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Suite nothings: Once sites of romance and escape, hotels have lost their lustre

Whenever I'm looking for a hotel, I immediately check out the worst of the Trip Advisor reviews. I love the poetry of the furiously posted, un-spell-checked eyewitness reports of filth ("It was so bad I couldn't think"), rudeness ("You could be Donald Trump or Donald Duck, they couldn't care"), weirdness ("Someone washed a dog in the shower") and all-caps revulsion ("HORRIBLE SMELL").

The epic scale of the reviews stands in for the more modest disappointments regularly experienced by those of us who stay often in little rooms in foreign places and may feel that hotels – once sites of romance, art and escape – have lost their lustre. Perhaps five-stars like the Ritz-Carlton remain lustrous, and certainly an intimate little pension can be magical, but here in the middle, somewhere at the intersection of Super 8 and Delta, things seem to have taken a turn for the worse. In Detroit recently, I discovered a blackened cellophane-wrapped sandwich under the bed of a major chain hotel. In Montreal, at another well-known hotel, I once found fingernail clippings in the tub.

The diminished hotel experience isn't just a function of bad housekeeping – though gotcha-journalism is fuelled by bedbugs and E. coli-ridden bedspreads – but a decline in customer service. In January, splurging at the Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa, my family and I checked in for one night only to be told that emergency repairs were being conducted and there would be no hot water after 9 p.m. It's an old building, we were informed, and there was no way to delay the matter. I asked, "So what's our compensation? Free parking? Breakfast? A drink at the bar?" This suggestion was met with many blank faces repeating a corporate mantra about commitment to guest safety – a live, human version of "Your call is very important to us." So our compensation for ice-cold baths was exactly nothing.

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I assumed that the increased perception of an industry in decline (check any travel website and you'll find an army of disappointed and grossed-out former guests) had to do with poorly staffed recession-hit hotels, but, in fact, business seems healthy. Canada's hotel real-estate industry boomed in 2011, according to research by Colliers International Hotels. This June, research by STR Global showed occupancy rates at hotels were up across most of Canada.

In the 2007 book Hotel: An American History, University of New Mexico professor A. K. Sandoval-Strausz considers the history of the hotel a distinctly New World phenomenon symbolizing "mobility, transience, anonymity" – the building blocks of modernity. The itinerant, aspiring citizens of the 19th century needed more than the simple inn could offer (YE OLDE HORRIBLE SMELL). Hotels sprang up as architecturally grand and socially imperative meeting places for modern movers and shakers. Many hotels were as beautifully designed as museums, though anonymity – a hotel's bread and butter – allowed for some shady dealings. As Sandoval-Strausz puts it, a hotel was (and is) both "haven and hideout."

For some, life's passage can be marked by hotels: from the family vacation on the floor in a sleeping bag of a budget motor inn; to the backpacking adventure in a Bangkok guest house with a shared bathroom; to that first solo business trip (in a Halifax Holiday Inn, I took a two-hour bath without a single roommate knocking). For celebrities, death in a hotel, with police tape and paparazzi, is the great grand finale.

Hotels are literally romantic, the place of sexy-time trysts, whether illicit or sanctioned. But, as Eloise knows, hotels are romantic in another way, offering personal transformation for a price. Two of Sofia Coppola's films explore the romantic hotel myth – Lost in Translation and Somewhere. Her characters discover that, in a hotel far from home, anything can happen. Step out the door, and you could be anyone. The quality of the hotel where a fictional character resides is almost always a sign of how far he's risen – or fallen.

Certainly, some hotels have social cachet. Most urban centres have a few boutique hotels that aspire to be cultural hosts, too, retro-styled and offering art shows as well as cocktails. But for many families looking for shelter on a summer vacation, or the businessperson living a variation of Up in The Air, the hotel-chain scene is a descent into blandness, devoid of the hotel's historical legacy. It's never fun to wake up to a dining room of strangers staring at withered doughnuts that pass for a continental breakfast, eyes burning with exhaustion from a night of fans clanging in an airless room.

Perhaps we've changed. We're more scrutinizing, our approach to all experiences more like a detective or a critic than a guest who is ready to be transported.

In his book, Sandoval-Strausz argues that the hotel is, in fact, an ambassador of peace. He cites Immanuel Kant's 1795 concept of "universal hospitality" as a key to subduing global conflict: "In Kant's view, only when a 'right to visit…belong[ed] to all human beings' could 'distant parts of the world enter peaceably into relations with one another.' "

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World peace through hotels is a nice idea, but please change the sheets first.

Follow Katrina Onstad on Twitter: @katrinaonstad.

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