Too Hip to Be Square: A Review of the Moxy Chicago Downtown
Moxy hotels have intrigued me ever since they began popping up around Europe. Reports of debaucherous themes didn’t seem to fit with the Marriott brand. They appeared to be a corporate attempt to create the hotel equivalent of a party hostel, but their proximity to airports or convention centers, like the Moxy Munich Messe, didn’t seem to support this.
I’m all for a good party, but when I’m staying in an airport hotel, it’s for convenience, likely due to a late-arriving or early-departing flight. I’m looking for a quick shuttle ride and a comfy mattress, not a game of beer pong.
It seems Moxy figured this out when it hopped the Pond to the US — it seems that the chain has prioritized proximity to nightlife and other attractions for many of its locations in the States. After my stay at the Moxy Chicago Downtown, I discussed Moxy’s approach on a wider scale as it attempts to lure the young at heart. Here, I’ll review the hotel itself, Chicago’s edition of the unapologetic party hotel chain.
The Moxy Chicago is a Category 4 Marriott property, requiring 25,000 points per night, worth roughly $200 according to TPG’s current valuations. Cash rates for the property range from as low as $97 per night to over $400 for much of the summer. If you happen to be traveling to Chicago over those expensive summer days, using your points could work out to be a particularly good deal, especially considering you could earn five free nights (because of Marriott’s fifth-night free perk) just from signing up for the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, which is offering a bonus of 75,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months of account opening.
Aside from my Moxy fascination, I was sitting on 596 lifetime nights at Marriott properties — four short of Lifetime Platinum Elite status. I wanted this status before an upcoming stay at The St. Regis Bora Bora, so I decided to book four nights at the Moxy in my home city, Chicago. I used the fourth-night free benefit of my Citi Prestige card and the AAA rate to get a solid deal for downtown Chicago.
While the fourth night free can be booked through Citi’s travel portal, I usually find better rates on the hotel website, especially using the AAA discount. Citi Prestige Concierge can still apply these discounted rates to the 4th night free bookings, though they won’t show up on the online Citi ThankYou portal. I used to call to book these stays, but the calls often take a while, and the last time I did they messed up my booking. I decided to book via email, sending my extremely specific booking request to the Citi concierge and attaching a screenshot of the rate I found.
Two hours later, I received an email confirmation from the Citi concierge followed by a confirmation from the Moxy hotel itself. The process was much easier and quicker than a phone call. Unfortunately, fourth-night-free bookings will have to be made directly through ThankYou.com (no concierge or access to discounted rates, like AAA) starting Sept. 1.
My AAA rate actually dropped before my stay, and I was able to update my rate. In the end, I paid $485 for the stay and received a fourth-night-free rebate of $103 two months later. The rate included a welcome drink, although it’s worth perusing the package rates. You probably won’t find a deal, but the entertainment value of details for packages such as Become a Mother are worth your time.
In the heart of Chicago’s River North neighborhood, the Moxy Chicago Downtown is close to both the offices of The Loop and the city’s main tourist attractions. The neighborhood is also well-known for its dining and nightlife.
To get anywhere else in the city, there is a CTA red-line train stop three blocks east and a brown- and purple-line stop three blocks south. This Moxy is positioned conveniently for business travelers, even if the ambience didn’t seem to cater to them. The party crowd, though, will like that Moxy is surrounded by great watering holes, with one of the best right in the lobby.
If you missed the party-hard marketing, the not-so-subtle package options or the “Bumble Here” sign at the entrance, it was obvious Moxy was different as soon as you walked in the door. There was no check-in or traditional lobby. Instead, check-in happened below the neon flashing light at the end of the bar. The lobby bar — called Bar Moxy — was a hodgepodge of trendy lounge furniture surrounding a chic bar.
I arrived after midnight, so the welcome drink that was included in my rate was given as a poker chip IOU. The bar closed at midnight on weekdays (2am on weekends), so I didn’t get to initially experience Bar Moxy in full force. Friday night, however, the bar was packed, mostly with people who weren’t guests.
Party games of various parental-discretion ratings were spread throughout the bar.
