(THE WASHINGTON POST) On a sticky August morning in New Orleans, Cameron Quincy Todd walked into the Cornstalk Hotel, the 65th property she has visited in six months.
She didn’t look ragged after a long journey, and she wasn’t carrying any luggage. Instead, she looked refreshed and toted only a small pink satchel containing a notebook – two major clues to her true identity.
She approached the front desk and announced herself: The hotel reviewer with Fodor’s Travel had arrived. No need to be nervous.
“The tour is really to get a feel of the place and the vibe of the hotel,” said the New Orleans resident who grew up outside Chicago. “I am providing what the reader can’t find in an online search.”
Cameron is one of 25 local writers feeding the new online beast called Fodor’s Hotels, the publication’s reimagined reviews section. The 29-year-old is responsible for all of New Orleans, which means inspecting nearly 90 hotels, including many sleepovers only a few miles from her home.
“I was the kind of kid who wanted to live in a hotel,” she said. “I wanted to be Eloise.”
She started working with Fodor’s three years ago, focusing on nightlife – a natural fit for the bartender with the master’s degree in creative writing. When the 81-year-old travel guidebook company decided to plump up its hotel feature, Cameron expanded her coverage as well.
Now, in addition to cocktails, she must focus her lens on the wider, and sometimes wackier, landscape of lodging. She squeezes mattresses, peers into showers and, with a straight face, asks such questions as, “Do you have ghosts?”
“I have become more discerning, because I have seen so many hotels,” she said. “I want something to stand out.”
Before the revamp, Fodor’s reviews resembled CliffsNotes, with a brief introduction and a short list of bullet-pointed pros and cons. Last year, the publication decided to provide more images and meatier details about the properties.
It also introduced a search tool called experiences, the colourful umbrella for such niche categories as “9021-Oooh-La-La: The 8 Poshest Hotels in Beverly Hills,” "5 Old Montreal Hotels With So Much Charm, You’ll Swear You’re in Europe” and “10 New York Hotels That Are a Serious Bargain.”“User-generated sites have their benefits, but we want to cut through the noise and make (choosing a hotel) as easy as possible,” said Mr Jeremy Tarr, Fodor’s digital editorial director.
The redesign is a work-in-progress. In March, Fodor’s released its first quartet of cities and added four more over the summer, including New Orleans. By the end of next year, Mr Tarr expects to post reviews for 100 destinations, a mix of standards (London, Tokyo, Bangkok, etc.) and radar-blipping spots (Lima, Peru; Helsinki; Marfa, Texas). Each city will feature 40 to 180 hotels.
By late August, Cameron’s stack had dwindled to about four places, plus any shiny, new hotels that might suddenly catch her attention.
“I’ve seen some really good hotels,” she said. “They’re bringing it.”
Before stepping inside a hotel, Cameron first snoops around the property online. She will peruse its website to gather such background information as history, amenities and number of suites. She also skims recent reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor, noting issues raised by guests that she might address during the tour, such as parking options.
However, she often raises a sceptical eyebrow when reading the criticisms. For example, in response to a guest complaining about the dust in an air-conditioning unit, she asked incredulously, “Did they pull the grates off?” To the visitor disgusted by a stain on the mattress, Cameron wondered why the person yanked all the linen off the bed in the first place. Her puzzled expression read: “Who does that?”
In a July review of the Q & C HotelBar, a guest blamed the staff for having missed a 5pm wedding ceremony because her room wasn’t ready an hour earlier. “Why didn’t she leave her bags at the hotel and take a cab to the event?” she said in a more polite version of “D’uh.”
“I read the one- and two-star reviews,” she said, “but I don’t take them too seriously.” Cameron arranges tours for nearly every hotel and spends the night at about a third of the properties. (Fodor’s writers accept complimentary rooms and meals but don’t guarantee a published review). In a typical week, she might sleep at one to two hotels and drop into four or five places.
At the 14-room Cornstalk Hotel, a 200-year-old manor in the French Quarter, she had planned to meet the manager but discovered, while standing in the ornate hallway, that her contact was not there. Ms Mellene Dilbert, a housekeeper, hopped to attention and offered to show her around. Cameron, accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of small inns, accepted.
“There’s a certain amount of leniency required. Sometimes I have to wait or the person doesn’t show up,” said the pink-haired reviewer, who was dressed in head-to-toe black. “But I think that says something about a housekeeper who is that enthusiastic.”
Ms Dilbert started with some celebrity guest-dropping: Elvis stayed in Room 101, then-President Bill Clinton slept in Room 102. Afterward, she cracked open the door to Room 105, a jewel-toned space as beguiling as a Faberge egg.“Look at the gold ceiling!” Cameron exclaimed. She ran a hand over the textured burgundy wallpaper that evoked a quilted duvet. “Doesn’t it look cushiony?” Cameron peppered Ms Dilbert with questions: Do the rooms have a shower/bath combo? (No.) Does the hotel serve breakfast? (No, but there is a coffee station.) Do all of the rooms have chandeliers? (Yes, and princess phones.) Is there an elevator? (“I wish.”)
