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CHRISTOPHER MUTHER

Elegant or ‘Animal House’? What it’s like staying in Boston’s new breed of hotel dorms

Are students the carefree coronavirus spreaders they’ve been portrayed to be, or are they getting a bum rap? I wanted to know.

Westin Copley Place is housing hundreds of students from Northeastern University.
Westin Copley Place is housing hundreds of students from Northeastern University.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

The line for the elevator at the Westin Copley Place was the length of a small parade. Although at this parade, smiles were replaced by masks and slightly irritated expressions. The elevator arrived every few minutes with a pleasant chime, four students would step in, the line would inch forward. On and on it went.

In 20 years, “I waited in line for 30 minutes for an elevator to take me to my room at a luxury hotel” will be the new “I walked 10 miles through the snow to get to school.” The night I stayed at the Westin Copley Place, I could see the frustration on the faces of some of the 800-plus Northeastern University students who are staying there this semester. One student complained she once waited 45 minutes for an elevator.

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Also, yes, you read that correctly. I entered the belly of the beast and booked a room at the Westin Copley. That Westin. The Westin where 11 Northeastern students were ejected for violating school policy and gathering in a single room. The school has clamped down on student gatherings to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

About a half-dozen Boston colleges have booked blocks of hotel rooms this fall to allow more room for social distancing in the dorms.

The Westin is not only a Northeastern dorm, but you can also still stay there as a guest, at rock bottom prices. A quick run of the math: The Westin Copley has 803 rooms. Students are sleeping two to a room and there are 818 students. According to my calculations, that means there are still plenty of rooms for the Westin Copley Place to fill each night.

I had no idea what to expect staying in a dormtel. (Yes, I just made up a word, and it stays.) From what I had read and heard about how the virus is spiking at colleges around the country, I was half-expecting unmasked beer funneling in the halls and “WAP” blasting around every turn. I’m happy to report that I didn’t see or hear those things.

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A former cafe at the Revolution Hotel now feels more like a quiet study hall for students.
A former cafe at the Revolution Hotel now feels more like a quiet study hall for students.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

I decided to try out three dormtels — the Westin, the W, and the Revolution — to see if students were the carefree coronavirus spreaders they’ve been portrayed to be, or if they’re getting a bum rap. In addition to the 800 students at the Westin, more than 200 Emerson students are at the W, and a few dozen students from the New England Conservatory of Music and Bay State College are staying at the Revolution Hotel in the South End. I packed my newly created hotel sanitation kit (Lysol spray, Clorox wipes, plus enough hand sanitizer to bathe an Australian rugby team) and headed out on my adventure. I felt like a latter-day Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School.”

It made sense to start at Northeastern since the school has been in the headlines and it’s also the largest dorm-hotel hybrid in the city. During a normal fall, this hotel would cost $300 or more a night. Currently, it can be had for about $150 a night.

Back at the street-level bank of elevators at the Westin, I was waiting, along with the students, to get to my hotel room. I thought I could be clever and catch the elevator before it hit the ground floor — and that line of students — by going up one flight to the lobby level and getting on before others had a chance. I wasn’t so clever. Many others had the same idea. One of the reasons for these lines is limited elevator capacity. Only four passengers are allowed at a time.

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Before you start giving me, or the students, a hard time for not taking the stairs, let me point out that the hotel is a high-rise. I was not about to walk up 34 flights to my room. These kids are young, but I wouldn’t expect them to sprint up 10, 20, or 30 flights several times a day simply to get to their rooms.

Despite the logjam, I was impressed that everyone was wearing a mask. Most were patient, but a few times I saw eight students get into an elevator. It was stupid college behavior, and thankfully COVID-19 elevator spread is rare, but the bottom line is that it’s stupid.

I can’t only blame students for this. After about 20 minutes I finally managed to get an elevator to my room with three students. As the doors were closing a hotel guest jumped in, ignoring the four-person rule. I looked at the students, they looked at me, and I held my breath. There wasn’t a long line for the elevators at all times, but it was frequent enough to be a nuisance.

Mark Emmons's dorm room at the W hotel in downtown Boston.
Mark Emmons's dorm room at the W hotel in downtown Boston. Mark Emmons

Like all hotels, the Westin has initiated strict cleaning protocols, but I have a set of my own. When I get to a room, I immediately wash my hands, rub them down with hand sanitizer, and then begin the process of spraying and wiping down most everything in the room. I also open any windows.

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If you’re staying as a guest at any of the hotels housing students, there’s a very good chance your interactions with them will be limited. Guests are being placed on different floors from students. However that didn’t stop me from doing a little investigative work. I jumped off on a student floor to get a sense of what was happening.

Things seemed to be relatively calm. There was perhaps a tad more student movement between rooms and floors than there should be, but this was the exception, not the rule. Also I’m not a narc. OK, I’ll be a narc about one thing: It’s very easy for anyone to come in and out of the hotel. Meaning students from other colleges could come up and visit without a problem. I was only stopped one time. When I said I was a guest of the hotel I was waved through without an ID check.

That was the Westin. Over at the W, it was a much calmer scene. One elevator was designated for guests, the other for students, and everybody seemed to be playing by the rules. Lines formed, but seemed to move swiftly. Much like at the Westin, I didn’t see any outrageous parties happening at the W, and everyone was adhering to mask rules. Because I was on a floor reserved for guests at both hotels I never heard the rowdy voices I was expecting. Perhaps the dismissal of the 11 Northeastern students has sent a collective shiver down the spines of party people. Or maybe I just fell asleep because hotel beds are far more comfortable than my own.

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The last stop on the dormtel tour was the Revolution. You may recall that last year the Revolution was named the best hotel in Boston by readers of Condé Nast Traveler, much to the surprise of many, including me. It beat out luxury offerings such as XV Beacon and the Boston Harbor Hotel. The Revolution, which was once the YWCA, is probably more dorm-like than any other hotel in Boston. It even has shared bathrooms.

A view of the lobby of the Revolution Hotel in Boston
A view of the lobby of the Revolution Hotel in BostonChristopher Muther/Globe staff

I may not agree that it’s the best hotel in Boston, but it is the best dormtel in Boston. There was never a line for an elevator, it was completely peaceful everywhere, and there’s even a former cafe in the hotel that has taken on the role of a space for socially distant studying.

In the event you’re keeping a mental tally of all of this, I survived living in luxury dorms. In my Hardy Boys-like investigation, I learned that the hotel-as-dorm system is not perfect, and there are slips and flaws, but most of these kids are trying. Keep in mind however that this pent-up partying can only last so long. When the dam breaks, or the balloon bursts, or the party volcano finally erupts, I recommend you steer clear of all colleges, dormtels included.


Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.