Is your hotel room smarter than you? Mine often is.
"It looks like a spaceship," said Leslee, my 9-year-old cousin, as she pointed to the coffeemaker in our Colorado cabin.
Apparently we're no rocket scientists. It took three adults and one child a half-hour to decipher the alien apparatus, which seemed to us to possess more parts than a Chinese puzzle and more gauges than a jet cockpit. I later learned it came with a 44-page manual.
Alarm clocks at some hotels are nearly as baffling. Not wishing to lose sleep over waking up, I pack my own, as do many others.
In a survey in March of 1,000 Americans, commissioned by Hilton Hotels Corp., fewer than 1 in 5 said they relied on a hotel's alarm clock when traveling. Most brought their own or ordered a wake-up call.
When it comes to user-friendly technology, there is room for improvement in the lodging industry, said Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and a frequent traveler.
"I recently stayed in a room where the bathtub had a laminated card that told you how to turn the shower on," he said. "The control was actually under the water faucet for the bathtub."
Ease of use is gaining urgency as hotels install a raft of room-control consoles, DVD players, Internet-capable TVs, iPod docking stations and other gizmos while struggling to reduce the learning curve for guests.
Industry leaders say they're trying to give customers what they want -- the same high-tech toys they have at home -- and, ultimately, punch up profits.
"We want to provide a 'wow' guest experience," said Randy Moore, product manager of the commercial electronics division of LG Electronics, a company based in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., that has worked with Four Seasons, Marriott, Starwood and other hotel groups.
"When guests see a 42-inch plasma screen, they're all over it," he said. "They say, 'I see why I'm paying $259 or $499 per night.' "
But it's not a fun toy if you can't figure it out.
"At home, you wind up with 10 remotes on the table," Moore said. "Or you buy a very expensive single-control device, and you have to hire someone to program it."
Hardly practical options for a hotel stay. You'd better be able to work the entertainment and other systems in two or three button pushes, Moore said.
To that end, Hilton, working with a licensee of Timex, has invented what might be dubbed an alarm clock for dummies.
Instructions are printed right on the unit: three steps each to set the buzzer or radio alarm. Four buttons on top are pre-set to soft rock, jazz or other stations. There's even a jack for playing your iPod or other MP3 player.
Hilton first installed the easy-to-use clock radio last year in its two Hampton brands. The company's other chains, including Hiltons and Embassy Suites, will get an updated version in the next few months. This will put an end to each hotel's choosing its own model, a common -- and confusing -- industry practice.
"Customers kept saying to us, 'Give us an alarm clock that we can actually set and see where the radio stations are,' " said Tom Keltner, president of Hilton's brand performance and development group.
Hilton's new clock mostly fulfills those aims, I discovered on a trial run with clocks the company let me borrow. Within seven minutes, I managed to set and test the buzzer and radio alarms. My tech-savvy partner did it twice as fast. Two glitches: I didn't realize you could hold down the button to make the alarm set faster, and she forgot to press "enter."
By contrast, it took me 14 minutes to set and test the radio alarm on one of the older clock-radios used in Hilton hotels. I couldn't even figure out how to set the buzzer. My partner set both within five minutes after divining that a setting on the volume control, marked "off-buzz," activated the alarm. (Lucky break, I say.)
Last month I toured a room at the Hilton Garden Inn LAX/El Segundo where Hilton tries new technology on overnight guests.
A key feature of the room's just-completed redesign was a small, detachable touch screen, docked on the nightstand, that lets you set the temperature, turn on lights, open and close drapes, light up a "do not disturb" sign outside, survey the hallway with a video camera, and order TV and music programs. The touch screen made sense and was a cinch to work, once I found it and learned what it was.
"The idea was to be as easy as we can, with one common interface," said Jami Messinger, manager of hotel operations technology.
The clock-radio, however, was a different story. A Bose model that was naked of controls, it was run by a small remote unit. I fumbled a bit, then finally set the radio alarm. But neither Messinger nor I could figure out whether it had a buzzer alarm.