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Friday, June 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
The many faces and prices of Hilton's hotels
By Howard Shapiro
The other night, at the understated, cordial Hilton in Boston's Back Bay, I did a double-take at the inlaid-wood design in the armoire … that hulking hotel furniture with a TV up top and large drawers for your, well, drawers, at the bottom. The dark wood inlay was in the distinctive shape of a long, very narrow diamond. Hmmmmmmm. Now, where have I seen that before?
Was it at my room in Hilton's Homewood Suites in Peabody, Mass? Could it have been at Hilton's surprisingly upscale Embassy Suites at Boston's Logan Airport? I just couldn't place it. Somewhere, in some brand of lodging owned by the bedroom behemoth, that same design had stopped my eye. Only it looked much prettier amid the dÎcor here, in the Back Bay Hilton.
Over five weeks, I stayed in all seven brands of hotels owned by the corporation, a collection of 2,100 lodgings its officials like to call îîthe Hilton family." I wanted to see what makes one brand of a hotel chain different from another … and if the difference in price is worth it.
I could have chosen Marriotts, or the Starwood corporation, which own many brands.
Because its brands are so diverse, I chose Hiltons. (For the record, no Hilton operative knew what I was up to, so I traveled just like you, unless you are Paris Hilton.) The company's hotels run from the luxury Conrad (there's only one in the United States, in New York City, a sometime home to the aforementioned heiress, though Miami will get one later this year) to the workaday Hampton Inn (I slept there in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Vancouver, Canada).
In between are the middlebrow Doubletree (my quarters, in a somewhat isolated neighborhood called Boston Bayside), and the newest incarnation, the Hilton Garden Inn.
(My handsomely decorated version was in downtown Philadelphia). Homewood Suites aim to the middle market. Embassy Suites, plus the Hiltons themselves, hover at the higher levels of the corporation.
Just one goal
The brands may have different names, and they may seem diverse, but they have a single goal in common:
Providing a good night's sleep. All the rest the furnishings, bathroom amenities and specific services are what makes one brand different from another. They're all frills. I happen to like frill in a hotel. The more I like, the more I will have to pay.
Lodgings within a single brand can vary in cost depending on its location but not much, at least in the United States. I checked into my Doubletree in a remote Boston neighborhood at $115 a night. I could have checked into the Doubletree Waikiki at $125 a night, or one in the great Los Angeles neighborhood for $109.
Despite companywide quality standards, the experience within in a given brand can vary, too. The Hampton Inn where I stayed in Vancouver, B.C., was appreciably newer and more freshly furnished than the one I booked in Pittsburgh. The reason: Many units are franchises.
When you're dealing with a toll-free reservations agent for a company with many brands, state your needs up front. For instance, if I had said, "I have little kids, and I want a room with a refrigerator," a Hilton agent automatically would have quoted prices for a Hilton Garden Inn or a Homewood Suites. Room fridges are standard in both.
Breakfast deals vary. Some Hampton Inns are beginning to serve hot meals as part of their complimentary breakfasts, but most are strictly cold carb city, as my two stays demonstrated. Not so at Embassy Suites, where breakfast was a treat. Always ask.
A good part of hotel branding has to do with the look of the room primarily the major furnishings. That's why I was so surprised to see the diamond-inlay armoire twice during my stays. I enjoyed good-looking, comfy furniture at all the brands, except for the basic Hampton Inn, and the Doubletree. I wouldn't have minded having some of it a hutch here, a desk there in my home.
Beyond these obvious points, both the similarities and differences between the brands are matters of subtlety.
A corporate patina covers all the amenities of the "Hilton family" hotels, no matter what they are called. Most of the rooms have notepads affixed to flat ivory-colored plastic displays, with a pen in a holder in the middle, and basic hotel information printed on the plastic. The ballpoint pen sports the name of the brand. Most of the rooms use the same, or similar, phones.
All the hotels have hair dryers; in the upscale brands, they are not affixed to the wall. All the hotels have wooden hangars (different colors of wood), and none are maddeningly molded to the closet bar.
