The names were the same, but these hotels were not

Most days, I’m ready to whine about how national brands are crowding out mom-and-pop operations and homogenizing the flavor of travel everywhere. Not today.

Today I’m warning about unhomogenized hotels.   

Why? Because in the last two months, I’ve stayed at two Marriott properties that I expected to deliver matching experiences. They didn’t.

Part 1 took place at the Marriott SpringHill Suites at Lake Buena Vista in Orlando, Fla., where my family and I spent several days in early July.

SpringHill Suites, launched in 1998, is in Marriott’s “upper-moderate” tier of lodgings -- fancier than a Fairfield Inn, plainer than a Renaissance Hotel.

All offer free WiFi and free hot breakfasts, and both of the hotels I visited had pools. There are more than 340 SpringHill Suites locations worldwide (most run by franchisees), with an additional 140-some in the pipeline.

But since our first destination was a SpringHill Suites in the kid-intensive heart of Florida’s theme park belt, in the heat of early summer, we expected that the experience would be more basic than fancy.

When we arrived and found the nearest restaurant across the street (not on-site), we weren’t surprised. I was struck by the basic nature of the lobby, which was all tiled floors and kid-proof furniture. The entry halls echoed like public restrooms, and every time I turned a corner, I half-expected to find a urinal waiting. (Here and there, I also caught the scent of  tobacco – not uncommon in mass-market hotels with large numbers of international guests.)

Upstairs, there were no rooms with two queen beds (only with two double beds), so we settled for one king bed and a fold-out sofa – which seemed to fill most of the floor space in our suite. (Later, I called Marriott and learned that the hotel was built in 2005 and that the room was 355 square feet.)

To reach the bathroom from the front door, you had to follow a narrow, zigzag path around the furniture. There was a fridge, happily, and all the mechanical stuff worked, but even allowing for the fold-out couch, the shape of the room and its features felt awkward, as if poorly translated from the language of Business Travel to that of Family Vacation.

But none of these elements was a shock, because we didn’t expect any better. We had booked in as a part of a big block of rooms, and we had an average nightly rate of $139, which seemed reasonable in a theme park neighborhood during summer vacation.

Three weeks later, we arrived at the Marriott SpringHill Suites in Atascadero (opened 2015), in the Paso Robles wine country of San Luis Obispo County.

The location was exactly right for us, and the area’s hotels were getting ready to jack up prices for the annual California Mid State Fair, so we figured we’d accept a meh hotel as a necessary part of the trip. We paid $179 per night, and I braced myself for more public-restroom lobby acoustics.

Then we arrived and the angels sang. Clever landscaping. Stylish lobby. Restaurant on-site. I later learned that our guest room was 345 square feet – slightly smaller than the Orlando room – but it had space for two queen beds, an ingenious desk set-up and a pleasing, sensible arrangement of bathroom and closet with frosted glass doors and separate spaces and sinks for the toilet and shower.

This room resembled our Florida room the way moonlight resembles the bulb in the back of your refrigerator.

Why? Marriott spokeswoman Lindsey Pfrommer says the key is the 10-year age difference between the properties. “As a brand, SpringHill Suites properties undergo renovations a maximum of every 12 years,” Pfrommer wrote me in an email. The Orlando property, she added, “will likely undergo a big renovation in the next year or so."

As for the SpringHill brand as a whole, Pfrommer reports, the company aims for amenities and services to match up across all properties, but customer feedback leads to changes over time. For instance, she said, older SpringHill Suites properties don’t have bars, but going forward, every new one, and every major renovation, will feature a bar. (Given the revenue bars can generate, I’m surprised that didn’t happen sooner.)

By the way, I understand that absolute uniformity is impossible. In fact, in late May, I stumbled into a similar situation with Aloft hotels (which occupy roughly the same spot in the Starwood brand-family pecking order that SpringHIll occupies in Marriott’s).

One Aloft was in downtown Manhattan, near Wall Street (opened in 2015). The other was uptown at 124th Street in Harlem, opened in 2010. The bedrooms were largely interchangeable, and the staff was helpful in both locations.

But the lobby in Harlem was bigger and more welcoming, with a pool table and a long counter where business people could hang out with their laptops.

On paper, these hotels were interchangeable (and that week, both were priced between $250 and $260). But in person, Harlem suited me far better.

So, fellow travelers, even when you think you’re lining up a night without surprises, you cannot rest.  Even if the name is the same, plenty of variables remain. Scour the website, and ask questions — and you may want to ask them of the hotel front desk, rather than a centralized reservations agent in some other city.

The good news for me, with both Marriott and Starwood, is that I happened to visit the superior hotels second, not first. But for every traveler who gets happily surprised like me, there’s another one getting let down.

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