Luxury hotels are offering eReaders as perks to their elite guests

(The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In the swaddled, rarefied world of hotel elite programs -- the robes, the private check-ins, the buttery bowls of complimentary popcorn -- the latest perk is a humble one.

Stay in the lap of luxury . . . and read.

This week, Fairmont Hotels announced that eReaders would be made available at certain hotels, but only to guests staying on the Gold Floors -- the "exclusive oases" that have Gold reception desks manned by Gold staff members who dedicate themselves to Gold guests, who are elite. The eReaders will be stocked with a variety of Random House titles; the concierges will be briefed on the content, allowing them to make recommendations to the discerning customer.

"It speaks beautifully to the research we've just conducted, to get at the true passion communities that [our guests] feel deeply about," says Alexandra Blum, the executive director of brand development and global partnerships at Fairmont.

Those passion communities are . . . ?

"We believe that traditional loyalty programs are no longer sufficient to truly engage the affluent."

Ah. One can remain impressed by wireless Internet access for only so long. One can watch only so much HBO, HBO2, HBO Comedy, HBO Family and HBO Signature before one develops eyestrain. At a certain point, one hates the sight of one's in-room business center, and one realizes that the mark of true elitism is a return to old-fashioned pleasures.

At Miami's Epic Hotel, guests are presented with pre-loaded Sony Readers. The truly decadent may choose to have genuine paper artifacts delivered to their rooms, ordering books off the "virtual nightstand," a sort of literary room service menu.

In Newport, R.I., the Forty 1? North boutique hotel places iPads in every room.

None of them can compete with New York's Library Hotel in terms of literary luxury; each room is themed with a section of the Dewey Decimal System -- oceanographers in 900.003, Slavic language devotees in 400.001. The hotel has a total of 6,000 volumes -- real ones, not Kindled.

The association of books with escapism developed with railroad travel, says James West, the director of the Center for the Book at Penn State University. Inexpensive "railway editions," the precursor to airport paperbacks, would be sold in stations along the route, encouraging passengers to escape the heat and stench of the steam engine by burying their noses in books.

Advertising soon followed -- colorful magazine campaigns of sandy beaches and dog-eared Harlequins -- and advertising has kept up: A new slot for the Kindle begins with a close-up of the product, panning backward to reveal its owner is a man on the beach. A ukulele, the official instrument of leisure, plays in the background.

"Someone going into a luxury suite and having a Kindle," says Robert Darnton, a book historian and director of the Harvard University Library, "could be the equivalent of a traveler in the 19th century who stops off in a reading club" to rent one of the latest novels. "These would be people who were fairly wealthy," Darnton says.

Here we are, back again.

May I bring you a complimentary hot chocolate, sir? A selection of pillow options in a variety of firmness? Or just the latest Jonathan Franzen?

© 2010 The Washington Post Company