Is bigger better?

Is bigger better?

Everyone wants a big hotel room. People generally like to boast about their travel experiences, as travel happens to be one of the few and best activities in life about which boasting is well received. When it comes to hotel rooms, there are only a few aspects that rate cocktail conversation status: the comfiest bed with the softest pillows, the amazing view (proper destination required, with premium expenditure for ocean or mountain view), design (great design required) or maybe some unusual feature (although now that iPod docking stations are fairly ubiquitous, such features are hard to find). So room size looms large, and bigger is better, it seems.

This comports with American ideology, where bigger has nearly always been better. We have big houses, big cars and big almost everything else compared to other countries and cultures — even those of similar economic and social standing. Someone might point out that, if height and weight charts are consulted, even our people are big. 

But we are all aware of a countervailing tendency toward “not big.” Perhaps we can trace the move from big to small to “Diet for a Small Planet,” a seminal 1971 work that posits a global plan for future survival in a world of limited resources. This prescience preceded the move to small cars to survive oil restrictions and — very topically — gas price increases. Later, the downsizing of apartments, homes and the land they sit on accompanied a qualitative downscaling, producing a double whammy in the move from big to small. 

This move from big to small has moved from homes to hotels. I refer not to the hotel itself, the room count or to the move from full to limited service — all of which have occurred in sufficient instances to be worthy of a post of their own — but to the guestroom itself. Brands have attempted to maintain standards and sizes, but even these have shifted due to current circumstances, and not always due to limited resources. 

Two examples of downsizing that do not reflect downscaling are the television and the desk. The television screen has upsized while the TV itself has minimized, thanks to the proliferation of flat screens replacing CRTs. Furthermore, the wall mounting of TVs frees horizontal surfaces entirely and eliminates the chunky dinosaur TV cabinet. The desk, once a symbol of luxury due to its outsized size, accessorized with blotter and the hotel’s eponymous stationery, was transformed to accommodate desktop computers and keyboards, and now has further adapted to a laptop and iPad-dominated wireless world, shrinking the desk functions and the space required for them.  

Room width, once a function of headboard + bed + clearance + TV, and room length, once a function of bed + end tables + desk and chair, now are freed from prior minimum sizes, freeing up space for other functions, unexpected luxuries or space reductions. Similarly, the trend toward more casual clothing, coupled with the reduction in average length of stay and average length of trips, has impacted closet size, dresser size and storage requirements. The increased use of carry-on luggage and the increased airline fees for overweight luggage have minimized the suitcase storage and usage needs. And while beds — including the American predilection for king-size beds — have remained relatively the same, in contrast to much smaller beds throughout Europe and Asia, nearly every other component of the room has shrunk. Therefore, room size has decreased, often with no decrease in function.

Room-size reduction is resulting from another no less significant factor: money. In today’s world of limited economic resources, the land cost and construction cost per key have come under increasing pressure as hotel developers eye the bottom line in markets down from their peaks. Even in recovering markets and even for those considering renovations, the recent recession has made savvy hotel developers question whether bigger rooms — and the associated bigger costs and bigger required REVPAR to service debt — will make these rooms the dinosaurs of the next downturn and the future victims of the next oversized capital stack. 

While the buzz in the industry was once the boutique hotel, today the buzz is often about the pod hotel. The pod is essentially a foreign idea that, like foreign cars a generation ago, has hit these shores boasting about being small. The attraction in doubling key count with no increase in size or cost has obvious appeal, although only in some situations. The appeal of reducing room size 10% or 20% — with a corresponding increase in key count but no significant increase in costs or decrease in rate — has widespread appeal and increasingly widespread implementation. It also offers the capability to reduce rates without loss of income, another smart move in a time of limited resources among business and vacation travelers alike. Though not as often cited in industry statistics, the comparative cost of a hotel stay with housing costs has risen sharply given the massive implosion of housing since 2008. The effort to keep hospitality’s share of disposable income and consumer spending, as well as business expenditure in a cost-cutting climate, has put pressure on the industry to reduce room rates to maintain occupancy. 

The collective consequence of these simultaneous factors is a smaller hotel room. Perhaps one might tag this with the adage “less is more,” conveniently coined in the world of architecture and design. And to the extent that smaller rooms mean bigger profits, it is very apropos. But Mies van der Rohe was referring to modernism and an ideological opposition to excess ornamentation, which creates a second level of applicability. The philosophical approach is that limited resources, whether natural resources or financial resources, engender a climate where less for one is more for everyone. In today’s era of green design, the reduction in physical materials and the energy costs associated with a single hotel room have strong positive implications for LEED compatibility, economic conservation and conservative planning. As gas guzzlers, silicone implants, McMansions and energy hogs come under increasingly critical attention and increasingly become dinosaurs in a time of climate change, small is beautiful.