Any opportunity at a pop-cultural reference or to paste a surface with a party slogan wasn’t missed. I wondered if the designers had a gift card to Spencer’s they needed to use. It felt like a millennial episode of “Hoarders.”
It may have been overkill, but somehow it didn’t feel like too much. Bar Moxy had everything and was trying to be everything, but it was spread out enough and comfortably divided into enough sections that an extra throw pillow advertising free hugs was never in the way.
Easily my favorite part of the lobby was the two tables that contained an assortment of sports playing cards from Chicago teams of the ’80s and ’90s. To sift through card collections and only pick out the Chicago players took time and effort, but it was well worth it. I had a thoroughly entertaining trip down memory lane, remembering cards I owned and players I had long forgotten. And Chicago baseball fans from both sides of town will get a laugh out of the Sammy Sosa White Sox rookie card. Bravo, Moxy.
This space was the best-designed area of the hotel. The room seamlessly transitioned from cafe during the day to bar at night.
I had intended to find a coffee shop to set up and work for the day, but the lobby was more comfy, roomy and work-friendly than anywhere else, so I stayed.
Moxy Chicago offered three bed types: one queen, two twin or one queen with twin-bed loft. I was curious about the loft room, so I requested one at check-in. Although the bunk rooms cost more on the booking page, I got the upgrade for free, and it didn’t seem to have anything to do with my Gold status.
However, with an outward-facing bunk room, I did miss out on the Inner Circle. Moxy had a clever marketing strategy to make these inward-facing rooms more appealing. Normally, rooms with an outer view are a class above the inner rooms, but because the hotel advertised an exclusive Inner Circle that faced a courtyard with a “provocative art installation,” the inner rooms were priced the same as outward-facing rooms.
The Inner Circle rooms also faced the other Inner Circle rooms with floor-to-ceiling, untinted windows. The voyeuristic tones were only amplified by the privacy shades with hedonistic room scenes. Moxy was anything but subtle.
My room was on the third floor. As the elevator doors opened, I was greeted by a poster of a naked woman strategically covering herself with the number 3.
My bunk room looked out over an alley facing a lifeless brick wall with chipped black paint. I’m sure Moxy would have loved to have put a giant, erotic mural on that facade, but the building isn’t theirs. I did, however, have a bunk bed, or a “loft,” as Moxy called it.
I slept on both beds and actually preferred the top bunk, which is not my normal preference in a hostel. The bottom bed had such a low clearance that you couldn’t sit up completely while sitting against the headboard. This was inconvenient if you just wanted to sit back and watch TV or work on your laptop, especially because there weren’t other good options in the room to do so. The bunk was also stable and not squeaky.
The top bunk, however, had plenty of overhead clearance and a twin mattress on a wide platform that didn’t feel tight. The lamp and outlet could have used a shelf to rest a phone, book or laptop, but there was extra room at the foot of the bed to store anything you would need in bed and wouldn’t have to climb down for.
Moxy went for a retro feel with a rotary-inspired phone. Dialing 0 would connect you to a member of the Moxy crew, and by pressing the button for bedtime stories, you’d hear recorded stories by various celebrities.
What you see to the right is what Moxy considered a suitable alternative to a closet and a desk. Pegs on the wall substituted for an actual closet and the folding chair and table they claimed could be used as a desk.
It’s interesting how Moxy spun this. From the Moxy website: “No closets? No problem. Just hang your wardrobe on display using our wall pegs and enjoy that extra space.”
Except there wasn’t any extra space. There was an empty corner where Moxy painted “Put your lava lamp here!” in a typeface taken from a Mötley Crüe album cover. My room was less than 200 square feet — over 100 feet less than an average American hotel room. You’re not benefiting from any extra space. You just don’t get it. I personally don’t often use hotel closets, but their absence comes up often in complaints.
The “desk,” which I feel compelled to put in quotes, also didn’t cut it. In a bind, it did meet the minimum requirement of a seat plus flat surface to fit a laptop, but it wasn’t comfortable enough to sit at for any nontrivial duration of time. The lobby did have a variety of comfortable seating for work, but sometimes it’s nicer to work in private. The lack of a usable desk was the biggest flaw in this room design.
