Customer Experience Flips the Script for Hotel Developers
As the hotel construction market stays tucked into a pattern of modest yet steady growth, hoteliers are tossing and turning in their quest to differentiate brands and cultivate new generations of lodgers with vastly different tastes and expectations than their predecessors.
Driven by the desire to attract millennial guests and an emerging generation of digital natives, and to offset the popularity of alternative accommodation providers, what may be something of a nightmare scenario for hotel chains is manifesting as sweet dreams for travelers.
At this moment in time, transforming monolithic, mass appeal hotels into spaces that attract travelers who demand more than a reasonably comfortable bed and in-room wi-fi is make or break, as evidenced by the industry’s swerve into boutique offerings.
As a result, the level of innovation in design and construction is reaching new highs. With the adoption of smartphone entry and room control systems, designs that merge nature with the indoors, local food and beverage options that upend the legacy of beige hotel grub, and lobbies with knockout atmospheres, hoteliers are accepting that the promise of a good night’s sleep is simply not enough to keep guests coming back.
The State of the Stateroom
There’s no shortage of new room construction to meet those needs; according to market data from STR, the number of new rooms being built in the U.S. jumped 14.7 percent in 2017 over the prior year. Three franchises represent the largest construction pipelines: Marriott; Hilton; and IHG, parent of Holiday Inn, InterContinental, and Crowne Plaza brands.
The impact of Airbnb, Homeaway, and VRBO on the hospitality industry, while revolutionary, won’t be slowing the build out of new hotels anytime soon. While clearly an engine for change, as a percentage of total market share these nontraditional hospitality players represent only about 3 percent of rooms sold by the night. That figure is expected to increase to 5 percent by 2025.
Home share alternatives have a degree of agility that most typical hotels can’t match, but that ability to open on a dime is tightly tied to location. For example, when the rooms in a hotel in Times Square on New Years’ Eve are booked solid or wildly overpriced, a home sharing host in a nearby neighborhood with rooms for rent can open up a guest room in minutes, post its availability online, and meet the overflow demand.
To counter, firms are embracing aspects of the sharing economy that can be replicated within the structure of traditional hotels, and tapping into the tech-driven, collaborative social environment that millennial lodgers prefer.
According to Cushman and Wakefield, lodging developers are “creating experiences for customers that highlight local culture and neighborhood flair, and strengthening amenities and services to cater to the primarily millennial consumers who are most drawn to the sharing economy.”
Shared working spaces, multipurpose lobbies where guests can work and play as they would in their own living rooms, and the disappearance of traditional check-in desks are among the popular trends, as are chatbots designed to aid with registration and tour planning, keyless room access, and robotic concierge services.
Nagasaki is home to Japan’s first robot-operated hotel, Henn-Na. Multilingual robots check bags, act as concierges, and entertain the kiddos with helpful AI-powered raptors. No room keys are needed; facial recognition technology provides room access.
With Amazon’s recent introduction of Alexa for Hospitality, guests at selected Marriott properties, including Westin, St. Regis, Aloft, and Autograph, will have their own digital assistant during their stay. According to Amazon, “Alexa simplifies tasks for guests like playing music, ordering towels, controlling in-room temperature or lighting, finding local restaurants and attractions, calling, and even checking out.”
Significant disruption in the food and beverage side of the business is also being widely felt. Many hotels are eschewing costly and less profitable room service options with “grab-and-go” self-service alternatives, or working with local restaurants to provide guests with a wider range of dining options and experiences.
IHG hotel brands allow guests to collect loyalty points by ordering food through GrubHub, and by making online reservations through Open Table. Wyndham Hotel Group allows extended stay guests to have groceries delivered to their rooms by Instacart and Peapod.
Fresh Environments and the Evolution of Experiential Stays
Analysts at Deloitte point to the role of hoteliers as integrators of experience, tasked with building more personal connections with their guests and more customized experiences throughout their stays.
In their latest industry report, they note, “Hospitality will always be about experiences and connecting to people. Even in the face of new technology, evolving customer preferences, and new competitive threats, hospitality will require a human touch. A personal and an active approach will place hotels on the same footing as the guests they serve and the owners they work with.”
According to Miami and San Juan-based architectural design firm Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón, the greening of tomorrow’s hotels is a disruptive trend that extends well beyond motion-sensor activated lights, reusing towels, and conserving water. “Next year we will see more sustainable, eco-friendly practices that connect guests to the local culture and history, among them natural light, solar panels, recycled wood, organic materials, hourglass timers in showers, locally handcrafted items and repurposed furniture,” they predict.
Biophilic design—the practice of linking humans and the natural world in a way that contributes to health, productivity, and wellbeing in the built space—is taking root in contemporary hotel construction. Biophilic design has been shown to lower stress levels, improve our creative and cognitive abilities, and contribute to healing. Elements include natural lighting, views of nature, water features, indoor gardens and nature features such as grass-covered walls, and the use of natural and organic building materials.
Boosted by the $563 billion wellness tourism market—which is growing faster than overall tourism spending—biophilic design is inspiring radically immersive experiences. Consider Svart, the first hotel in the world to be built to Norway’s demanding green energy standard, Powerhouse.
Situated just above the Arctic Circle, at the foot of the Svartisen glacier, the circular hotel offers a see-it-to-believe-it view of the Holandsfjorden fjord, and the sensation that one is living in it. Accessible only by boat, the building’s support beams serve as a wooden boardwalk for summer strolls, and for boat storage in the winter. Svart uses just 15 percent of the energy required to power a traditional hotel.
Stateside, developers are creating experiential environments in exciting new ways, whether in urban centers or the countryside. Marriott’s Moxy hotels attract millennials with a decidedly downtown flavor, promising “the heart of a boutique hotel and an appetite for adventure.” Describing their lobbies as “living rooms with a bartender,” Marriott markets this niche in a way that was unheard of in the traditional space just a handful of years ago.
Leveraging the appeal of California surf culture, Native Malibu reaches out to the laid back tourist seeking a classic beach vibe. Situated on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway at Point Dume, the remodeled Riviera Motel is a mid-century modern marvel with updated amenities, branded spa products, and a sense of 60’s “Hollywood road trip” nostalgia wrapped in pure, simple hedonism.
This year’s winner of the AHEAD Awards for Hospitality, Experience and Design (Americas) is another callback to road trip culture. Napa, California’s Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa merges the hottest experiential design trends, leveraging local culture such as lessons from local artisans, group experiences, and rooms that emulate the ‘glamping’ experience. Rather than hosting a traditional restaurant onsite, a vintage Airstream trailer serves as the ultimate roadside coffeeshop.
The Calistoga’s designer, award-winning AvroKo, also pioneered the Arlo microhotel concept in New York City. With rooms averaging just 150 square feet, the Arlo sites boast an “urban camping” vibe, acting as a boutique base camp for exploring Manhattan. From daytime crafting classes, rooftop fitness classes, a 24-hour bodega, white-hot wi-fi speeds, and room rates that won’t break the bank, the Arlo is hipster heaven.
From the curation of unique experiences, design that reaches past the boundaries of imagination, and deeper connections that create a sense of instant community, hoteliers are reinventing the lodging experience to inspire new adventures. One caveat, though: the beds had better be comfortable—with all of that promise, we’ll need a good night’s rest at the end of the day.