The story of the western world, it has been said, is the story of men holed up in hotel rooms straining to draw connections between the more far-flung elements of reality. I have in mind Nikola Tesla grappling with electricity and magnetism at the New Yorker Hotel, and Bob Dylan holed up at the Chelsea deciding to rhyme "hollow face" with "deck of cards missing the jack and the ace" in "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." And I'm also thinking of me, here at the Egerton House Hotel in London, wondering what a tiny empty ceramic box I found on my pillow has to do with Kylie Minogue.
Minogue, briefly, is a 39-year-old Australian pop star whose intense popularity, a bit like that of soccer, is an accepted fact of daily life in every nation but the United States of America. So much so that London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is, until June 10, hosting an exhibition of her clothing and accessories. The nearby Egerton, a cozy boutique hotel in a pair of conjoined town houses, is duly offering fans a "V&A Kylie Package," including room and board, gym passes, tickets to the exhibition, and a mysterious "Kylie gift."
This, I think, means the little box. It can’t be anything else. It was right there on my pillow, exactly where a "gift" would be, and as I study the thing more closely, joining it on the bed and spending a minute or so opening and closing its hinged ceramic lid, I think I begin to understand. The box, like the five-foot-tall Minogue, is very small. Furthermore, it is feminine and at the same time sturdy, like Minogue herself, whose inner fortitude was recently demonstrated in her successful battle with breast cancer.
The walk to the museum takes me a scant 2½ minutes, thanks to excellent directions from the Egerton’s concierge—"Oh, it’s very easy-peasy, sir"—and it occurs to me as I walk that perhaps the little ceramic box isn’t empty after all. For by its very randomness, its gossamer-thin, almost nonexistent connections to its supposed referent, it surely contains, in the sense of encapsulating, the hottest—and strangest—trend in all of modern hotel management: the high-concept, mildly deranged-seeming package deal.
Kylie Minogue is, of course, not the world’s only pop star. Nor do the dream-weavers at the Egerton have a monopoly on mild derangement. Surely no serious discussion of either category would be complete without the name of Britney Spears, who startled the world this past February by shaving her head and attacking an SUV with an umbrella. And anyone nostalgic for that wild period in U.S. history could recapture the magic by buying the "Britney Breakdown" package at six of San Francisco’s seven Personality Hotels. The deal included a bottle of Voss water (because Spears had just emerged from rehab); a pair of thong underwear (such as what Spears conspicuously wasn’t wearing in a widely circulated paparazzi shot); and a $50 gift certificate to a top San Francisco hair salon.
For more ethereal, less mean-spirited types, there was always the "Orchid Show Package" at the Buckingham Hotel in New York. In return for $369 a night, the Buckingham was rewarding guests with tickets to the New York International Orchid Show, a copy of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, orchid-themed cocktails like the Violet Orchid Mojito, and, to top it off, a potted orchid. For $15,000 the package could be upgraded to the "Ultimate Orchid Adventure," which began in the Buckingham’s Penthouse Suite, with its 2,000-square-foot "rooftop aerie" overlooking Central Park, and ended with guests being flown first-class to Florida, where a guide would take them hunting for rare orchids in the steamy weirdness of the Everglades.
Then again, what normal, red-blooded American female could have resisted the "Girls with Guns Getaway" package at the Teton Ridge Ranch in Idaho?Women, either singly or in groups of "high-caliber girlfriends," were invited to come blow their troubles away on the ranch’s clay-pigeon range (shotgun lessons included if necessary) before repairing each evening to the ranch’s Great Room for a sumptuous three-course meal and, presumably, a long, weepy, mutually supportive conversation about how great men are and how much of a shame it is they couldn’t come.
So far, so delightful. But there is more than mere whimsy propelling the rise and rise of these offbeat packages.
