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24/03/01 . Sarah Turner . The Times . UK  

In bed with McDonald's

The first ever McDonald's hotel, the Golden Arch in Zurich, is surprisingly tasteful - if you overlook the porn channel on the in-room TV. Sarah Turner checks in for its opening night, and explores the attractions of McDonald's for travellers of all types.

The most obvious clue to the hotel's ownership comes with the headboard. When I told a friend I was going to the McDonald's hotel he asked me, aghast, if I would be sleeping under the Golden Arches. I am, but this arch is sleek and wooden, tooled with equal measures of design nous and wit, making you smile rather than wince. Who'd have thought that the Golden Arch Hotel would be so very arch?

The second clue comes with the shower, a stylish opaque glass pod. I'm just about to wash my hair when I realise that there's only a soap dispenser. Typical, somehow, from the organisation that always makes you ask for ketchup to go with your fries.

Within sight of Zurich Airport, the Golden Arch Hotel is the first to be opened by the McDonald's corporation. There are 211 rooms, with an Aroma Cafe (the chain bought by McDonald's last year) at the entrance and a branch of the restaurant to the side.

My room is certainly a far cry from Ronald McDonald's red and yellow plastic playground. Several acres of sustainable wood must have been felled to create this Conranesque vision. Designed along Feng Shui principles, according to the press release, it's all curvy walls, neutral colours and snowy white linen. The TV also allows you to surf the net and check flight times at the airport. The bed is impressively high-tech, with a motor to raise and lower different bits of the mattress. Safety has been addressed as well. The lifts operate only after verifying room keys and all the doors have spy holes. And, as might be expected, the loo more than meets the high standards set by McDonald's restaurants around the globe.

However, burgers aren't the cash cow they once were and McDonald's has realised that it must diversify in order to maintain profits. In Britain it has the Aroma Cafe chain and has just bought 33 per cent of Pret A Manger. The Golden Arch Hotel is the Swiss solution. It is aiming for the business traveller during the week, with special family rates at the weekend.

On the first night, there was just one child guest - two and a half-year-old Gabriel Hutschneker. "He talked about nothing else on the way here," says his father Michael, a journalist covering the opening. (Luckily, the family live in Zurich.) For the photographers and film crews, Gabriel patiently goes through the check-in procedure several times as the First Child to Stay at a McDonald's Hotel. It's hard to know what he makes of the bar, with its leather chairs and sleek modernist water sculpture.
The Golden Arch is aggressively targeting the business traveller; a four-star hotel, it represents a seismic shift upmarket for the burger chain. Urs Hammer is the chairman of McDonald's in Switzerland and a former hotelier. It was his idea to create the Golden Arch Hotel. Over dinner he assures me that McDonald's and the Golden Arch share the same values. "Cleanliness. Take the flooring, for in- stance. Most hotels carpet the floors, we went for maple wood -it's more hygienic. And value for money - McDonald's has always been known for that." Costs at the Golden Arch will be kept down by doing away with the things that Hammer sees as unneccessary - there are no minibars or room service. Chain hotels are cheaper than one-offs and the second Golden Arch opens next week in the Swiss town of Lully. There are also plans to open a third in Geneva.

Later that night, while playing with the different bed positions - hugely diverting - I fiddle with the TV, trying to access my e-mail. Instead, porn fills the screen, and there's nothing soft-core about it. I feel a bit piqued that they can pump it out free of charge but haven't managed to provide shampoo - just one mean-minded soap dispenser.

Next morning, when I raise the matter, a quartet of suited McDonald's PRs assure me that an automatic block is put on the porn channel whenever a family checks into a room. I'm sure they will. I'm also sure they'll make it clear that the soap dispenser is also shampoo because McDonald's does whatever it takes to get a formula right.

It's a formula that has played a key part in the lives of most of us when we travel abroad, however much we may profess to loathe the chain. "When I'm travelling, I always use McDonald's loos," says 33-year-old Matthew Singh-Toor from London, who has just returned from travelling in Australia and New Zealand. "Eating there is unimaginative and vapid. In countries like India it markets its food to locals as sophisticated and hip but just delivers fatty Western food, The expansion of McDonald's is so relentless it's in danger of homogenising the world. I use the loos as a politi- cal protest."

