By ALAN FREEMAN
Globe and Mail Update
Friday, July 5, 2002
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - The brochure for the world's first McDonald's hotel was unabashed in its enthusiasm. Staying at the Golden Arch Hotel was "a pleasure as inviting as a big plate of French fries."
I immediately imagined a tacky hotel room impregnated with that unmistakable deep-fry odour. It wasn't my idea of a restful night away from home. Then again, I'm not a snob and decided to try it out.
After all, I stay in a lot of hotels. This couldn't be worse that the Hotel Tajikistan in downtown Dushanbe, where the water from the shower often emerged a reddish brown and every time I wanted to flush the toilet I had to fill the reservoir using the detachable showerhead.
Besides which, I've long been fascinated by the concept of brand extensions. I've always wondered why would someone want to wrap themselves in a towel signed by Ralph Lauren or drive around in an SUV supposedly designed by Eddie Bauer.
With President Bush declaring obesity the newest member of the axis of evil out to destroy America, McDonald's is clearly desperate to diversify.
You can buy salad and wraps at most of its outlets. McDonald's has bought into London-based Pret a Manger, an upscale chain whose sandwich offerings feature Thai chicken, crayfish, and houmous with red peppers.
So when the Swiss operator of the McDonald's franchise hotelier proposed opening a McDonald's hotel, the American chain decided to test market it.
The initial location is about as boring as you can get, along a stretch of urban sprawl a few kilometres away from Zurich airport, adjacent to, you guessed it, a McDonald's restaurant.
But my expectations of a night with Ronald McDonald were almost immediately proved wrong as soon as I walked into the sleek lobby. I realized that this hotel chain was more Swiss than it was McDonald's.
The young woman at the reception desk asked me whether I cared for a flute of sparkling wine or a glass of orange juice. Then came the next shock.
A single room for one night would set me (actually, The Globe and Mail) back 189 Swiss francs. Given that the franc is now worth a bit more than the loonie, that seemed pretty expensive to me. And even though we were in the suburbs, it would be an extra 15 francs to park my rental car overnight in the underground garage.
When I balked at paying to park my car at what seemed like a glorified motel, the clerk winked that if I left early the next morning perhaps I could leave the car in the restaurant parking lot, where parking was usually limited to one hour. Then she explained that the Golden Arch was a four-star hotel. I felt like adding that it was attached to a one-star restaurant but thought better of it.
I was given a plastic key card and was told that I would need it to take the elevator and could also use it to pay for a Big Mac next door or a meal in the hotel restaurant. That's right. The hotel had its own restaurant that wasn't a McDonald's, but its offerings were scarcely more appetizing. The dinner buffet consisted of overcooked chicken, beef and fish, all sitting in hot plates cafeteria-style at a single set price-29 francs for all you can eat. The breakfast buffet was 19 francs.
However, the room proved a modernistic delight, with halogen lighting, plenty of stainless steel, maple flooring, custom-designed minimalist furniture and no Gideon bible. It looked as if it belonged in a design magazine and in fact, the hotel's Web site boasts that it was designed using Feng-Shui. There was no bath, just a round, freestanding shower with semi-transparent walls in the corner of the room.
Also supplied was a hair dryer but no little containers of shampoo, conditioner and body lotion to stuff in your kit bag and take home. Instead, there was just a squeeze bottle of all-purpose hair and body wash.
A stand beside the desk housed the TV, a miniature safe for valuables and a wireless keyboard for instant internet connection. When I punched in an internet address, I was told it would cost me another 10 francs for an overnight connection. I decided to pass.
The only indication that the room had a link to McDonald's was the golden arches forming the headboard behind the $4,000 "sit n sleep" bed, which transforms into a couch with the help of four motors and a remote-control. Unfortunately, it didn't vibrate but unlike most other services, it was actually free.
The TV had 45 free stations and four pay TV channels. For 19 francs, you could watch Ocean's Eleven in English, Harry Potter in German or two porno films. There was no parental supervision required. It wasn't an idea that I figured would work in North America - getting back to your hotel room only to find your kids munching their Happy Meal while watching the soft-core option Tina-Young and Cheeky.
It was all very strange, a well-designed hotel combined with fast-food. Maybe that's why there are still only two Golden Arch Hotels-the other is in French-speaking Switzerland and there appear to be no immediate plans to roll out the concept internationally.
But what I did like about the place was the fact you could easily connect your computer to a modem located right where it should be-in the desk next to the phone. After crawling behind many beds and hotel dressers to try and plug in my computer, this was really civilized.
By the time I finished my work for the day, it was already late and I decided I'd really rather not have a Big Mac so I opted for a soft drink from the vending machine near the elevator, paid for with my room card.
I left early the next morning after talking my way out of the parking fee. I couldn't bear the idea of an Egg McMuffin for breakfast.