John Murtha is a man with 32 years' professional experience in accommodation and discretion. But the Millennium Bostonian Hotel general manager did not bother masking his distaste in his own hotel, waving a hand dismissively at the "tired" brown-yellow decor of a guest room last renovated in 1999. The armoire and its boxy 26-inch tube television took the hardest blow: "Look at this big dud. We had to house these things."
Put Murtha in a mock-up guest room for the hotel's $16 million-plus renovations and he is a man inspired. Sleek custom-made cherry furniture, airy white duvet, pin spot lighting, and a crepe-thin flat-screen TV. He knelt to spin the desk chair casters -- "More ergonomic!" -- and could not help pressing the new exterior door bell. Its privacy light renders "Do Not Disturb" tags obsolete.
The Millennium is one of 19 Boston hotels to initiate major renovations in the past three years to capitalize on the city's booming hotel market. With occupancy rates returning to pre-9/11 levels and average room rates up 17 percent since 2002, there's no lack of cash on hand. And with an influx of trendy new hotels, there was never a greater impetus to renovate. The key to competitive renovation is design, and in keeping up with the Joneses -- or the Westins -- the bathroom is the newest frontier.
"It's your bathroom versus someone else's bathroom," said Paul Jacques, general manager of the Boston Harbor Hotel, which is scheduled to complete a $12 million renovation in May . "We're always looking for that little advantage to wow a person."
Hotels are rounding shower curtain rods for inches' more space, showcasing better lighting and more cavernous tubs, and forever laying extra marble, slathered like icing on any sustainable surface.
In the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, guests need no longer blare bedroom TVs during their morning bathroom routine. With the flick of a switch, a section of bathroom mirror reveals an LCD television screen. Another flick, and the screen reverts seamlessly to a mirrored reflection. The hotel outfitted these Séura TV mirrors in all 294 guest rooms -- the first order of that size nationwide -- for a cool half-million.
Charles Hotel guest Brad Weed, 41, of Kirkland, Wash., was pleasantly surprised by the television lurking in his bathroom mirror, but barely used it.
"I'm not a big brush-your-teeth-to-CNN kind of guy," he said. "But it did [show this] hotel is thinking state of the art."
When it comes to technology, hotels can't afford not to think big. Serge Denis , managing director of the Langham Hotel Boston, remembers when competition motivated hotels to install personal faxes in every room. "It was a little bit perverted," he said in his French accent. Still, "[a renovation] could cost up to $30,000 per room, so you'd better make sure it's the latest equipment. It's silly to spend that kind of money and not reach for the top."
The top today includes laptop safes, Bose radios, and iPod-docking alarm clocks. Flat-screen TVs, at the Charles and elsewhere, are an absolute standard.
"If you have a room this well designed, but it has a TV from another generation, my confidence in the hotel erodes," Weed said. "If they didn't take [their renovation] all the way, what else didn't they take all the way?"
So flaunt the flat screen and say au revoir to armoires. Even power outlets, once pariahs of design, are emerging into the open. In an era of laptops and cellphones, beauty is in the eye of the recharger. Plugs must be accessible, whether set in the base of bedside lamps or spring-loaded in desktops.
"We don't want businessmen on their hands and knees looking behind desks for an outlet," said Kelley Belsher, Boston Harbor Hotel spokeswoman.
While certain technologies are escorted into the light, those with a hotel-ish stuffiness -- mini-fridges and wall-mounted irons and blow-dryers -- are being tidied away, lest they break the residential spell.
Brookline-based designer Jinnie Kim, who has overseen five Boston hotel renovations, used layout to create a homey quality when designing the Fairmont Copley Plaza's club floor. Instead of maintaining a large open space ("like an airport lounge," winced Kim), she created intimate rooms modeled after a Back Bay townhouse, in which foyer leads to living room, to library, to dining room, to butler's pantry -- where complimentary snacks, a Crock- Pot of cocoa, and fine liqueurs fan across the countertops. Designed to mimic an upscale residential kitchen, the pantry gives guests the illusion of stealing downstairs for a snack in the home of a generous, invisible host.
The residential rage, said Harry Nobles, an independent hospitality consultant, "is about getting away from that institutional light hanging from the ceiling."
And getting away from institutional uncleanliness. Thus, the death knell for the bedspread, which proved spotty under the black lights of investigative news programs. Feather-filled duvets -- fluffy, warm, and easy to wash -- have rolled out to take their place, with decorative scarves providing a splash of color on the field of white. The whole ensemble is being propped ever higher, as pillow-top mattresses push the average height of hotel beds from 24 to 29 inches.
"I don't think the beds are going to get any higher," Kim said. "You'd need a stairway."
(In the Fairmont 's Presidential Suite, you already do. A foot ladder ushers sleepers to the pillow-top pinnacle of an antique four-poster bed.)
As mattresses rise, tubs deepen, desks lengthen, and fewer surfaces remain to marbleize, luxury hotels must try harder and harder to distinguish themselves, while clinging to their distinct identities. The Charles, for one, is keeping its trademark Shaker-inspired quilts, regardless of duvets .
So, have hotel renovations reached a black hole of diminishing returns?
"I don't think so," Jacques said. "There are hotel companies out there right now designing the next generation of guest rooms that I guarantee you are going to be that much more over the top."
If so, Kim stands ready. Amid the tassels and carpeting samples in her house sits a prototype for a special glass that morphs from clear to frosted with the touch of a button. She hasn't sold it yet, but said, "You never know."