June 19, 2005

Austin Notes: The PC Hotel

A friend of ours is visiting Austin on business this week, and since the friend is a liberal educational reformer from San Francisco, we had the bright idea of recommending that she stay at the environmentally progressive Habitat Suites hotel. We’d never stayed there ourselves, but Habitat Suites boasts of its “commitment to creating an environmentally sustainable future for us all.” Its special features include:

• Grounds maintained with the use of natural, nontoxic fertilizers and pesticides
• Nontoxic, phosphate-free, natural cleansers used in cleaning
• Air ozonators/ionizers used for clean air quality in suites
• Biodegradable, recycled, unbleached paper products/recycling program
• Ladybugs populate the grounds, fostering healthy plants the natural, chemical-free way

Energy efficiency and water and air quality are top priorities. There are rooms for chemically sensitive guests. Air conditioning costs are decreased (a nice stroke of environmentalist capitalism) through window tinting, radiant barriers, shade trees, and high efficiency AC units. There are water–saving showerheads, toilets, and sprinklers, a waterless urinal in the guest house, and the option of reusing towels. Coreless toilet paper made of 100% recycled content; individual recycling bins in each suite; an employee incentive program for “green” innovations. A planned rainwater catchment system will irrigate 2.5 acres of “densely planted vegetable gardens.” In 1999, 2001, 2003, and 205 the hotel won this, that, and the other prestigious awards, nominations, and recognitions from city, state, and business groups.

“Although all people and businesses could take similar actions, few in fact, have done so,” the hotel website modestly states. “These actions are what make us different. Our guests appreciate these efforts. Habitat Suites enjoys a loyalty almost unheard of in the transient hospitality industry. We have been actively working to make our hotel a model of environmental stewardship.”

Okay, so she goes to the hotel, and it’s physically pleasant enough, but what she mainly notices are the prohibitions posted everywhere. You can’t take food from the restaurant onto the patio directly outside, where there are tables that seem suspiciously well–suited to food placement. There is a $125 fee for any guest caught smoking. There is “quiet time” from 9 pm to 9 am every day: guests who feel that their quiet has been interrupted are urged to call the desk.

At the breakfast buffet, there are some traditional dishes like biscuits and gravy, but a prominent sign urges the guest to make the healthy choice of chilled groats.

In the bathroom, the towels have been environmentally correctly laundered with some unidentified cleaner that, according to our friend, smells like cat pee.

Oh, well. Our friend is tired from traveling, and settles into bed for a needed night’s rest. In the middle of the night, the bedside phone rings, awakening her from deep sleep. It is a male guest at the hotel, unidentified.

“You’re bouncing,” the man says irritably. “There is a quiet time policy at this hotel and your bouncing is keeping me awake.”

Confused and still half–asleep, our friend tries to tell this loyal Habitat Suites guest that his call woke her from sleep rather than catching her bouncing. In reply, he hangs up without a word.

In the morning our friend switched to a good chain hotel.