Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Design, Remodel, Alienate? The Hotel Nikko in San Francisco

I'm back from a stay at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco for Semicon West. The hotel completed a remodel earlier this year. Remodeling is an interesting canvas for design, not exactly a blank canvas, but pretty close. I found the results surprisingly disappointing. Normally, I probably wouldn't write a blog post about something like this, but, from a design point of view, some very strange decisions were made. I'll elaborate shortly, but first, some background.

The Hotel Nikko - My Go To Hotel in San Francisco
While I'm not sure exactly how long the Hotel Nikko has been in San Francisco, I do know it's been there a long time. Located in the Union Square area, it's conveniently located to many of the tourist attractions and, more importantly for my team during conferences, just a few blocks from the Moscone center. Hotel Nikko is a Japanese hotel chain, so many aspects of the hotel have always appealed to Japanese colleagues staying in San Francisco.

I began staying at the Hotel Nikko several years ago. With multiple conferences in San Francisco each year, I've had the opportunity to stay at numerous hotels in San Francisco, ranging from the premium, globally branded hotels to the tiny "boutique" hotels than you can find at the bottom of the tradeshow housing price spectrum. One of the things that struck me the most the first couple of times that I stayed at the Hotel Nikko was the unusual layout in many of the rooms. Rather than the row of rectangles set side by side that you typically get with most hotels, the Nikko featured unusual layouts, like rooms with inexplicably long entrance halls. What I soon discovered was that this unique layout contributed to minimizing the sounds you hear coming from your neighbor's room. I contrast this with some of the premium hotels that I've stayed at where I could hear nearly every word of the conversation in the room next door. This aspect alone made the Hotel Nikko my preferred hotel choice in San Francisco.

At this point it's probably worth noting that many of my colleagues tend to prefer the globally branded hotels with broad-reaching loyalty programs like Hilton, Hyatt, or Marriott. The Hotel Nikko has a loyalty program, One Harmony, but there is only one other hotel in Hawaii in that program, so unless you're traveling to Asia frequently, the One Harmony loyalty program is quite limited. Despite it's limitations, I was able to achieve their top tier status -- Exclusive -- simply through stays at the Hotel Nikko. That probably gives you some idea of how much I've stayed at the Nikko. We liked the Nikko so much that, when we had our wedding in San Francisco, the Hotel Nikko was the first place that I contacted to make arrangements for my friends and family to stay. You can safely say that I've been a loyal customer.

The Remodel Designs Me Out
The Nikko closed down in December for about three months to remodel most of the rooms. I'd actually been able to see a draft example of the remodel during my stay at Dreamforce'16, but Semicon West was the first time that I was able to experience the actual remodel. Within two minutes of my arrival in the room, I quickly realized one major failure with the updated room design -- there was no desk.

For some reason that is still entirely unclear to me, the people designing the Nikko remodel eliminated the desk from the room. I noticed it immediately, as the first thing that I began to do when I arrived was to begin setting up my workspace -- or at least, that's what I intended to do. At that point, I went back down to the front desk to request a different room, one with a desk. The staff at the front desk were very courteous, but informed me that none of the rooms -- except for the smallest ones -- had desks now. Apparently, it was not an unusual complaint; they told me that they'd heard the issue from others, and that they would share it with management. So off I went back to my deskless hotel room, questioning the design decision, what my colleagues would thing of the deskless room, and whether the Hotel Nikko would continue to be my preferred hotel in San Francisco.