More differences: Only the Conrad had bathrobes, two of them, in the closet. All the hotels have real glass cups and real mugs, except the Hampton Inns, many of which have plastic cups (you squeeze that drink, you wear it) and Styrofoam for the coffee.
Which brings us to coffee makers: If you flip through the catalogue of a department store or kitchen outlet, you'll likely find many levels of coffee makers, and they fit into Hilton hotel levels like keys into their accompanying locks.
At the Hampton Inn ($98), you'll get the basic coffee maker. By the time you get to the Conrad (about $400), you'll have a caddy with a high-end coffee maker, lovely cut glass and fine mugs.
As design goes, though, I can give you a tip: If you want to look like a hotel, at least like a Hilton property, find a way to mix 1) green, 2) rose, and 3) any or all of the following three: ivory, yellow and sand. Mix them in your curtains and on your bedspread (not necessarily matching). Mix them on the carpeting, too. Then put another color or pattern of colors on the walls, something to contrast everything else, and you've got yourself a Doubletree. Or is it a Homewood Suites? Or … you get the idea.
All the beds were comfy. Sure enough, the sheets in my Doubletree were not fine
linens. And some nights, the pillows were flat for my taste; a notecard on the Hilton Garden Inn night table said the hotel stocked a range of pillows, but I was too tired to call down for another kind.
And yes, some of the beds were better made than others. But I did not sleep differently in one brand from another, although I noticed that the beds in Embassy Suites, the Hilton and the Conrad had particularly great back support.
Devil in the details
The entire point of the brands, as I saw them, was not how you would sleep; sleeping was a given. It was how you would feel about sleeping in that particular room.
So how do they distinguish themselves? Mostly, in little ways.
Conrad: The Conrad, in the tower of Hilton's Waldorf Astoria, is so little known in America that the Hilton centralized reservations agents may plead ignorant when you mention the place. The Conrad feels special, with 24-hour room service, an intimate lobby and great views down Park Avenue. My room was 25-by-16-feet huge for New York City. All the amenities you need to ask for in other Hiltons are laid out in this one, from a sewing kit with scissors to a toothbrush.
It was a great stay, but devils lurked in the details: a used washcloth on the marble bathroom floor, small holes in the turndown of the fancy bedsheet, a wake-up call 25 minutes late, no promised Sunday paper waiting at my door.
Hampton Inn: Nothing, on the other hand, was amiss at the Hampton Inn in Pittsburgh's collegiate Oakland section. I didn't exactly expect furniture that appeared genuinely second-hand, but then, I didn't expect much of anything.
Homewood Suites: Only the Homewood Suites included a full kitchen. This may be a mixed blessing for hoteliers, who cannot control the culinary competence of their visitors. The guest who burned the soup at 2:13 a.m., setting off a fire alarm that sent us all half-dressed and into the Homewood parking lot, needs to focus.
Hilton Garden, Embassy Suites: Hilton Garden Inns give you a fridge, microwave and bright decor. The Embassy Suites puts out a beautiful spread for the manager's happy hour, with fruits and veggies and hot appetizers, plus a made-to-order breakfast station. The manager's reception in the tony lounge of the Conrad puts out enough to serve as dinner.
So it's not the sleep that's at stake, it's whether that cool green high-tech night-light built into the bathroom wall is more to your liking than the orange one that glints off the bottom-of-the-wall hair dryer.
Whether a room is worth its rate has more to do with individual taste and budget than any common idea about value. I'd book a Conrad, but only for a very special occasion. At the other end of the scale, Hampton Inns and Doubletrees are comfortable, but something less than the feel of my own bedroom. I'd stay at the rest of the brands regularly because they meet my needs for comfort and extras, and they won't make me cringe when te credit-card bill arrives.
Room rates and amenities aside, there is a single leveling force in all of this: the people.
A staff makes a hotel, any hotel owned by any company, run properly.
The Hilton employs about 80,000 folks around the world, and I came in contact with only a few score. The high-class woman at the desk in the Conrad treated me with a smile and impeccable manners … and so did the others, not quite as finely dressed, at places charging $250 less a night to stay.
Some were relaxed, some overworked. All of them exhibited the same smile as the woman at the Conrad. The same manners, too. That, plus a decent bed, was what really made the hotels work.
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