Hang-Ups Over Phones

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

It doesn’t matter how much you travel. Chances are that you’ve been confronted with the assorted evils of hotel telephones. Almost without exception, whether you have a room at a Motel 6 or a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, the cord from the wall to the phone is invariably too short.

Then there’s the case of the almost non-functional phone. At almost every hotel I’ve visited there’s a phone on the room desk (usually a piece of furniture so narrow that it is barely ornamental), and the phone won’t reach the bed.

Or the phone is on the table next to the bed and it won’t reach the desk.

Some hotels still have phone systems bought when “Mayberry, RFD” went on the air.


I’m talking about the hotels that have stubbornly retained a plug-in switchboard, and their room phones don’t have dials. Traditionally, most hotels seem to want to spend more money and effort on more tangible amenities than they do on installing telephones that make sense to people who want to use them for anything other than wake-up calls.

Getting the Message

For true telephone addicts like me, another concern I have with most hotels is their message-taking systems. Many are antiquated.

I want to know exactly when a call has come in, and I resent hotels that slip pieces of paper under your door. It sounds very chic, but messages can get delayed.


Perhaps the biggest problem is with old telephone wiring, and, as a result, only one phone per room. I’ve lost important incoming calls because there was no way for the hotel operator to let me know that a call was waiting.

In some hotels, even if you only have one phone in your room, you can ask the hotel operators for “intercept” or “interrupt” service. Generally (assuming the operator you ask bothers to tell the other operators), the service works.

What it means is that if you’re on the phone and there is an incoming call the operator will beep you, alerting you to a waiting call or, in some cases, will break in on the line and let you know who’s calling.

But remember, the phone operators work in shifts. Don’t expect one shift to tell the other. You should call the operators and remind them every time you return to your room. This can be a real hassle.

It would be great if hotels offered rooms--especially on their newer concierge or executive floors--that feature phones with two lines instead of one.

Business Traveler

Two lines is a trend that is beginning slowly. At the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills every room has two phone lines, and an additional port for a personal computer. For anyone doing business on the road, the Four Seasons phone system is a dream come true.

In Lake Buena Vista, Fla., the Hilton hotel has installed something called a UTX Five Star telecommunications system in each of its 814 rooms.


Buttons on each room telephone turn on the heat/air conditioning and adjust the fan speed. Other buttons control the remote functions of the room’s TV set. The phone also serves a security function--it lights up if the room door is not locked and bolted.

Each phone unit offers two phone lines and a hold button, word and data-processing capabilities, as well as single-button access to such hotel services as the front desk and room service.

If you don’t want to be disturbed, there’s a button to block your line so your calls automatically go to the front desk. Later you can call in to pick up your messages.

As an additional security device the Five Star system works when the guest is not in the room. Maids must use the phone system to “key in” a code when they enter a room to clean it and another code when the cleaning is completed.

The system automatically keeps a record of how long the maid spends in each room and, as an energy conservation measure, the Five Star phone automatically adjusts the temperature when guests leave their rooms, and then readjusts it to “occupied” status when the guests re-enter.

Callers’ Heaven

Not every hotel has to feature a sophisticated phone system. In New York City the 640-room Drake spends $40,000 a month to maintain its phone system. The system features touch-tone phones on both the end tables and desks of guest rooms, and a wall touch-tone phone in each bathroom. Every suite features three phone lines, each with hold buttons.

In the Drake’s regular rooms each phone provides a call “beep” service to let you know that someone else is trying to reach you, perhaps the most thoughtful addition to a hotel room phone.


Elsewhere in New York City, at the 237-room Ritz Carlton hotel, an expensive Hitachi system is used to perform the same functions as the phones at the Drake. In each Ritz Carlton room are two lines and three phones: one on the desk, one by the bed and one in the bathroom. In suites there can be as many as seven lines.

A hold button, call waiting and message light are part of the system (messages are still slipped unobtrusively under the door) and, if given notice, the hotel can arrange for conference calls.

The Nova Park Elysees Hotel in Paris offers two separate lines on every room phone, a European first, as well as 24-hour beeper paging anywhere in the city.

Perhaps the highest-tech hotel phone systems are about to go into service at dozens of hotels throughout the United States: a private telephone network offering voice and data communication.

The equipment, by Rolm, will allow guests to dial local, long distance and international calls without operator assistance.

One feature of the system is something called PhoneMail. By dialing a special number, guests can either receive messages or record a new outgoing message.

Short Cord

In spite of all of the state-of-the-art telephone improvements, most hotels still haven’t dealt with some basics--the terribly short phone cords.

These hotels may have spent upward of $500,000 on a new phone system but the phones only have three-foot cords. Not only can wake-up calls be dangerous, but the phone may not reach the bed once you stumble around to find it.

And at some resorts the phones won’t reach the room balcony or patio. This is nothing short of annoying. It’s no fun to get phone calls when you’re trying to relax. It’s doubly insulting to have to run for them.