archivelogo
 Barnett on Business Travel

chris HOTEL SUITES
FOR THE HOMESICK


BY CHRIS BARNETT

May 20, 2004 -- There is nothing glamorous about a long business trip and spending a week or two in the same city. Unless you are lucky enough to "live" on the club floor of a grand hotel where you can dawdle at day's end with other swells over free shrimps and fine whiskies at $300 a night or more, coming home every night to an empty hotel room with a bed and TV can be depressing.

But travelers bunking in for a while have some options thanks to a smart ex-apartment builder. Jack DeBoer couldn't find renters in 1975 for an apartment complex in Wichita, Kansas, and he also realized there's no place like home for business travelers and families on long trips. So he created a new kind of apartment hotel, Residence Inn, sort of a pied--terre on the road with a fully equipped kitchen, living room, a private bedroom, someone to shop for groceries, a free community breakfast and a happy hour with wine, beer and something to nibble on.

It wasn't fancy or expensive, but it was homey. DeBoer's brainstorm spawned a phenomenon called "extended-stay lodging." Today Residence Inn, now owned by Marriott, has many competitors: Homewood Suites by Hilton; Extended Stay America; Marriott's lower-priced TownePlace Suites; MainStay Suites from Choice; Summerfield Suites and Candlewood Suites. The last two were also created and subsequently sold off by DeBoer. All have a pricing gimmick: The longer you stay, the less per night you pay.

There are some cheap imitations like Intown Suites that dangle $25 a night rates at travelers, yet I've had disgusting complaints about their cleanliness and couldn't get straight answers from their management, so I'd stay far, far away from that chain. In fact, the 73-year-old DeBoer is launching his fourth chain to compete with Intown. It's called Value Place and you pay a flat $125 to $175 whether you stay a night or a week. The first Value Place is now open in Wichita.

On a recent nine-day visit to the District of Columbia, I checked into--and checked out--branches of both Residence Inn and Homewood Suites plus a novel concept called BridgeStreet Corporate Housing Worldwide. Each had pros and cons, but they're a lot cheerier and relaxing than closeting yourself into a standard hotel bedroom for a long stay.

My first stop was the Residence Inn on Vermont Street in downtown Washington, a block away from the K Street power alley and perfect if you're selling to lobbyists or Uncle Sam. The 202-suite hotel is a converted office building--it once housed the U.S. Office of Personnel Management--and it is attached to a 24-hour CVS drugstore, which is better than a hotel gift shop any day. The hotel charges $20 a night to park, but I found street parking right out front.

I was greeted at the front desk with a big smile and a welcome, always a nice first impression. The parking valet doubles as a bellman, but I wanted to save a four-dollar tip and needed the exercise, so I rolled my own bags up to my room. It was a large studio, not a suite, with the bed in an alcove, not a separate bedroom, plus a desk, a dining room table with four chairs and a fully furnished kitchen. A big sectional sofa and a 27-inch swiveling television dominated the living room. Even though the plant and the terra cotta pot where fakes, the studio felt homey.

This Residence Inn had no business center--one is planned as part of a remodeling and a Kinko's is three blocks away--but every room has a high-speed Internet connection. My problem was that I couldn't get it to work and the night maintenance man, a genial chap who tried hard, was unable to remedy it. He said other guests occasionally had the same problem. The mattress was a bit thin, but I did feel at home and slept well. My wake-up call was prompt.

Breakfast was buffet style in a bright, airy room with a fireplace, TV and free newspapers. There was no shortage of eggs, fruit, baked goods, yogurt, make-your-own waffles and orange juice. The coffee was so-so, but I got a cup of strong stuff from the Au Bon Pain shop next door. From 5 to 7 p.m., there's gratis lasagna, chicken marsala and desserts, but no drinks. Stan's, a subterranean saloon a half block away, "is our good, local joint," says hotel general manager Peter Moyer, who smiles and mingles and doesn't lock himself in his office. There's a 24-hour fitness room and guest laundries. Guests do cook; one day the heady aroma of pasta and pesto filled the corridor.

On my next visit, the front-desk woman was cold and unsmiling, but my room was a two-room suite. Hotel rates in Washington are steep: Residence Inn rates range from $199 to $239 for one-to-six nights and $169 to $199 for 7-to-29 nights.

A block away, Homewood Suites has 175 rooms with separate bedrooms or true suites and a staff as professional and responsive as you'll find in any four-star hotel. Rooms are a little smaller than Residence Inn and there's no desk or table. You work off a kitchen counter that is not as comfortable and you can't really spread out papers. But the living room seating area is more home-like and the mattresses were thicker and firmer than at the Residence Inn.

Homewood has a coffee pot going night and day. Breakfast is served in a small area off the lobby and, when it's busy, you may have to share a table, which isn't all that bad if you're hungry for conversation. I enjoyed it. The breakfast buffet isn't as creative as the Residence Inn offering, but the two-hour evening manager's reception includes beer and wine.

Homewood has a small fitness center with a TV and a 24-hour business center with a Dell laptop and laser printer. I had trouble with the computer because of some strange software program, but I was told it's on there to discourage porn surfers. There's free high-speed Internet in the rooms. Parking is $20 a night. Room rates are lower than the Residence Inn: Prices start at $179 for one-to-four nights and $159 for five or more nights.

Want something even homier? Corporate apartments sound like a lavish, exclusive perk for chief executives, but BridgeStreet has 8,000 of them in high-rise apartment buildings. Usually, they fetch $120-$130 a night for 30-to-60 nights, but BridgeStreet boss Lee Curtis rents them for a three-night minimum, too. At the BridgeStreet branch in an apartment complex in Arlington, Virginia, 20 minutes west of Washington and a block from a Metro stop, my one-bedroom apartment was $170 a night including covered parking. It was just like staying in a friend's apartment: You make your own bed and rustle up your own food or go out. Restaurants are everywhere and a copy center is attached.

It was different, private and delightful. The fitness center was monstrous, not just a room with a few machines. The high-speed Internet access worked. A concierge greeted me like a resident, had my key and instructions. No doorman, no bellman, no room service and no crowds. I unwound, logged on and slept well.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.