Friday, August 02, 2002

No Media Res(t) for the Weary Traveler
Talk about culture shock! From Oakwood Lodge, a B&B that was originally built in 1867 as a guest house for a resort in Green Lake, Wisconsin, to the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, one of the city's largest conference hotels. The Sheraton has more than 1,200 rooms, and with a steak club, two cafes, and two bars, as well as a health club and swimming pool, you almost don't need to leave to live.

Yet the in-room literature is all about pointing you outside the hotel and into the city. Whether it's the Directory of Guest Services pointing you to barber shops, florists, and restaurants outside the hotel -- in addition to area shopping centers -- or the three in-room visitors guides, the Sheraton doesn't want you to stay inside if you don't want to.

Resting gently by the phone is the trade paperback-sized Front Desk Chicago, a 116-page shopping, dining, and culture quarterly published by Chicago-based Modern Luxury Inc. With an editorial staff dwarfed by its advertising and production teams -- and what must be a cadre of freelance contributors -- Front Desk caters to the Paul Stuart and Kate Spade set. The July 15 edition gives lip service to the Chicago Outdoor Film Festival and Andreas Gursky's MOCA exhibit in between pages devoted to details of the city's best cocktail bars, carry-ons and totes for summer, and a 40-page shopping, gallery, nightlife, and dining guide. Most of the goods and venues featured in Front Desk are way outside of my price range, and the guide's map of Michigan Avenue's Miracle Mile indicates the neighborhood its target demographic is encouraged to stick to.

So I turn to the Chicago Guest Informant -- placed prominently on the glass coffee table in front of the couch -- a European genre comics-formatted (think Tin Tin and Asterix) hardcover. Opening with a custom-published welcome letter from the hotel's VP and managing director (how friendly!), this 168-page annual published by a Woodland Hills, California-based company is slightly less duplicitious in its commercial intent in terms of pastiche listings disguised as articles, and when it comes down to it, is eminently more useful.

On p. 16, we are offered a relatively detailed map of the Loop, stretching north to Old Town and south to Soldier Field -- and including elevated and subway train lines (perhaps for the more adventurous hotel guests). There's a telephone directory of local financial, travel, and other services in the area. And while the content -- features on Chicago's culture, skyline, and seasonal events -- isn't as timely as Front Desk's, it's certainly more contextual.

That said, while Front Desk is quite adept at energizing and mobilizing hotel guests, Guest Informant seems more geared to the bored society matron. Why explain how to buy a diamond? The history and role of the concierge? Customer service quirks in Philadelphia? Nuances of champagne? Despite Guest Informant's focus on regional context, the annual is heavily dominated by dining and retail directories -- skimping on the events and gallery listings given its yearly publication -- and shameless about paid advertorial. A photography how to ran on a page with an ad for Gregory Gaymont Photography. The diamond selection primer ran opposite a full-page ad for Sidney Garber, a local jeweler. And the restaurant guide features 13 paid review/ads ranging from a third page to a full page.

Lastly, the July edition of Where Chicago, which I almost didn't find hidden on a shelf by the television and mini bar. Laudably staffing a Chicago office, Where is a regional visitors guide published by LA-based Miller Publishing Group. The "Where Network" covers more than 40 urban areas in the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia, including some real ringers: the Yukon, St. Louis, and Winnipeg. In this month's 112-page magazine-format edition, readers are offered ads to Marshall Field's, Bloomingdale's, and Carson Pirie Scott, as well as some light editorial preceding the entertainment, shopping, and dining guides, which take up about two thirds of the glossy.

Articles address organic produce and cuisine, and the "most luxurious clubs Chicago has to offer," as well as pastiche aggregations of the listings in the entertainment, shopping, and dining guides. The corporate-sponsored Absolut Vision summer gallery series gets heavy play in this -- as it does in Front Desk. But for the most part, Where is all about the ads and listings, despite the detail of its local and regional maps, which are the best of the bunch as well worth tearing out if you don't want to spring for the laminated accordion Streetwise Chicago before you hit the streets.

Perhaps Sheraton's stocking of these three is strategic. Guest Informant goes straight for the blue hairs. Front Desk aims more for the monied near-hipster. And Where caters to the generally white-bread family. The location and placement is sure strategic. Front Desk, the edgy newcomer, rates prominent placement next to the phone. Guest Informant acquires the austere honor of residing on the coffee table. And Where nets the ghetto -- the shadowy shelves of the entertainment center.

But there has to be a better approach. Kudos to Front Desk and Where for publishing locally -- and for being more timely. Kudos to Where and Guest Informant for the depth of their local and regional resources and maps. And kudos to Front Desk for its hipster veneer and relative edginess when compared to the other two. When it comes down to brass tacks, however, you're better off ripping out Where's street map and pounding the pavement to find a copy of Newcity or the Chicago Reader if you really want to know where to go or what to do. Because the people in Guest Informant's California sales office? They have no idea.

Oh. There's one more hotel room media accoutrement you can turn to. Tucked snugly in the drawer on the nightstand on the far side of the bed is a Holy Bible "placed by the Gideons," an organization of Christian business travelers formed in 1898. I refer you to 1 John 2:15, 17 -- "Do not love the world or the things in the world. The world is passing away." As are all of the shops, galleries, and restaurants reviewed and advertised in the above visitors guides. But that's another story.

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