Hotels are taking guests’ insomnia seriously

Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

COILED viper-like within the word “insomnia” is the terrifying “omnia.” Why does sleeplessness seem all-powerful? Because some nights I can’t get down into the Valley regardless of how many Dolls I lash to my burro.

I’m not alone. It’s difficult to go to a Manhattan cocktail party these days and not get roped into a discussion of someone’s insomnia or the relative merits of melatonin and “snore absorption rooms.” If you find yourself buttonholed by a well-heeled but heavy-lidded person, malady prepare for a slightly defensive diatribe called “Why I Have Recently Purchased a $60, ailment 000 Mattress.”

Glamorous (and sometimes dubious-sounding) treatments continue to pop up, a fact underlined by last week’s designation by the National Sleep Foundation as sleep awareness week.

Europe’s first “nap bar” recently opened in Paris, giving the weary a place to rest on a massage chair or zero-gravity chair. The Grand Resort Bad Ragaz in Switzerland will film your sleeping patterns during the night and then analyze them and suggest cures. At La Mansión del Rio in San Antonio, you’re encouraged to put some of the resort’s “worry dolls” (one doll for each of your worries) under your pillow so that, through Indian magicking, you’ll awake liberated, fresh, burden-free — a person who can crush a plaything solely with the force of his head.

In Midtown Manhattan, the Benjamin Hotel employs a sleep concierge, on call to help guests choose from 12 free sleep-friendly pillows, as well as field requests for sleep aids like massages and midnight snacks (e.g., hot chocolate or milk and cookies).

So recently, during a weeklong period of nightly unrest, I made a reservation at the Benjamin to see if I could break my pattern.

Upon calling the hotel and booking a room ($269 on a weeknight), I was transferred to a friendly concierge. This employee told me that, though she was not the sleep concierge, she could help with pillow selection.

Having already pulled up the Pillow Menu on the Benjamin’s Web site, I stared at the photos of pillows subtitled with names like Buckwheat, Maternity, Lullaby, Swedish Memory and Satin Beauty. The concierge told me that the pillows were geared toward “specific sleeping styles—like, whether you sleep on your back or side,” so I explained that I sleep on my right side.

She responded, “A lot of people like you enjoy Swedish Memory.”

I said, “The only thing is, I’ve never been to Sweden.”

“Oh, it has nothing to do with that! It’s a kind of foam that remembers your movement. You can stay put without fluffing your pillow. It was designed by NASA. I’ve never been to Sweden, either, so don’t worry about that.”

I said yes to Swedish Memory. We then spoke about additional pillows, deciding I might also like a Five-Foot Body Cushion.

On a Thursday afternoon, I checked into the midscale, 209-room boutique Benjamin, on the corner of 50th Street and Lexington Avenue. On seeing that there were six pillows on my bed, I squeezed all six in hopes of encountering Swedish-themed reverie.

I found none, so I called downstairs. Twelve minutes later, a bald muscular man named Manny, dressed in navy blue workmen’s clothes, arrived bearing my two specialty pillows. Pointing at the six existing pillows, I said, “I wasn’t sure if these were the ones I’d ordered.” Manny shook his head. “No,” he said gravely. “Those are decorative pillows.”

I thanked him. I confessed, “Ideally, someone would just come into the room around 11 tonight and hit me over the head with a polo mallet.”

“I hope they don’t because that would give you a concussion,” he said.

Later that evening, anxious that pillows alone wouldn’t do the trick, I called downstairs again and asked for three things I’d seen on the bedside Sleep Menu: a white-noise machine, a sleep mask and a dictionary of sleep symbolism. I was told that all the hotel’s white-noise machines had already been doled out. I also asked for a water-filled pillow.

Twenty minutes later, a second gentleman in all-navy workmen’s clothes arrived with my mask, dictionary and water pillow.

I got into bed around 10. I loved the Swedish Memory pillow at first: it was like a bag of sand, or a huge softened Tootsie Roll. But gradually I could tell it would be too unyielding for my nightly thrashings, so I replaced it with the more pliant water-filled. There. Yes. Nice. I picked up both the sleep mask and the dictionary, but neither held my interest. I knew that neither a massage nor a midnight snack would help my cause.

At 10:21, I tried calling the sleep concierge but kept getting a message, so I dialed the front desk. “Guest services, this is Steve,” I heard. I asked, “Steve, is there a pharmaceutical aspect to the sleep concierge’s offerings?”

“No, I’m sorry, but there’s a 24-hour Duane Reade just a block away.”

“I was thinking a couple of vials of Ambien would cut down on your pillow storage needs significantly,” I said.

“A great suggestion!”

“And I’m also wondering if there might be someone to play cards with me in the lobby at 4 a.m. if the sleep doesn’t kick in?”

“I work overnight sometimes and I would be delighted,” Steve said.

I dropped off into a blissful, almost instantaneous sleep: all was right with the world. But I awoke around 3:30, as I often do. I looked at the nine pillows on my bed and thought, “I could open a Bed Bath & Beyond.”

At 3:48 a.m. I found myself at the front desk in my slippers and pajamas, playing cards in hand, asking for Steve. The calm, teddy-bear-like 20-something night clerk told me, “He’ll be here tomorrow night.” I explained, “He said he’d play cards with me if I couldn’t sleep.”

“Oh, I see. Is there something I could help you with?”

“Um, is there anyone who could play cards with me?”

“I’m sorry. I’m afraid not.”

“And the sleep concierge is gone?”

“Yes, unfortunately.”

“I see. And Steve’s not here.”

“No. If you come back tomorrow night he’ll be here from 11 p.m. to 7.”

I sat in the lobby, Steve-less. I played solitaire for 20 minutes. I stared into the mid-distance. I watched a man vacuum the lobby. I wandered up to the conference rooms on the second floor and gave an undue amount of attention to a recent conference on “precision dermatology.”

Back in my room, I fell asleep at 4:15 for another wonderful three hours. When I awoke, I felt pretty good: at 82 percent performance level. The Benjamin guarantees that you’ll sleep “just as well as” you do at home or they’ll give you a free night’s stay. I pondered this, ultimately determining that, indeed, I had sleep exactly as well as I do at home — which is to say, not very.

At 10:18 a.m., I called the sleep concierge to ask if they wanted me to return the pillows to the front desk; a bubbly Eastern European woman named Anya said no.

We fell into conversation about my night and I told her: “That water pillow is a delight. It’s like a large, irregularly-shaped breast.” Anya whooped with nervous laughter and gushed, “I did not hear that!”

I continued, “It scared me at first, but then it was my friend.” Anya said that the pillow was a popular choice.

“Swedish Memory was a little heavy for me, though,” I said, “I felt like I was trapped in Stockholm.” Anya mused that that pillow could be used for self-defense (“It can be very useful to have a heavy object in bed”), but I countered that it was not my proverbial thing: “It was Ingmar Bergman when really I’m looking for Blake Edwards.”

My overall impression of the Benjamin’s sleep program? I feel about it the same way I feel about Band-Aids emblazoned with Hello Kitty: while a decorative Band-Aid is no more or less effective at stanching blood flow than a non-decorative one, at least it provides a kind of diversion from the tedium.

Moreover, even in the worst circumstances, there’s a kind of solace to be found in the parallelism that, while Hello Kitty has no mouth, Benjamin guests have acres of pillows at their disposal: both parties’ screams will be heavily muffled.


Written for the NY Times by Henry Alford

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