What Makes a Great Hotel

After a marathon of guidebook research in Italy, I've seen tons of hotel rooms. Some were dreamy, others forgettable and some were the stuff of nightmares. I've been inspecting hotels for a long time, but as an architect and committed budget traveler, I have a slightly different eye for what makes a place stand out, and money has nothing to do with it. Recently, some ideas have been crystallizing in my mind about what makes a great hotel at any price point.I present to you an open letter of sorts to small, family hotel owners. I'm writing this for the average traveler too, perhaps you'd like to see what goes through my mind when inspecting or selecting hotels to recommend. Many of these ideas require little effort or money and can make a visit far better. You may also find some ideas to incorporate into your own home.

Dear Hotel Owner

The first requirement of a good hotel or BnB is good communication. Are emails clear and directions easy? Is there any direct contact after a reservation is made? A good stay starts before it begins. Easing travelers' fears and answering questions before they occur to the customer are golden characteristics. For a traveler, a non-communicative hotel owner can be a clear red flag. I always prefer to book and not pay in full at the booking, just in case I get bad vibes after I reserve.

Presentation Matters

It's not a mystery--how a hotel presents itself on arrival makes a big difference. Are the owners prompt and available? Is the lobby clean and orderly? Does it feel cozy, clean, corporate, sleazy or like you'll contract a disease there? I prefer common areas that are tidy but warm, with a nice couch and soft lighting.The look of a room upon entering can affect the whole experience. The bed should be inviting and well made, no faded covers or wrinkles. Sloppy housekeeping is the worst, the bed must be tightly made (I'm looking at you, expensive Florentine hotel with wrinkled bedspreads). A hotel I stayed at in the Cinque Terre knocked this one out of the park. The room was warm but fresh upon entering. The bed had lovely throw pillows and a soft blanket at the foot. The bedside lights were on, as if the room had been waiting for me to arrive. Perfection.Another hotel did their best to impress me by setting out an elaborate display on my bed, with a bathrobe, slippers and chocolates scattered on the duvet. Nice touch...except that I'm so tired at the end of the day that I will often not get all of the chocolates off of the bed and end up with melted chocolate in my hair in the morning, or worse, all over the sheets. True story.

Small Things are Big

I don't need to stay at the Ritz, although I once did and wasn't impressed. What impresses me is an attention to small details in a room. Light switches next to the bed. Outlets in convenient places for charging devices, preferably at the nightstand. A reasonably thought-out location for luggage. A bathroom faucet that has a high arc, where a water bottle can fit underneath. Hair dryers and toiletries kit hooks in the bathroom. Vanity lights that are high enough that a tall person can look in the mirror without hitting their head. Coat hooks! Seriously people! I will carry them and install them myself if I have to!The new trend is the hot water kettle, a concept imported from Britain. 10 years ago I would have been skeptical of that gesture, as it usually meant that the hotel catered only to Brits. I do like a kettle, and I appreciate a small selection of tea or coffee with mugs, as well as a corkscrew. It makes a room feel like home.

Light it Up

I used to be an architect and I'll tell you a little secret about interior design. Good architecture can be easily turned into a horror movie backdrop with the wrong lighting. Alternately, a cardboard box under I-5 can look awesome and inviting with the right lighting. It takes very little to make a hotel look 100% better, just change the lightbulbs. (Insert lightbulb changing joke of your choice here, I'm terrible with jokes-email me your favorite!)Buzzing fluorescent bulbs, particularly old tube models, can make any room look like a seedy motel or unlicensed dentist's office. The buzz they make is almost inaudible, but it makes an impact even on a subconscious level. The small CFL bulbs are no better, giving an ugly color of light that is usually too bright and too cold. The delay these bulbs take to turn on also makes a room feel cheap and creepy.The best solution for updating any room is to add warm spectrum LED lightbulbs and modern light fixtures or recessed lighting. The bulbs are more expensive at the outset, but last longer and, when used the right way, can make almost any space look more elegant. My kids and I used to need an escort to go into our creepy basement, but now with recessed LED lighting it's our favorite place to be.

The Nose Gives it Away

After inspecting many hotel rooms over the years, I can tell you that my nose is the best inspector of all. I have a very sensitive nose, which is really a blessing and a curse. It comes in handy for appreciating a fine wine, but will induce far more potent whine in a smelly hotel. Mold, mildew, pet smell, smoke and a wide variety of other sins cannot be covered up for my nose. If a hotel tries to do it with scented room spray, that's just a big red flag being waved by a clown shooting fireworks out of his fingertips. I hate clowns.If a hotel really wants to impress me, it needs to smell right. Clean. Honest. Fresh, like sun-dried laundry.

