The hotel bathroom is more than a place to freshen up. It's considered an indicator of how upscale, current and clean a hotel is -- an extension of its identity.
So how do travelers feel about them?
TrustYou -- a reputation-management company that parses hundreds of thousands of guest reviews from more than 250 websites such as TripAdvisor, Twitter and Yelp and shares that information with hotels and other hospitality companies -- says that "bathrooms are failing" even though a 2013 J.D. Power North America report shows that overall hotel guest satisfaction is at its highest level in seven years.
But what travelers don't often think about while tearing open the miniature soap is that everything in the bathroom -- be it the shower or its humble curtain -- is the result of a designer's careful choices in an effort to balance desires, space and money.
Most online comments about hotel bathrooms are about size or cleanliness, TrustYou said, with complaints about the latter up 5 percent from last year -- although germaphobes take heart; that doesn't necessarily mean bathrooms are grimier. It could simply mean that more people are complaining. Also, that figure doesn't account for the vast number of travelers who don't write online reviews.
Drew Shepard, senior director of consumer insights for Marriott Hotels, spends copious amounts of time listening to travelers: In 2010 and 2011 combined he interviewed more than 7,000 hotel guests in person or through surveys to inform the renovations now underway at Marriott.
"The bathroom is a really important signal for a bunch of things," he said. "You hope it's a little aspirational, a little better than what you have at home. A little fun."
And it's the little things, he said, that add up, which is why Marriott is not only renovating but also investing in things like thicker towels and a new amenity brand (from a Thai company called Thann). Marriott is also considering more powerful hair dryers. An internal study of more than 6,000 guests last year found that 7 in 10 women use a hair dryer when at a Marriott and, when asked, everybody requested higher wattage.
When it comes to bathroom light wattage, TrustYou said it's not something people usually mention in their reviews, but if they do, the biggest complaint is that it's too dark. I've encountered this but in a class of painfully hip boutique hotels.
Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration who specializes in design psychology, said that's not surprising given that a lot of boutique hotels are an adaptive reuse of other types of buildings.
Ideally, hotel rooms would have mirrors worthy of silver screen sirens.
"The best lighting is the Hollywood mirror," said George Scammell, vice president of global design for Wyndham Worldwide, which manages the Planet Hollywood hotels chain.
The company used a makeup consultant to help select the mirrors, great for makeup application because they provide a lot of light from many angles. You're unlikely to find a lot of those in your travels; however, lighting is improving as more hotels switch to LED lights from compact fluorescents.
"The light quality was not so great," Erin Hoover, vice president of design for the Westin and Sheraton brands, said of compact fluorescents.
Westin now uses LED lights, perceived as warmer and more flattering on more skin tones. There are dimmers, too, perfect for travelers with differing ideas about what lighting is best.
The tub might be on its last porcelain legs in hotel bathrooms.
"We've seen a movement away from tubs in the three-star-and-below category in the U.S.," Ms. Robson, of Cornell, said. Instead, many hotels are opting for showers. "It's cheaper, faster. It takes up less space," she said.
Wyndham is among the companies considering opting for lavish showers, instead of tubs in its more upscale properties (although the company would keep tubs in its connecting double rooms, generally booked by families). A new "shower column" has a rainfall head, body sprayers and, on the side, a hose with a hand-held showerhead. For curtains, the company has designed a recycled shower curtain with a "peek-a-boo" window, netted material across the curtain at eye level, which helps open up the room and prevents guests like me with lurid imaginations from picturing what Mr. Scammell jokingly referred to as a " 'Psycho' situation."
Shower benches appear to be in, according to Ms. Robson. "Older and larger customers appreciate that," she said.
Out of vogue: the swinging bathroom door. Brands like Westin and Marriott are opting for sliding doors, instead of swing doors.
"In urban markets where you have space constraints, we are moving toward what they call barn doors and adding some transparency to them," Mr. Shepard, of Marriott, said, explaining that, when you open the door "it doesn't impede your access to the room."
Yet even if a hotel brand wants to trick out its bathrooms, it's not always possible.
"It's the most expensive space you can touch in a renovation," Ms. Hoover said. "You're dealing with plumbing. You're dealing with tile."