Sue Wheat of Tourism Concern shares his worries: "If tourists use foreign-owned restaurants, apart from the jobs they provide, it doesn't benefit local people. If you're travelling with a conscience there are far better places to eat. Anyway, culturally, what's the point of travelling halfway around the world to a rich and varied culture to end up having a burger in McDonald's?" Indeed, it can be more than mildly disappointing to arrive in a country in search of local colour , only to find it is a profusion of yellow and red. A new branch of McDonald's opens every five hours. At the last count, the golden arches have spread from the US to l19 countries, from Canada (the first) to American Samoa (last year). Travel the world today and you invariably find that McDonald's has got there first.

Go into a McDonald's abroad and you'll find it full of backpackers sucking thoughtfully on their extra thick milkshakes. Britons under the age of 35 are part of the McDonald's generation. Our teens are excited when we learn that German branches serve beer. Few of us will have needed John Travolta in Pulp Fiction to tell us that the French call a Quarter Pounder a Cheeseburger Royale. I can order a Big Mac in a variety of languages (in France, for example, avec un shake) - even the most hopeless linguist will not starve in a McDonald's.

Eating at one isn't adventurous, but it's highly unlikely to give you food poisoning either. Flying back from Washington DC in January, I had the choice of a cheerful-looking local Chinese or a Burger King at the airport. In a rare moment of anti-globalisation fervour I chose the former and spent the next two days in a bathroom, contemplating my folly. Fear of litigation alone keeps big fast-food companies such as Burger King and McDonald's hygiene conscious.

McDonald's holds other attractions for travellers - women in particular. They are well-lit, an important consideration in a strange city late at night, and the food is cheap.

And a trip to McDonald's can save a family holiday. "A McDonald's at the right place, at the right time can be like an oasis in the desert for a stressed-out family," says travel writer Andrew Eames, 42, a regular contributor to these pages. "Once we had been staying at a series of chateaux in France. When we turned up at the last one near Dieppe, the owner told us that they didn't normally take children - and that we wouldn't be eating until 9.3Opm. Her husband, who did the cooking, lost his temper when we asked for a sandwich. We got back into the car, and I deposited my wife and the children at a McDonald's while I found us somewhere else to stay."

Just imagine how the tension would have been eradicated if there'd been a Golden Arch Hotel nearby. Gabriel, now wearing a McDonald's baseball cap, is still giddy from the excitement of sleeping in a McDonald's bed. Or, in fact, being too excited to sleep, his slightly weary parents tell me. For him, staying at the Golden Arch Hotel ranks with being locked overnight in a sweet shop.


I'm not yet convinced that the Golden Arch will manage to appeal to both business travellers and families. The Golden Arch's only eating option is McDonald's. It will probably be easier to make sure a family doesn't see the porn channel than it will be to eradicate a business' traveller's mental block about an expense account Big Mac.

This sleek new face of McDonald's is surprising, but turning the brand name into a hotel chain makes sense. You will never get cheated in a McDonald's. You can be anonymous, you won't feel stigmatised for eating alone, you are unlikely to get food poisoning and you will be safe - but you will never escape the feeling that in eating or staying there you're being even more predictable than McDonald's itself.

McDonald's-free zones

Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Bhutan.

The unlikely tourist destinations of Albania (see page 5) and Afghanistan. The ethically iffy Burma. Most of Africa; McDonald's has a toehold in South Africa but has made little impact on the rest of the continent. Mauritius Will get its first McDonald's in July this year.

In America, Woodstock in New York State. Thirty years after the festival that took its name, this town still doesn't look kindly on chain stores (the exception being Ben & Jerry's ice-cream).


Fairbury , Illinois. Site of a celebrated fight between the McDonald's corporation and a family restaurant of the same name (proprietor: Ronald McDonald) that had been trading for more than 50 years, The Golden Arches eventually moved elsewhere, citing lack of business.

Australia: After a prolonged campaign that kept McDonald's out of Katoomba in New South Wales, the corporation is rumoured to have abandoned plans to open in Byron Bay, the hippy surfer haven.

Bermuda. The island once had a branch of McDonald's on the US Navy base. Locals could visit on Wednesdays but when the US Navy withdrew, so did the restaurant.


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