When Marc Burdiss stepped into the shower at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, he was shocked by the clear view of the bedroom through a glass window.
"Weird," he thought to himself.
Burdiss, an emergency-preparedness consultant based in Flagstaff, Ariz., then let out a sigh of relief. When he made the reservations, he had thought of bringing his teenage kids. Giving them privacy would have required a "MacGyver-like workaround," using duct tape and towels, he says. Burdiss had also thought of sharing the room with another couple. That wouldn't have worked, either — for obvious reasons.
The Rio is hardly alone. Hotel design misfires are common, and they're a great post-vacation-season conversation starter. ("You'll never believe what I found in my hotel room.") I recently checked into a hotel in Albuquerque that had just opened, and noticed that my 10-year-old daughter refused to use the bathroom.
"What's wrong?" I asked her.
"They can see me in the shower," she said.
Sure enough, although parts of the glass between the shower and bedroom were frosted, you could look through the clear areas and see everything. Her brothers and I had to promise to leave the hotel room to persuade her to take a shower.
While many of the design failures are concentrated in the bathroom — including fixtures that are difficult to operate, inadequate counter space and limited privacy — they happen everywhere. The reasons for these mishaps vary, but the solutions are all the same.
"Good design is essential," says Greg Keffer, a partner at Rockwell Group, an architecture and design firm. "Every layer of the design, from large-scale architectural gestures to the artwork, furniture and finishes, supports the hotel's larger narrative, giving the hotel depth and meaning well beyond just a beautiful space."
It doesn't always work out that way, though. Several guest surveys have underscored the importance of thoughtful room design. One of the latest, conducted by Qualtrics, a research firm based in Provo, Utah, found that half of all hotel guests were upset by one design flaw — thin walls. Slightly more than 1 in 10 guests said their stay was so bad that they were "driven to tears." Other pet peeves include insufficient outlets and bad lighting, both being key design elements.
This isn't an abstract discussion. I checked into a full-service hotel in Reno, Nev., this summer and found a bathtub next to my bed. I'm serious. Why anyone would want a bathtub next to a bed is really beyond me.
For an explanation, I turned to Kristin Soo Hoo, a spokeswoman for Caesars Entertainment, which owns the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. She says that when the Rio was built in 1990, the original design team at Marnell Corrao Associates wanted to emphasize that it was the first all-suite hotel in Las Vegas with a variety of larger suites, which are appealing to couples.
"This design feature was added to the rooms to accentuate the romantic atmosphere of the resort, catering to the many couples and newlyweds on their honeymoon who enjoyed staying there at the time," she says. That would explain the bathtub in my room, which, unlike the showers in Albuquerque, I had some trouble keeping my kids out of.
"Hotel design is the most critical element of success or failure," says Tanya Spaulding, a principal at Shea Design, a design company in Minneapolis. Many designers try so hard to create unique "wow factor" designs that they forget the basics of functionality, she notes.
"For example, very cool sinks with absolutely nowhere to put your toiletries," she says. "Or horrible bathroom lighting either way too cold, blue and bright, or so dim that seeing your nose is a challenge."
Bathrooms aren't the only place where hotel designers disconnect from their customers. Power outlets are also a big concern.
"I don't like hidden outlets," says photographer Gary Arndt, whose work keeps him constantly on the road. "Outlets should be on the top of the desk, not near the floor. In some places, there are no outlets available anywhere and I have to unplug the TV or lamps to plug anything in."
The best explanation I've heard for this is that most hotels just haven't caught up with the needs of 21st-century travelers. Indeed, the hotel I just checked out of, an elegant golf resort on Oregon's coast, has the setup Arndt described. The outlets are hidden behind a sofa. In fairness, there's a lamp with a few power outlets next to the bed, but something tells me they're not intended for my laptop.
Sometimes, hotels just don't think things through, guests say.
"You want to hear stupid?" asks Shaun Eli, a comedian from Scarsdale, N.Y. "I was at a hotel in Gaithersburg, Maryland, recently where they happened to put me in a handicap-equipped room. It was on the second floor."
Sure the hotel had elevators, but if there were a fire in the hotel, someone in a wheelchair would have trouble making it down a flight of stairs. The property complied with the letter of federal accessibility laws, if not the spirit.
If you've stayed in a resort with a design flaw, you might be wondering whether there's any way to avoid doing so again. It turns out there is.
Sticking with a hotel chain is one way to ensure that you won't have a two-way mirror in your bathroom. I'm not making that up, by the way. Another Caesar's resort in Las Vegas, the Cromwell, has two-way mirrors in its bathrooms. The resort is quite proud of what Soo Hoo calls an "edgy design feature that allows the guest inside the shower to become visible through the mirror by adjusting the lights." Hotel chains, like fast food restaurants, have standard room designs with no surprises.
An additional way to prevent a design mishap is to research the property. For example, a quick online search would reveal the shower windows at the Rio and allow you to consider whether that's a design feature you want — or not.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.