I Stayed at a Hotel With No Staff. It Was Great.

Is the end of making idle chitchat with concierges nigh?

July 20, 2017 9:00 am

Welcome to the Muse Haus townhouse hotel in Chiswick, a leafy, affluent suburb in London’s west.

It’s a loose definition of “welcome”: there isn’t actually anyone here to offer one, just a PDF with a code to a key box and, inside the front door, a rack of keys, one of which will correspond to your room. Follow the directions to the room on the diagram provided in the aforementioned PDF. Open the door. Close the door. You’ve arrived, without talking to anyone. 

I stayed for three nights and only saw one other person, briefly: a maid. 

Muse Haus isn’t exactly a hotel but the brand behind a new sort of temporary residences/crash pads, described on its own website as “townhouses and homes for short and long term tenants.” It’s a cross between an Airbnb, a hotel and a hostel. At Muse Haus Chiswick, rooms were large and comfortable; several shared a bathroom, while a large en-suite slept up to four (two on a bed, two on a pull-out) and included its own, private bathroom with a clawfoot tub. 

Muse Haus is different from — or an evolution of — an older experiment with deconstructed check-in desks, for which hotels like the Andaz paired guests with welcome-committee hosts who were encouraged to step out from behind their desks. (This apes the fully personalized greeting provided by five-star hotels to high-rolling guests, usually without the resources to really make it work.) While luxury brands pile amenity on top of private-jet amenity, many travelers — even wealthy ones — are discovering that once you dip under said “luxury” experience, there’s not much difference between a Westin, a Marriott, a La Quinta, an Airbnb and a hostel (at least a Scandinavian one): a box is a box is a box. And the growing use of lock-boxes among Airbnb hosts means that guests are getting used to a different sort of luxury: walking into a residence in a city that is not their own and making themselves at home — without the intermediary step of chit-chat (or, in the case of a hotel, of bill-paying) that’s usually the final frontier between a traveler and the chance to relax. 

Many hotels have moved to a kiosk-style check-in, like CitizenM, which is so impressed by its system that it made a video about it: 

The system at Aloft — a youg-skewing Starwood hotel chain so in love tech it wants to staff robot butlers — is even better: if you’re headed to one of its Smart Check-In-equipped hotels, you’ll get an email with your room number. Once at the hotel, you can head straight to your room and enter via an “Aloft brand SPG card” (the specificity makes us think that non-“Aloft brand” SPG cards have caused hotel managers no end of grief). Smart Check-In is now available at nine Alofts, including Brooklyn and Cupertino, with another four in line for the service. Yotel offers a line of check-in kiosks at its Manhattan location but notes that IRL help is available as well: “Don’t worry, we haven’t gone totally tech-crazy, and there will still be a helpful crew on hand around the clock to help you out if you have any problems.”

Crazy town, though, may be on the horizon — and fast approaching.

Muse Haus, which has a sister property in nearby Hammersmith, is an example of this, a slightly grander version of the standard Airbnb with an absent host and keys left in an accessible location. Muse Haus is set up with a half-dozen bedrooms, a couple shared baths, large ground-floor reception and eating areas, plus a garden in the back. Guests can access the front-door key via lock box and pick up their room key inside. For me, the process was easy — terrific, actually, because nothing went wrong. And if it did? Help would have been available via email or web chat within certain hours. Outside of those hours? Or if my phone died? I didn’t need to find out. I didn’t especially want to find out.

When things go right, there’s a rich, undeniable luxury in this: walk up to a nice-looking house in a beautiful part of a beguiling city … and then bust in like you own the place. If it’s an illusion, it’s a lovely illusion, and one that for many travelers — at least those looking for an experience as authentic as possible — will be enhanced by the absence of staff, the people whose function it is, in part, to remind you that you are a guest, not a resident.

Residents are the ones, though, who sometimes must resolve a lost key, a misplaced wallet, a dead phone: responsibilities guests will all too happily shift onto staff. Which begs the question: Which do we want more? The luxury of authenticity that is the province of the resident? Or the lack of responsibilities that is the luxury of the guest?

Undoubtedly, the former — until said guest loses his keys, forgets the code, burns out the battery on his phone. As with so many of these wonderful new conveniences, it’s amazing.

Until it isn’t. 


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