Hotels and motels have always struck me as incredible arenas of possibility. This has been true, even if I was checking in to one alone. I like the feeling (or the illusion) that I am completely off the grid, anonymous and unfindable, like a fugitive. For a long time the most important quality in a hotel room was, for me, that it was a hotel room. But my perception of this began to change after I met the woman I was going to marry. From the very beginning, Elizabeth and I did a lot of traveling. I won a cruise—yes, I won it, I didn’t believe it at first, either—and since we had to embark in France, it made sense to wander around for a while in France and Italy. During these travels, Elizabeth revealed to me a preference for a certain kind of old-school extravagance in hotels. This seemed, initially, like a charming if potentially expensive predisposition to luxury, but then I realized something else was at work. A grand hotel of the old school is a romantic establishment. It cossets not just the couple but also the idea of romance within the couple. And I found this moving. When we check in as a couple, there is a heightened sense of drama as soon as we enter the lobby.
I used to brag that the simplest motel room was for me the ideal accommodation. A beautiful suite at the old Plaza Hotel was great, but so was Motel 6, each in its own way. The more spartan the better—a light, a bed, a table, a bathroom. The only requirement was cleanliness. What every hotel has in common is the erotics of the blank slate.
A hotel room is unknown territory. At its heart is a strange bed—a tablet on which a new story is going to be written. For their many varieties of location, mood, style, and service, it’s the fundamental condition of strangeness that all hotels struggle to overcome, and to me that is their greatest allure.
Recently, I was shopping for a bed. It is a process that has become scientific, elaborate. There are numbers. Systems. Whole philosophies. Nevertheless, you end up lying on one bed and then another. While lying on my back, I found myself in a conversation about hotels with the saleswoman.
“What do you think?” she said.
“This is unbelievably soft,” I said. “I mean, I thought I was a firm mattress guy. But this is nice.”
“Like a hotel, right?” she said.
“A really nice hotel.”
“It’s incredible, right?”
“I might fall asleep.”
“It’s deceptive,” she said. “What happens in a hotel is that your body loves the mattress for about a week, tops, and then it says, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? I want to go home.’ ”
A hotel is the ideal setting for a tryst. Which creates a curious kind of tension when you check in to one with your wife. This is what Elizabeth and I did last spring. We got a room in a new hotel in the French Quarter. We got a babysitter. We got dressed up. Then we took a two-mile drive to another life.
The Saint Hotel goes to considerable lengths to insinuate a trysting atmosphere. A statue of two cupids floats above the concierge desk and gauzy drapes hang from the high ceilings. The lobby is strewn with angular, outsize furniture and is vaguely reminiscent of Philippe Starck’s original Royalton Hotel, in New York. Hallways are lit in a submerged blue and bedroom walls have blurry black-and-white photos of women in high-heeled shoes. The headboards feature pleated white leather or mirrors. The bathrooms have a huge shower with a glass wall and more mirrors.
There are hotels that are so beautiful, lush, and romantic that it would seem impossible not to feel romantic in them. But the romantic spots cannot merely be romantic today. The more ideal a setting, the more it has to make its romanticness explicit. So it was that five years ago, Randy Russell, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the Couples Resorts in Jamaica and Barbados, announced to his sales staff that his title would be “Chief Romance Officer,” and that his sales team would have new business cards emblazoned with “ambassador of romance.”
They have since reverted back to more conventional titles, but the wish to amplify remains.
I talked with a few of these so-called romance concierges wondering if their purpose was to help couples remember how to be romantic, or if it was—a subtle difference—to help couples a bit further along in their lives together find a new way to be romantic, since the game had changed. There is now a romance-industrial complex. It takes many forms. To the extent men are involved, they have, unsurprisingly, approached it a bit like a sporting event—meaning that even the most personal and intimate moments have become a kind of grand spectacle. A marriage proposal now can mean popping the question on a billboard or the scoreboard at a football game, or having a cast the size of a Broadway musical come out and do an extended dance number.