There is the mounting threat of "commoditization," for one thing. It may not be a vivid or melodious term; Karl Marx himself would probably have to bite back a yawn, but it’s commoditization that’s apparently keeping modern hoteliers up at night when it isn’t haunting their dreams. Thanks to the recent lurch forward in information technology, consumers have exponentially more hotel choices at their fingertips, and a precise picture of what each and every one of them charges for a room, with the result that it’s more difficult than ever for a hotel to stand out, except by being a "better deal." The solution, apparently (according to various grim, jargony industry newsletters this correspondent has dutifully waded through), is the adoption of a "de-commoditization strategy." In addition to offering extra perks and services, hotels are actively—though subliminally—trying to challenge the idea that what they provide is just another product. Hence all the new playfulness and creativity.
The wacky package can be a powerful weapon in the battle for customers. It’s no coincidence that many of the packages mentioned in this article won’t be available by the time you read these words. The more often a package deal quietly expires, the more often a new one can be born to deafening fanfare. In a word, package deals are news: a new package deal costs a hotel essentially nothing—a few dozen copies of The Orchid Thief, say, or a gross of cryptic little boxes from a failing ceramicist—and yet justifies the dissemination of a press release. If the package is quirky enough, the press release punchy enough, this can really pay off. The "Britney Breakdown" package, for instance, became the subject of its very own item in USA Today, which is how I found out about it, and hey, now you’ve found out about it. All for the cost to Personality Hotels of a few lace thongs and some bottled water they probably had lying around anyway.
Which is not to suggest that package deals are scams. Far from it. Nobody signs up for the "Britney Breakdown" package because they're thirsty and they could use some new underwear. What’s for sale, instead, is an idea.
And I, for one, am grateful. I'm not saying "Kylie—The Exhibition" was entirely without merit; nothing’s entirely without merit. However, as I stood there at the museum, studying the clothing on a five-foot-tall mannequin, knowing that soon I would shuffle to one side and study the clothing on another mannequin, it was a source of some comfort to know the experience was part of a package of experiences. We gauge our vacations by the strength of the memories they leave us with. The Egerton was memorably comfortable; the exhibition of Kylie Minogue’s clothing was memorably dire; but on its own, neither experience would imprint on me anything near the vividness and longevity with which I would retain the memory of the package as a whole. How many people can say they spent a Kylie Minogue–themed weekend in London?Very, very few. How many can go further and say that as a result of that weekend, they have a small ceramic box that contains, in a transcendently subtle fashion, the very essence of Minogue?
None, as it turns out.
"Little box, sir?" repeated the concierge, when I called up later for some background information. "I'm afraid I'm not aware of any little box being part of the Kylie package, sir. Allow me to make some inquiries."
The line went dead for exactly a minute, and he returned to tell me that no one knew anything, and that in all likelihood the box had been placed on my pillow as a non-Kylie-themed memento of my stay at the Egerton. My Kylie-themed gift, he explained, was the glossy, bound guide to "Kylie—The Exhibition" that I had found on my dressing table.
I was inclined to protest. How could a guide to an exhibition of Minogue’s clothing, however sturdily bound, be considered Kylie-themed?Is the Bible a biblically themed book?Are the Olympics a sports-themed event?
But I held off, being suddenly more conscious than ever of how fragile the bonds are by which the disparate components of an offbeat package deal are held together. For while these strange packages may indeed be artifacts of the eternal price-wrangle between hotels and their temporary residents, they exist to benefit both parties and, like Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, depend for their very existence on a mutual act of faith by all concerned. And having spent an unrecapturable afternoon amid the tulle-wrapped, pixie-like mannequins of "Kylie—The Exhibition," I felt more able than ever before to join Wendy, the Lost Boys, and Peter himself in that life-giving declaration: "I believe in fairies."
Egerton House Hotel, Egerton Terrace, Knightsbridge; 44-20/7589-2412; www.egertonhousehotel.co.uk; doubles from $465; V&A Kylie two-night package $1,185, double, valid through June 10.
Bruno Maddox writes a column for Discover magazine.