said about a certain timeless, charm some hotels used to have. I’d rather a lower-budget hotel just be that and not someplace that gets all gussied up to look like it’s an Ace offshoot, and I’d rather something I might pay more money for take itself seriously and not feel like some soulless, glossy Instagram trap. But that just doesn’t seem possible anymore. In a lot of ways, these hotels make sense, especially when you step off an airline flight that likely sells itself the same way these days. You get on Delta or United and they make you watch some La La Land-esque sort of musical about buckling up, and then from there it’s a lot of the same cheesy, soulless, feel-good vibes except you’re miserable because of whatever happened leading up to you getting on the plane. Take your pick, from the long lines to sitting on the ground for an hour or two or five. But, you know, LOL. It’s all good. Just be happy with what you have. It’s chill, man.