Hotels are doing all they can to stop lone travellers feeling lonely, writes Jodie McLeod.
In the film Up in the Air, George Clooney's character, Ryan, says that last year he spent 322 days on the road for work, flying from one hotel to the next. "Which means that I had to spend 43 miserable days at home," he says. While Ryan pretends the isolation suits him, the reality is: he's lonely.
A study by Westin Hotels and Resorts finds that 34 per cent of frequent travellers feel lonely away from home. Night after night of solo restaurant dining, unaccompanied lobby bar cocktails and cuddling up to a king-sized void in bed can take its toll. Technology has helped bridge the gap between home and away, with wireless internet access widely available, but providing guests with company of the non-virtual kind is the new focus for hotels.
Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the parent company of Westin, took charge of the trend following Westin's survey findings. One of Starwood's luxury offspring, W Hotels, launched W Happenings: a calendar of exclusive evening experiences designed to draw guests down from their hotel rooms to mingle with fellow travellers. For guests and W invitees only, W Happenings range from art exhibitions to fashion shows and entertainment industry guest speakers. W Hong Kong regularly hosts Sip and Indulge nights for guests, bolstered by celebrity appearances (among them, tennis player Martina Navratilova and actor Jean Reno), and this year held a pre-Valentine's Day sWingles party, with blind chocolate tastings and intimate mini-massages.
Westin has introduced a global initiative, branded Unwind, with the aim of alleviating aloneness. The early evening ritual adds another dimension to the lobby bar experience, inviting guests to relax and chat over drinks, canapes and sudoku puzzles in a themed setting. Each hotel's Unwind ritual has a unique twist depending on the location, which acts as a point of conversation for guests.
At The Westin Sydney, housed within the GPO building at Martin Place, guests are greeted by a waiter wearing a post-master general's costume who guides them through a gallery of historic images. In Beijing, Westin's Unwind attendees can meet and greet over a traditional candle-lighting ceremony; in Venice they can learn to make the perfect Bellini.
The Regent hotel in Singapore (a Four Seasons hotel) recently launched an afternoon Italian cooking class, hosted by the restaurant Basilico's chefs, to help guests stretch their social wings. Pullman Hotels will soon roll out a series of designated chill-out lounge rooms, complete with coffee machines, wide-screen TVs, games consoles and intimate seating.
Fitness classes are also geared to meeting people. At the InterContinental Hong Kong, business travellers can bask in early-morning company with a tai-chi class beside the pool, free of charge; at the InterContinental Prague, a weekly crack-of-dawn run takes social joggers on a scenic route across the river to a nearby park.
At Aloft hotels, a new Starwood brand aimed at a younger clientele, there are "living room areas" instead of lobby bars and "back yards" instead of courtyards to encourage more communal conviviality. There are also signature nights during the week at each hotel's wxyz bar, where DJs and acoustic music sessions, EP launches and A-list events help lubricate social liaisons.
For those solo travellers who just want to fill the abyss across the dining table, Novotel by Accor has introduced a dining package in its Australian hotels, targeted at women, that includes a glass of wine, a magazine and a fast-tracked meal to minimise the awkwardness of dining alone.
And what to do with that big empty space in bed? British hotel chain Travelodge may have the solution. A survey of 2000 of its guests found that 57 per cent felt lonely sleeping without their partner when away from home, so Travelodge introduced the Cuddillow - a 75-centimetre-long cuddle pillow with arms - to help lone guests get a good night's sleep.
As Clooney's character concludes in Up in the Air: "I don't want to sound like a Hallmark card but ... Life? It's better with company."