There was no bathtub, which wasn’t surprising given the target clientele and optimization of space. The shower wasn’t any bigger or smaller than it needed to be, and the shower head and handheld were perfectly adequate.
I don’t know why other hotels have been slow to implement the shampoo and soap dispensers in hotel bathrooms and showers. It must save lots of money over using a bar of soap and bottle of liquid for every guest — not to mention all the extra plastic waste.
The bathroom vanity was in the center of the room because there was no other place to put it. Band stickers were spread out on the backside of the door, reminiscent of your high-school bedroom door.
The toilet was, thankfully, in a separate room, but in these tiny rooms nothing was too far from anything else.
The smart TVs welcomed me by name and played a party promo video on loop.
The smart function of the TV was easy enough for even a less tech-savvy guest to figure out. Aside from regular cable, Showtime and HBO were available for free, along with use of personal Netflix and Hulu accounts. Staying logged into these accounts wouldn’t be an issue either, as you could clear all credentials with one click or they’d be cleared automatically at checkout.
The rooms came with a steamer, but there was no iron or ironing board. Instead, each floor shared a communal ironing room. On one hand, this worked fine, as there never was a line to use the iron. However, getting dressed in order to walk down the hall, use the iron and get dressed seemed like one more step than was needed. Or you could make Moxy happy and walk around half naked.
The challenge of the Moxy room designers wasn’t an easy one: Cut the room size by a third and make it seem like an enhancement. While the lack of desk and closet was inconvenient, the rest of the room was well-designed, given the confined space, and it fell in line with the Moxy character.
I’d avoid the bunk rooms unless you have three guests, as the max for other room types was two. And if your morbid curiosity hasn’t been satisfied enough yet, give the Inner Circle rooms a try.
Moxy gave you the option of skipping maid service, or “style team,” as the company called it, for 500 points a night. I left this tag on the door for my stay and earned an extra 1,500 points.
Food and Beverage
Zombie Taco was the name of the hotel restaurant, an almost painfully millennial name. But the tacos were top-notch and available 24/7.
Its jalapeño-bacon taco was available all day and featured one thick, delicious cut of bacon. The zombie burrito was a challenge for any among the undead to finish, but at $9, it made a downtown Chicago dinner refreshingly reasonable.
If this is all sounding too pedestrian, Zombie Taco also offered the absurd. It sold a 17-pound Zombie Burrito for $200, which required 24-hour advance notice.
Drinks were where Moxy ceased to be a reasonably priced alternative to downtown Chicago. Its cocktails lacked the craftsmanship or imagination you’d hope from a $12 drink. I did enjoy the welcome drink, a cherry-lime cocktail made with dragonberry rum, but mainly because it was free.
There was no pool, which cost Moxy another opportunity to plaster beautiful, half-naked people on the walls. The fitness room was spacious and had all of the essentials, along with some nonessentials.
I would bet that the pink, hipster stationary bike, pink boxing gloves and jar of Starbursts were added after the fitness consultant signed off on the design.
Wi-Fi was available throughout the hotel and was fast and free — as it should’ve been.
While so much of the Moxy experience seemed forced, the staff members were what made it all work. Interactions were genuine and comfortable. I even had the maintenance guy ask me in the elevator how my stay was and follow it up with questions and recommendations that showed he actually cared about my answer. It was longer than all unnecessary previous conversations I’ve had with hotel maintenance workers combined. I felt myself wanting to end staff interactions with, “Can we be friends?”
Many people will find Moxy’s approach entertaining and refreshing. Others will roll their eyes, and some might even be offended. I personally was entertained, with the occasional eye roll. There were plenty of laughs — usually with Moxy but sometimes at them.
I think your reaction to this review will tell you which category you fall into and if Moxy is for you. I doubt I’ll have the need to stay at the location in my home city again, but I enjoyed myself enough to stay at a Moxy elsewhere. And I’m sure I’ll be back to the bar.
All photos by the author.
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