A Tale of Two Marriots
Whenever I stay in a Marriot I find it useful to remember that J. Willard Marriott, the American who founded the world’s biggest hotel group in 1959, was once a Mormon missionary. He was known for dropping in on his properties and terrorizing his employees by running a finger along every shelf in the hotel kitchen: a mote of dust on Willard’s finger and you were in trouble. Willard invented a kind of scrupulosity today associated with the very concept of luxury. Luxury as not only freedom from dust but from cultural specificity. A Marriott hotel was like a capsule from a blissful future where space and time collapsed, and where technology produced a utopian mirage that yielded tangible benefits.
Today, Marriot operates 3,000 hotels in the U.S. and thousands more around the world. In Asia, Marriots are fine hotels; the J.W. in Bangkok, named for Williard himself, is one of the most suavely licentious hotels imaginable. In the ground floor restaurant, Thais in toques dispense a five-cuisine buffet, tending to piles of fresh lobster, ma-muang (mango), toro sushi, and Chao Praya oysters. Girls in silk sarongs saunter through the basement to a soundtrack of ranat ek music, as guests swallow Japanese teppanyaki. One could go on. The ash trays by the elevators are small pillars with six-inch-wide squares of Zen sand raked into ripples. The bamboo thickets swaying above the pools are real.
In Scotland, it’s a different story. Marriot also runs a hotel in downtown Glasgow which costs about a hundred dollars a night more than the J.W. in Bangkok. Are they comparable? That depends on whether you continue to believe in the separation of our world into “first” and “third.” Emotionally, these terms are complicated. But we can tabulate them simply. First world: efficient, capitalized, attentive to consumer detail, service-orientated, unstinting with luxury, convenience-obsessed. (I leave discussions of democracy and human rights for another occasion.) Third world: disorderly, scruffy, dangerously sordid, low standards of convenience, service, insect-control, etc. The third world, as you will see, is the direct inverse of the first, and vice versa.
Recently I was flying to Islay and arrived at the Glasgow Marriott at the end of the afternoon in a rain storm. Here’s a very British scene: exhausted tourist struggling with two large bags in a ferocious downpour while two “bellhops” stare at him from the safety of the hotel’s closed doors, smiling with faint disdain. Time and again, I find myself defending Thais against the ridiculous charge of being “obsequious” simply because they don’t behave like this. Ah, the Scots reply: this is a four star, not a five star. It’s only at a five star that ye get the right to not get drenched. At a four star you’re on your own.
The hotel was invented in the nineteenth century as a home away from home. Marriott took that principle and extrapolated it into a formula for offsetting cultural alienation. In Glasgow, however, they have honed it into an actual mode of cultural alienation. That first Glasgow Marriot night, feeling jetlagged but unable to sleep, I decided to put on my downy bathrobe and venture down into the hotel’s so-called “spa and health club.” It certainly looked like a Marriott spa and health club on the website. I thought of the Jacuzzis and marble bathrooms of the J.W. on Soi 2. In the dark basement of the Glasgow branch, however, the girls told me there were no towels available.
“But this is a health club and spa,” I objected.
“Aye, but there’s nae towels.”
“None at all? Not even one?”
They shook their heads as if this was a natural disaster that could be only rectified with time. “They’ve nae been delivered,” they explained.
I wondered who it was who delivered the towels. I went into the pool area. It was like a pool in a New York City high school, half cordoned-off, empty, with life buoys shaped like British Polo mints and a strong scent of disinfectant. Even the chairs were plastic. As I floated there in the tepid water, two Polish girls arrived in swimsuits, took one look and said “Cholera” in Polish. That word in Polish is derived directly from the name of the disease and translates roughly as “Holy shit.” So even by the standards of Polish tourists in Europe, the Glasgow Marriott struck a dismal note.
It is strange how the idea of luxury itself is both easily transplantable across cultural frontiers but also fragilely dependent upon local custom. Thais understand luxury instinctively, while Scots do not. This is not to say that luxury does not exist in Scotland; there is plenty of it there, from the Gleneagles golf resort to countless majestic castle hotels like Inverlochy and Stobo. But just below that exalted level there is so often a worm in the apple, somehow — an underlying attitude of class resent. In Britain, service is often seen as servitude; luxury seems like something alien and imposed. In Asia it is anything but.
If we are social utilitarians, the distrust of luxury is justified. After all, it’s an illusion deliberately intended to make us forget our political and social bearings, which is to say our real life. But the luxury hotel, by definition, is a kind of therapeutic exit from such contexts, and implicit in the idea and practice of luxury is a kind of transformation through unreasonable delight. Humans have always loved luxury because it expresses an impersonal love of some kind. Wander through the Met museum and gaze at the gold hair pins of ancient Greece. Isn’t there a love of beauty, order, craftsmanship and — if you like — female hair, all contained in those tiny, useless objects? A hotel should feel the same, even if it’s ultimately about your credit card.
The next morning in Glasgow, I went down to the buffet breakfast. If all else was dismal, I thought, at least the Marriott would put on a jolly attempt at this beloved expression of gluttony. I got there before everyone else and noticed at once the trays of bubbling porridge. A surly and sleepy Russian guy stood behind the griddles in a toque. There was a plate of tiny pancakes in front of him, already stone cold, and so I asked him if he could perhaps make another tiny pancake from scratch. He shrugged. As in Soviet days, “from scratch” was impossible. He made a mournful face. He would only do fried eggs and chips. Around us were troughs of baked beans and pre-fried eggs, congealed bacon and small packets of Rice Krispies, lacking only Basil Fawlty’s immortal garnish of “a couple of dead dogs.” Fruit juice from Sainsbury’s cartons, and you were lucky to have it.
It was like flying on an American airline: You were actually punished for being foolish enough to choose the brand. The staff seemed to say: you thought you could get something out of us? You thought you would get a hot meal and a smile?
The long association of modernity, and therefore luxury (in its most visible incarnation), with the West has now been broken. Soon, I predict, Asian hotel chains will send their employees to the West to witness the instructive horrors of “third world” infrastructure, service, and product levels. Marriott clearly would never run a Glasgow-style outfit in an Asian country. They would fear the loss of image. In Glasgow, of course, they are doing well. Occupancy is high and customer satisfaction is not at all catastrophic, as a glance at their Tripadvisor page shows. The clients of the Glasgow Marriot are still passive citizens, not enraged consumers. “Very nice place,” people from Texas and Doncaster write with sublime objectivity. “Very nice buffet breakfast.”
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