Of course, the removal of desk wasn't the only thing that had changed, but it certainly focused my attention on the details of the remodel that had issues.
  • The dresser / credenza that replaced the desk and dresser. As I posted on Twitter, this design reminds me of Graceland circa the 1970s. Or perhaps a Holiday Inn near Graceland during that time. This piece provides drawer space, but it also houses the coffee maker that used to be above the minibar. While I know hiding the coffee maker cleans up some of room lines, I think it was reasonably out of the way in the old style.
  • The vanity station in the bathroom next to the sink. This is a new addition, the closest thing to a desk in the room. I actually used this area as a desk, but the downside was my laptop was living in the splash-zone of the sink. And my desk chair had no back. And made noise whenever I slid it in or out. But other than that, it sort of worked as a desk.
  • The "updated" bathroom. For my wife and I, the old version of the Nikko bathroom served as a benchmark for things that we wanted in a bathroom. We were even using some of the size specifications as a guide for what we wanted when we renovate. There are a number of small changes that make the new Nikko bathroom less desirable. First, while we didn't have a tape measure, the tub seems smaller. Additionally, they used to have a spray hose for rinsing your hair at the tub, but that has been removed. In the shower, they changed from a two-nozel showerhead plus showerhead on a hose to an overhead "rainshower" head and a hose that features one of those bar nozels that only has a soft spray, no changeable settings. After using that for a week, I found it to be functionally poor. 
  • Workmanship. Perhaps the single clearest example of issues with the renovation was the toilet seat in my bathroom. I've stayed at many hotels and used many bathrooms in my life, but this is the first one that I've ever seen that was assembled so poorly. To me, the toilet seat was the antithesis of the sensibilities I expect from a Japanese hotel. 
Here are a few photos to show you what I mean.
Hotel Nikko Credenza - gold, mirrored top, reminds me of Graceland
The new, rather useless showerhead on a hose.
The toilet seat at the Hotel Nikko aligned rather poorly.
A Japanese plumbing fixture, but not Japanese quality workmanship

Who's your Target Demographic?
Another interesting aspect of the post-remodel Hotel Nikko is the way that they are marketing the hotel or who they define as their target demographic. There are several aspects to this:

Dog Friendly.
Prior to the renovation, they'd actually added an outdoor area for dogs, but with the renovation, they've elevated their self promotion as dog-friendly. In some ways, this seems to me like a strange strategy for a hotel to pursue. Don't get me wrong, it seems increasingly common to see people with their dogs out at shopping malls and restaurants, particularly places with outdoor seating. Clearly, there is a significant segment of the population that are dog-lovers. At the same time, there is also a percentage of the population like myself and my wife, with allergies. Dogs are a potential allergen. For me, when I see this dog-friendly promotion, I'm always wondering if dogs stayed in my room previously and if that's going to be an allergy-issue. And don't get me started on the anxiety over fleas (enhanced by a run-down hotel experience in the skin-drying Las Vegas air). So I have to wonder whether the heavy dog-friendly promotion generates as much anxiety for others as it does for me.

To highlight the dog-friendly theme, they've added a stuffed dog to the assortment of decorative pillows in the room. The stuffed dog can also be purchased for $25. If you happen to be traveling with a child, you may find the stuffed dog to be a frustrating addition to the room. At the same time, it's probably worth noting one guest we overheard in the lounge (with multiple children) comment that the Hotel Nikko wasn't particularly kid-friendly. While we didn't evaluate the particulars of this, it seems like a funny contrast compared dog-friendly and the stuffed dog.

The Video Loop
A dog similar to the stuffed dog plays a starring role in a special Hotel Nikko video loop that they put on the TV when they do the turn-down service. Normally, I don't watch these kinds of things, but when you're staying for a week, you start to see these kinds of details. Here's a short synopsis of the video loop.
Scruffy guy and lady arrive separately at the Hotel Nikko. They are different in separate rooms and the don't seem to know one another. Scruffy guy spends the day sightseeing in San Francisco. The lady, meanwhile prepares for and gives a presentation to a large meeting room of people. In the early evening, the lady goes to the hotel gym to do yoga. The scruffy guy, meanwhile goes swimming in the pool. Following his swim, the scruffy guy is sitting on the outdoor deck and the live version of the stuffed dog runs up to him. He starts petting the dog, and the lady appears, clearly enticed by his dog petting. Next, they're off to dinner together at Anzu Restaurant in the hotel. Then watching a singer at Feinstein's in the hotel. Then, closing scene, they're looking over the San Francisco skyline (from the Marin side). Clearly, they've hooked up.

And suddenly, it all comes together. Of course, neither scruffy guy nor the lady seem to need a desk to work on, but it's an interesting demographic / lifestyle loop.

The Bottom Line
While I'm sure that there will still be some interest from our Japanese colleagues to stay at the Hotel Nikko, having spent a week there without a desk, I found that it's kind of deal breaker for me. It's kind of disappointing really -- we were actually quite fond of place before.

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