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Better beds, fewer robots: are inventors close to creating the perfect hotel room?

Simon Parker

As the first person ever to have stayed in the Pool Suite at Sweni Lodge in South Africa, I had my work cut out. “I’d love you to do a snagging list,” said the manager – a checklist of design flaws to correct before the first paying guests arrived. Self-consciously, I set about testing everything in the room ergonomically, from the shower controls to the Nespresso machine – discovering, for instance, that the circular stone basin was so wide I couldn’t see myself in the shaving mirror behind it. 

It was a minor oversight, but it made me furious – and I have since looked at everywhere I stay through the lens of practicality. In Zanzibar, I cursed the body wash containers in the shower that were impossible to open with wet hands. At a smart hotel in Sao Tome and Principe, I stumbled in the dark from my bed to the lavatory and crashed into a marble bath in between. Who put that there? In hotel rooms from the Maldives to Gibraltar, I have raged about coffee machines that leak, lighting controls more complex than a Boeing flight deck and wardrobe doors that can’t be opened unless you stand on the bed. 

But help is at hand. As Simon Parker discovers below, the best designers are ironing out these problems and creating hotel rooms that aren’t just stylish but are also practical to live in – with an eye on sustainability as well. Here is Telegraph Travel’s take on what makes the perfect hotel room.

Andrew Purvis, deputy editor, Telegraph Travel

1. THE BED

A 2018 survey by mattressadvisor.com found that 81 per cent of travellers thought a comfortable bed was the “single most important” feature in a room. But what does the perfect bed look like? “From a design and ergonomics perspective, perfection is almost impossible to achieve,” says Melvin Gold, a consultant who has worked for InterContinental, Thistle and Metropole hotels. “What guests now want is a returnable product” – something instantly familiar and identical from outlet to outlet. “In budget chains such as Travelodge and Premier Inn, we are now seeing a very consistent type of bed.” 

Hilton has developed its Serenity mattress, while Westin has launched a Heavenly Bed. Move further upmarket and a higher room rate usually means a bespoke product, often with greener credentials. “For me, a good hotel bed uses only natural materials, as the air flow is better,” says Juliet Kinsman, founding editor of Mr & Mrs Smith

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At the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, “the very best selection of cedar wood, Swedish steel, organic latex and Egyptian cotton has been combined with the Pascal system [spring ‘cassettes’, allowing each side of the bed to be customised according to the weight and posture of each sleeping partner] to create a masterpiece, the Dux bed”. Guests with deep pockets can even take one home. 

Fairmont, Four Seasons and others offer the same kind of “souvenir” – and it doesn’t come cheap. The Savoy’s Savoir No 4 bed – made from British lambswool, Mongolian cashmere and curled Latin American horsehair – costs £8,875. At the Eccleston Square Hotel, the hi-tech Swedish Hastens bed (£10,595) adjusts to the contours of your body and provides deep-tissue massage at the push of a button.

2. THE FURNITURE 

Designers must strike a balance between style and practicality. A slick, Bauhaus-inspired armchair might look fantastic on the cover of a design magazine, but what is it like to sit on? The minimalist ethos of a room might initially be calming, but a lack of storage space could later prove irritating. It’s important to ask: can a jet-lagged guest really watch a three-hour film sitting on that sofa, or spend a day working at that desk? 

One expert in the field is Snohetta, the design practice behind the eagerly awaited Svart hotel, built next to the Svartisen glacier in Arctic Norway. For Peter Girgis, its senior interior architect, furniture design has a direct correlation to the hotel’s exterior. The natural or artificial scenes glimpsed through the window should “interact” with the objects inside. “Is that chair placed in the context of the city or landscape, so that it makes you want to sit in it?” Girgis asks. “Does it have a source of natural light from a window? 

InterContinental Hotels' patented WorkLife rooms come with sofa nooks and slightly angled double beds that point towards each other

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“Is the chair something you throw your clothes on, or is it a throne that makes you feel like a king or queen? This is the psychology of good design.”

Each piece of furniture should also interact with both the user and other items in the room via its “touch points”. With this in mind, InterContinental Hotels has patented WorkLife rooms – with sofa nooks, cocooning headboards and slightly angled double beds that point towards each other. Using hard furnishings that are connected and aligned, the objective is to maximise the feeling of space while subtly pointing everything towards the television – the chosen focal point of the bedroom. 

3. LIGHTING AND TECHNOLOGY 

The WorkLife blueprint raises the thorny question of whether the television should be the centrepiece of a hotel room. “We’ve recently started hiding televisions behind artwork or tapestries so they are no longer the focus of the space,” says Scarlett Supple, lead designer at the Soho House design group. “It’s about finding a balance. In the city, people always want a television, but by the beach we will provide an extra-large iPad instead.” At the Burj Al Arab, televisions retract silently into a desk or ceiling at the touch of a button.