Hearing from these romance concierges, I felt competing impulses—one toward skepticism and the other involving the approach of my wife’s birthday. Every year, I start thinking about what to get her several weeks in advance, if not more, and every year I end up ruminating right up to the last minute. The end result is more often than not satisfactory, even nice, but I find myself vowing to get an even earlier head start next year. What if I had the help of a romance concierge?
“I try to talk to the man in advance so I can get to know the couple,” says María José Rodríguez, rooms division director and former romance concierge of Las Ventanas al Paraíso, in Los Cabos, Mexico. “What is her favorite color, her favorite flower, what kind of food does she like?”
“What happens if the man doesn’t know his wife’s favorite color or favorite food?” I ask. (Pink, and something French with a lot of butter in it and, ideally, bacon, too.)
“Sometimes it happens that a man doesn’t know or doesn’t remember,” she says, “so I try to talk to her assistant to find out her favorite flowers.” I imagine who might qualify as my wife’s assistant. The best I can come up with is me.
“I think I am a better person being a romance director,” Rodríguez says. “My life is full of love, surprises, and happiness. It’s very creative. To give this happiness, this love to a couple. They need it. Just to have time together. Even small things like a butterfly release.”
“What is that?” I ask.
“You create a picnic on the sand, and there is a small box with a butterfly inside,” she tells me. “And they release the butterfly together. But first they make a wish and tell it to the butterfly.”
I pictured a couple on a beautiful beach, in a secluded spot. It was perfect except for the awkwardness of having a fluttering little butterfly sitting beside the sandwiches in a box. When do you release it, before or after the meal? If it were me, I would want to release sooner than later. Now we must each bring our lips to the box and whisper something to the butterfly. Then, later, we would have to bring back an empty box. It seemed odd. I considered whether Elizabeth would enjoy it as part of her birthday celebration. She is an animal empathist. I wasn’t sure she would like the butterfly release. But seen through her eyes, I could see the purpose of a romance concierge. That sense of lavish detail, of ceremony.
“It must be the women who are grateful to you even more than the men,” I say.
“The truth is that men do need a lot of help.”
“We live in an age of specialization, of niche products,” says Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a multitasking academic and author who is also romance director at the Salish Lodge & Spa, outside of Seattle—which, as it happens, is perched 300 feet above Snoqualmie Falls, at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. It is a place that could not be more romantic. Except that, as Dr. Pepper points out, it could.
“We all used to have family doctors. And now there is no part of the body that isn’t specialized. It creates confidence in the customer (or the patient) by having someone who looks at noses all the time. In this case, it’s someone who thinks about romance 24/7. We’re saying it’s another thing worthy of specialty.”
A professor of sociology at the University of Washington, Schwartz comfortably situates the phenomenon of the romance director, or concierge, in a larger social context. “It used to be, at first, ‘we’re young and we have no money.’ But if you do have some money, there is also the element for him of wowing this woman. Or, for her, of getting him away in a place you feel romantic and he accedes to it.”
I ask her if all this amounts to remedial help for men.
“In my experience it varies from remedial to the expert clinic,” she says. “If I were a professional golfer, I would still want tips and coaching. Tiger Woods has a coach.”
Schwartz recently co-authored The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples, which compares attitudes toward romance in America, France, Italy, Spain, and China.
“Americans are more constrained,” she says. “Even among people who are not rekindling, coming up with a romantic idea is something you get real points for. Young or old. Our average guests at the Salish are between 25 and 45, and they’re trying to be really romantic. Americans aren’t romantic enough.”
I ask her for an example of things she does to incite romance at the hotel.
“We could clear the spa out at midnight and it would all be yours. And so whatever you wanted to do, you could do.”
“That sounds like you are practically shaming people into having sex.”
“Everyone thinks there’s too much sex in the world,” she says. “I think there is too little.”