For the first decade and a half of my professional life, staying in an Embassy Suites meant nothing more than dreary travel for work: bland hotels scattered across cities that began to blend together, every cookie-cutter suite identical to the last, all racking up hotel points I hoped never to redeem.
Then I had a baby.
Suddenly, all my previous notions about staying in a hotel were upended. Gone was my passion for a plush Four Seasons room, no matter how small -- as long as it had a deep tub and that decadent perfumed smell. Now I cared not about the ambience in the lobby bar. Nor the Yelp ratings of the spa. Nor the thread count of the sheets.
I sought just one thing: a suite. A real one. With a door that shut.
It was a little-known fact about parenthood, to me anyway, that after just a few months, the key to happiness would be the ability to close my sleeping infant off in a dark, safe place and sit within earshot watching television or drinking a glass of wine. I'd never thought much about the logistics of traveling with children, blithely assuming, I suppose, that everyone shared a room or babysitters somehow always stepped in to provide parents with the nighttime liberty they'd enjoyed pre-birth.
Three months after my son was born, we spent a night in a one-room cabin on the Eastern Shore of Maryland as an attempt at an easy getaway. After the baby fell asleep in the Pack 'n Play next to our bed, my husband and I sat there in the dark -- with nowhere to go, no ability to even talk to each other without waking him up. It was 8 p.m. When the baby woke up to eat in the middle of the night, he roused both of us, something we avoided at home by putting him in his own room. The next morning, we swore that we'd never go away again.
"Oh no," my friend Dafna, herself the mother of a young boy, said in horror when I told her about the trip. "Didn't anyone tell you? You have to get a suite. Always."
And beware, she said, the L-shaped room masquerading as a suite -- or other single rooms with only minor tweaks that hotels hope to pass off as something more.
Of course, cost was our top concern, especially as we tried to book the kinds of hotels we would have stayed in when it was just us. Upscale hotels with single rooms that run in the $200 and $300 range rarely offer suites for anything less than $600 a night, sometimes running as high as $1,000, well beyond our budget for traveling with a toddler.
So for a time we limited our trips to friends' and parents' houses. And then, thanks to the derecho storm in the summer of 2012, we rediscovered Embassy Suites.
Best vacation ever
I was pregnant again when the storm, with high, gusting winds, knocked out our power during a heat wave. Never one drawn to hardship, I waited 10 minutes for the lights and air conditioning to come back on before calling around and landing us a reservation at the Embassy Suites in downtown Washington.
We showed up at 8 a.m., at the height of the breakfast buffet rush. Our 1-year-old was instantly enthralled by everything that had annoyed me as a single traveler: the echoing interior atrium, the too-cute-by-half fish pond in the lobby, the piles of waffles and limitless packets of peanut butter.
The next three nights turned into the best vacation we'd had as a family of three. The indoor swimming pool was nothing special, but it was fun enough for a toddler and his pregnant mother, open long hours with plentiful towels -- and air-conditioning. The free breakfast accommodated our child's ever-fluctuating tastes. Best of all, each night we put him to bed and sat in the next room, eating takeout and talking like civilized adults.
The predictability of the Embassy Suites chain that had previously bored me suddenly became its great charm. I downloaded the hotel chain's app. We began eagerly booking our travel around Embassy Suites locations, even staying in suburban Baltimore rather than at a more upscale hotel downtown, knowing that we'd get the one thing we sought. We were devastated when we learned that the former Embassy Suites in lower Manhattan had been bought and turned into the Conrad Hotel, though we were assured that the suites component had stayed the same.
According to John Rogers, the global head of Embassy Suites, the company is interested in re-establishing a foothold in Manhattan.
Currently there are 211 Embassy Suites hotels worldwide, most of them in the United States -- and nine of those in the Washington metro area, according to a company spokeswoman -- with 35 more in the pipeline across the country.
And much of what's driving the expansion is the demand from families, Rogers said. Although Embassy Suites was founded in 1984 to target primarily business travelers who didn't want to sleep and work in the same room, it evolved a few years later into a brand marketed toward families, he said. "What we find is that people with children, particularly younger children, absolutely love the fact that they can put the children in one room, adults in the other, and shut the door." To that end, every Embassy Suites hotel has pullout sofa beds in the living rooms, he said.
The invention of an all-suites hotel is widely attributed to Jack DeBoer, a real estate developer from Kalamazoo, Mich., who built the first Residence Inn in 1975, then expanded it into a nearly 100-hotel chain and sold the brand to Marriott in 1987. "He had some extra apartments he couldn't rent," said Joe McInerney, the president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
McInerney -- who was himself the head of the Hawthorn Suites hotel chain at its inception in the 1980s -- said that the concept has always held different appeal for different subgroups. Auditors spending extended periods of time working at a suburban business might want to stay in an all-suites hotel for the comforts of home. Families moving into a new community might want to live in a suite until their homes are ready. "You get more bang for your buck," McInerney said.
Marriott is the other global leader in suite hotels, with Residence Inn, TownePlace Suites and SpringHill Suites properties. Residence Inn in particular does something special, offering two-bedroom suites, so that families with multiple children of different ages can stay together, and the parents don't have to go on a hunt for adjoining hotel rooms. (Residence Inn offers suites in multiple formats, including studio suites, which have more space but are still a single room, so it's essential to make sure which kind of room you're getting).
The suite life
As newcomers to family travel, we've tried branching out to different kinds of hotels, some with fewer suite options. We stayed at the LaPlaya Beach Resort in Naples, Fla., booking a suite on an upper level -- only to discover upon arrival that the room, while gigantic and gorgeous, had glass doors separating the bedroom from the living room, thus making it difficult for a toddler to sleep with activity on the other side.
Just a few weeks ago, we stayed at the Club Quarters in downtown San Francisco, near the Ferry Building. The hotel was perfect in many respects: affordable, clean, in an excellent location. But what had been billed as a suite, both online and in phone conversations, turned out to be a single room with just a partial wall separating the sleeping area from the living area.
As we made other travel plans, we discovered repeatedly that many hotels have this same warped notion of a "suite," clearly designated so by people who have never traveled with children. A "separate living area" with a couch does not a suite make.
A major void in the travel industry marketplace is that there's no single website or mobile app that classifies or grades suites and allows families to book travel accordingly. Hopefully, by the time our babies are out of their cribs, there will be.
In the meantime, we'll keep compiling our list of true suites -- and appreciating doors that close.