In 2018, AccorHotels launched its Smart Room, with footstep-activated LED floor lighting that guides guests to the bathroom while half asleep in the middle of the night. Sensorwake alarm clocks, meanwhile, can stir groggy travellers with the aroma of coffee, tea or a sea breeze. 

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But the more technology there is in a room, the greater the chance it will fail. At W Singapore, guests can unlock their room with a smartphone – but what if their battery is dead? They will have to trek all the way back to the lobby. There is also the risk that technology could fall foul of hackers. “From a flickering light bulb over a mirror to remote batteries that haven’t been changed, technology can be a curse as well as a blessing,” says Gold. “If you have a smart TV that isn’t intuitive and a Wi-Fi system that requires multiple layers of passwords, they are all going to be sources of frustration and annoyance for guests.”

In early 2019, Japan’s Henn na “robot hotel” axed its entire workforce of in-room “Churi” robots, owing to mass ineptitude. Mistaking snoring for voice commands, the machines began waking guests repeatedly through the night. 

4. FOOD AND DRINK 

A recent survey by Telegraph Travel found that 77 per cent of hotel guests never use the minibar, while a 2014 TripAdvisor poll discovered it was the least important component of a good hotel room. So have we lost trust in this overpriced, highly wasteful dinosaur of yesteryear? Out of sight, out of mind, appears to be the new ethos – and at Blow Up Hall 5050 hotel in Poznań, Poland, designers have concealed minibars in cupboards behind the bed’s headboard. At the recently opened Labotessa in Cape Town, they are hidden behind custom-made French armoires. 

Consumers are also demanding a cleaner, greener minibar. Generic, supermarket-style products made with controversial ingredients such as palm oil are out, as are any packaged in single-use plastics. Locally sourced and organic edibles, wrapped in paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, are the zeitgeist. 

With more and more hotels declaring war on waste, the Nespresso machine's days could well be numbered Credit: getty

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“I hate Nespresso machines,” says Kinsman, recognising that of the 39,000 coffee pods made worldwide every minute, 29,000 are dumped in landfill sites. “I would much prefer just a cafetiere and some Fairtrade or other ethically produced coffee. I don’t want to see any single-use plastics anywhere in my hotel room.” 

With regard to waste, hoteliers are thinking increasingly outside the box. At the Fairmont Royal York in Canada, used coffee grounds from in-room machines are collected and used in organic fertiliser for the hotel’s rooftop herb garden. At the Four Seasons Silicon Valley, guests can select the wine of their choice from a state-of-the-art, in-room “Plum” dispenser – chilled to the right temperature for that particular varietal. 

“More hotels are moving towards free larders on accommodation floors,” says Melvin Gold, who believes the minibar’s days are numbered. “I’ve seen this at The Great Northern in St Pancras and No 15 Great Pultney in Bath. We’re moving towards a world of treats that guests go to collect, in place of expensive in-room minibar sales.”

5. THE BATHROOM 

The bath may have been carved from one giant piece of marble, and boast gleaming gold taps – but if you can’t turn on the shower without being pummelled with an initial blast of cold water, or getting your shirtsleeves wet, it’s a fail. One solution, says Tony Costa, regional vice president of the Jumeirah goup, is a press-button control outside the cubicle. 

Hotel bathrooms are a challenge for designers, because so much is hidden beneath the surface – blockage-prone pipes, dodgy underfloor heating and lurking odours. All this can detract from a space that, aesthetically, scores 10/10. “Shower pressure is a key aspect of our bathroom design,” says Scarlett Supple. “You certainly don’t want it weak, but nor should it be so powerful that it sprays all over the bedroom. We also have a minimum size for a shower –­ and if that can’t be met, we’ll rejig the dimensions of the room accordingly.” 

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Where toiletries are concerned, the trend is towards refillable glass dispensers in place of plastic miniatures. More than 1,000 Holiday Inn Express hotels have made the switch and InterContinental has pledged to remove all mini-bottles from its rooms by 2021. But how can good design help shape a more sustainable bathroom in the future? “Hotels need to think more about reusing towels,” says Girgis. “Providing an attractive place to hang a towel” – so often lacking in hotel rooms – “will leave the guest with a feeling it can be used again. 

“The bathroom is not just a dead zone, an empty room. We like to think about the actions someone will take there.”

Simon Parker

Do you have a favourite design innovation seen in a hotel room – or indeed a story about a flaw that ruined your stay? Email us at travelviews@telegraph.co.uk