Holidays and Hotels

By | December 22, 2011

Several years ago, my family and I made the short pilgrimage to the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in Riverside, California to see the Festival of Lights. Over the course of a month and a half the historic landmark transforms to a glittering spectacle with over 3.5 million lights. I cringe today, as I did then, thinking of the hotel’s electric bill. Environmental concerns aside, there were other factors that pointed to a disastrous experience. First, nearly 25,000 people attend this event annually and I loathe crowds. Second, every restaurant within the hotel and the immediate downtown area was booked and my kids have meltdowns if they are not fed. Third, and most importantly, I thought the cheesy, over-the-top premise of the Festival of Lights would turn me off.

Mission Inn Festival of Lights, Riverside. Source: The Washington Times

Strangely, I ended up having a great time. The crowds were manageable and we always had the option of escaping to our room. We were fortunate to nab a table in the bar area, filling ourselves with food and drink. And the people walking around in awe of the kitschy décor were actually quite charming. The night ended with a mid-winter swim in the hotel’s outdoor heated pool, which turned out to be the best and most private place to view the lights. This is one of my favorite holiday memories of recent years, and I believe it has to do with the fact that the Mission Inn helps create for its guests a sense of place.

I’ve also had the complete opposite experience. I recall a stay at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square on New Year’s Eve ten years ago as one of my more depressing holiday experiences. I have nothing against big hotel chains. I even prefer to stay in them sometimes. There’s something comforting about the universal consumer space or, as French cultural theorist Marc Augé calls it, the “paradox of non-place: a foreigner lost in a country he does not know (a ‘passing stranger’) can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains.”1 But in this instance, I yearned for something different as my last image for one year and my first image for the next. I did not want to feel at home. I wanted to feel like I was somewhere special. Somewhere with atmosphere and charm. Anything but a generic lobby with a sad, fake tree and empty, wrapped “presents” that I knew were headed back to the bowels of storage any day.

Hilton San Francisco Union Square Christmas Tree. Source: flickr user Vincent Outlaw

Relating these stories, I realize that a hotel, in and of itself, cannot be the determining factor of anyone’s good time or bad time. Certainly my own experiences had as much to do with my frame of mind and my company as it had to do with my surroundings. But there is something about hotels that make them worthy of examination this time of year. Like the holidays, they are rife with expectations. We hope they will fulfill our needs and desires, be it a decent night’s sleep or an unforgettable encounter. Again like the holidays, they carry a financial cost. We place value on the experience and anxiety can ensue long before the arrival. But because there is potential for serendipity, just like when we were kids and Santa brought us the one thing we most wanted, hotels keep us coming back for more.

1Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995), 106.

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