She led Cameron upstairs to a balcony overlooking Royal Street. Below, tourists snapped photos by a wrought-iron gate decorated with cornstalks, a gift from the original owner to his wife, who missed her home state of Iowa.“Do people come out here for cocktails?” she asked.
They do, answered Ms Dilbert, adding that the staff will bring guests ice and wine glasses for their drinks. Cameron jotted the details in her notebook and then launched into the supernatural.“Do you have guests asking about ghosts?” she asked.“There was a guest in Room 214 who was scared,” Ms Dilbert said. “But no one ever died here.”
Back downstairs, the tour veered a bit off-course when Ms Dilbert shared a personal anecdote involving a missing tooth, a kidnapped child and an arrest. Cameron regained control by inquiring about the common spaces, the typical age of the guests and the frequency of special events, such as wedding parties and anniversaries. She again remarked on the wallpaper, which in Room 102 was a vivid shade of turquoise.“It’s cosy and homey,” said Ms Dilbert, scripting her own review of the Cornstalk. “I feel like I am going to my Auntie’s.”
After about an hour, Cameron inched toward the front door. She thanked Ms Dilbert and departed from the cool interior for the dewy humidity of Louisiana.
In the courtyard, she reflected on the visit, quirks and all.“That’s normal at small hotels,” she said. “They’re casual, and this is New Orleans.”
On the short walk to the next hotel, the Q & C HotelBar in the Central Business District, Cameron discussed some of the properties that have surprised and delighted her. She noted that many of her favorites are located in less-touristed or emerging neighborhoods, such as the Lower Garden District and Mid-City.
“I had 15 new hotels and I reviewed them first,” she said, “because I was excited about those.” Among her valentines: the Pontchartrain Hotel, which has a rooftop bar with views of the Mississippi River; the Quisby, a hostel set in a former boardinghouse of notoriety; the Drifter, a revived motel with a Miami vibe circa Don Johnson; and the Henry Howard Hotel, a 19th-century Greek Revival mansion surrounded by live oaks.
When surveying a hotel, Cameron pays close attention to the holy trinity: cleanliness, spaciousness of rooms and value. But she also seeks out captivating lobbies, guest-only public spaces, swimming pools and large windows with streaming natural light. On the flip side, she has little tolerance for middling hotel restaurants.
“I don’t want to put in any mediocre restaurants,” she said. “Some people come here just to eat, so the hotels really have to bring it.” At the Q & C HotelBar, she was immediately impressed by the happy hour menu. In her notebook, she scribbled a note about the fries and French 75, a classic NOLA cocktail.
“They have New Orleans-style bar food but they aren’t competing with 200-year-old restaurants,” she said of the lobby-level restaurant at the 196-room Autograph Collection by Marriott property.
After the inspection, which covered two buildings, a library and fitness centre, she settled into a plaid couch with throw pillows. She looked like a guest resting between excursions. But any eavesdropper would know the truth.
“The rooms have a clean and new feeling, because the hotel was recently renovated” for US$14 million (S$19 million), she said in a preview of her review.
“I like the old floors and lighting. The hallways are stark and dark, but I am not sure that would make it into the text. The lobby that is only for guests – that will definitely make it into the review. If it poured all weekend, you would have a place to hang out. I liked the open kitchen with the affordable small plates. Hotel bars can be so expensive. I would rate the lobby high.”
Any downsides? “Portraits of jazz musicians (in rooms) is done a lot,” she said, “but I only know that because I have seen a million hotels.” Under which experiences will she likely file the Q & C?“ ‘Best Lobbies’ and ‘Chains That are Really Great Stays,’ ” she responded.
A little more than 24 hours later, Cameron checked into the NOPSI Hotel, which opened in July in the old headquarters of the city’s power and transportation company. (The name stands for New Orleans Public Service Inc). I was staying a few blocks away, at another Cameron-reviewed hotel, the Troubadour, and strolled over the following morning.
In the elegant lobby with vaulted ceilings and marble floors, she recounted facts from her tour. While she showed me around, a staff member approached and told us how the building had sat empty for 30 years. During renovations of the Salamander Hotels and Resorts-managed property, he said they discovered water from Hurricane Katrina in the basement.
I asked Cameron for a play-by-play of her evening. After the concierge-led walkabout, she grabbed a drink at the lobby bar before venturing up to the ninth-floor Above the Grid pool bar, where she and two friends sipped tropical cocktails. (Thankfully, they didn’t violate the dress code by wearing cut-off shorts).
At 7.30pm, her husband joined her at Public Service, the on-site restaurant specialising in Gulf Coast cuisine. They ordered hush puppies, vegetarian pasta, a whole roasted fish and a bottle of wine. After dinner, Cameron moved onto the location section of her review, which includes recommendations for nearby eateries and bars.
The couple swung by the Pisco Bar at the Catahoula Hotel, a boutique hotel open since April, and the Cellar Door, a former brothel with a cocktail menu that spans 400 centuries. Back at NOPSI, she tested out the toiletries, bathrobe and king-size bed.
In the morning, Cameron rose early. She didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in and ordering room service. Unlike the typical guest, she had to rush home to let the dog out.
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