Cleanliness is Next to....

Speaking of clean. There is no substitute on this. There is nothing that will ruin my day more than finding mold or stray hairs. That happened to me recently in a brand new hotel that which was doing their best to show off. Actually, it was the one with the chocolates on the bed! I was happy and comfortable until I went to use the toilet and saw a few long, black, curly hairs on the shiny marble bathroom floor. I have neither black, nor curly hair. Eeeeew.I have a special place in my heart for hotels that are spotless. If you want me to love your hotel forever, make sure that I can touch any surface without fear of communicable disease or a sudden need to take a shower. Bonus points if I can drop my food on the floor and still eat it, observing the 5-second rule.

Creating an Atmosphere

An easy upgrade for any hotel at any price is to create a convivial atmosphere, ideally if there is a common area where travelers can meet. A terrace or a lounge can make a stay far more fun and sociable.That can be as simple as leaving the left-over breakfast pastries on a covered tray in the lobby for afternoon snacking. Some hotels are instituting a happy hour each night, with a tray of serve-yourself snacks and drinks.I like when the hotel owners make themselves available for a bit of socialization each day if they can, even for a short, set time. I realize that it is a big responsibility to run a hotel, but a half hour in the evening for a chat with guests can pay off in the long run, as many of those guests will want to return.

A little IKEA goes a Long Way

As long as we are speaking about an atmosphere, let's get something straight about interior design in general. The only place where an all-Ikea design looks good is either inside Ikea or in Sweden. I like a Billy bookcase as much as the next architect, but only when used sparingly.More and more these days, I find new BnBs that rely on an Ikea-chic style (I'm looking at you, AirBnB) which ends up falling flat and looking junky. Even worse, accommodations using those kind of furnishings will look shabby after about five years since that furniture wasn't meant to take the kind of beating that hotel rooms get.Free architect design advice here, people. Limit your Ikea/Swedish-modern decor to about 20%.

Keep it Fresh

Maintenance is huge for homes and hotels alike. A fresh coat of paint every few years can be expensive, nearly impossible for smaller hotels, but touch-ups are key. I must admit, my biggest gripe with high end hotels is the lack of attention to scuffs on the walls and chips on the corners. Smaller, more basic hoteliers seem to get this. You wouldn't believe how many $250 hotel rooms I've seen with careless maintenance.Please, I beg of you. Touch up the scrapes on the corridor walls. Steam clean the hall carpets at least once a year. repair chips and cracks. And never, ever let me see mold between the tiles in a bathroom. I'm a mother and home owner. I know there are easy ways to fix all of these things.

My Kingdom for a Coffee

I do love coffee. Good coffee, served promptly when I arrive at breakfast. I do not love bad coffee. It makes me grumpy. Let's be clear on something, Nescafe is not coffee.Serving bad coffee at breakfast, especially in Italy where they should know better, is something I consider a personal offense. I'll let you in on a secret, though. Almost every hotel in Italy will make you are real, respectable cappuccino if you ask. Italians would never drink the gray bathwater they leave out in the breakfast room and hotel owners know that, so they always have a good coffee machine hidden somewhere in back. Ask. You're worth it.

Be Friendly but Not Pushy

Some small hotel owners try to make up for the shortcomings in their property by offering excellent customer service. It works. My favorite hotel in Rome is not fancy at all and has more scuffs on the walls than I'd like, but the kind and genuine staff will keep me coming back year after year.The flip side of that is customer service which is overboard and obviously playing to the online review. Friendly interactions should be genuine and limited. There really can be too much of a good thing. Sometimes, especially in the hotel business, people just want to be left alone...depending on why they are there.I was staying at a hotel recently in Sicily that went way overboard in the "customer experience", hanging around to check in with me every time I left my room. The lobby was dripping with huge signs displaying their 9.0 Booking.com rating. It became comical at breakfast, as three people were waiting on me and staring at me while I ate breakfast. There is a point where diligent customer service can begin to feel like stalking.

A Thoughtful Approach Shows

Overall, I find that the stars of the small hotel industry are the people that care about what they do. You can't fake caring. If you try, it inevitably goes poorly. Likewise, being caring only so that you can rack up better online reviews is shallow and shows. Working with tourists and with people in general is a calling, and you should only do it if you really enjoy it. Disinterested or disingenuous owners are just as bad as stray hairs. Not as bad as clowns, but close.I have met many wonderful, caring hotel and BnB owners that truly want to create magic for their guests. For those that want to up their game, its not hard. Being kind is free and appreciated above all else.