Continuing on this series around the Future of Travel (End-to-End Wi-Fi, Longer, Thinner Routes, Business Class Flights and Terminals, Inflight Branding, Automated Airports and Pilotless Planes), we’re going to take a look at how our accommodations will likely evolve, with Airbnb and VRBO.com being just the beginning.
Big Brand Hobble Along
Big brands and their limited ability to segment will likely suffer as the options for lodging diversify — a good boutique hotel or bed and breakfast and decent SEO and relationships with a few major OTAs will be able to compete head to head with the Westin down the street, attracting more specific (often monied) customer segments by offering a supremely differentiated experience.
Chip Conley, Global Head of Hospitality and Strategy at Airbnb, has likened hotels to “jails” with cells and fixed eating schedules (want breakfast after 9am? sorry!) As the former CEO of Joie De Vivre hotels, he sees the world shifting towards hospitality, not housing — when you travel, you want to stay in places that feel like home, not a dentist’s office.
Diverse Ways to Diversify
What would this mean for the hotel chains? How do you make a 150 room building feel more like a home? As chains divest their real estate holdings and simply license the brands, how do you ensure dependability while bringing a differentiated experience to market?
There are a couple ways to approach this. First, hotels are experimenting with shrinking the room size in new properties and adding self-service options (kitchens, grab-and-go stores, washing machines) and common spaces, emulating a number of rooms in the home and how we spend time in them.
I tend to spend way more awake time in the living room reading or kitchen entertaining friends than the unconscious time in the bed, so why give guests only a bustling lobby or formal restaurant as an alternative to their bed? Similarly, some hotels like The Standard are piloting the idea of opening up their common spaces to homeshare guests.
Is Technology the Answer?
The best technology amplifies substantive human interactions and minimizes transactional ones. Hotels have historically delivered service through concierges, butlers, maids and maitre d’hotels — all 18th and 19th century inventions that were far more high-touch hosting positions than they are today. The answer is probably not a plethora of apps that add to the clutter, but using technology to enable curated, authentic experiences — a gluten free treat from the bakery down the street (the hotel knows you’re allergic because you told a waiter on a previous stay), not a muffin wrapped in sterile plastic.
Interfaces that are invisible, like locks activated by your phone, automated check-in and check-out, bookings by the hour or even minute can help the guest convey transactional information (length of stay, early/late check-in/out, form of payment) without lines or pre-programmed responses conjured up by the customer relations department “Welcome back Mr. Bingham, thank you for being a platinum member!” doesn’t evoke sincerity or personalization as much as chains think they do. Technology will continue to minimize transactional human interactions, but hopefully it will open the doors for more substantive ones.
Building Home Away From Home
Traditional lodging away from home will start to look and feel more like home as the big brands morph and diversify their identity. Even as Airbnb gobbles up houses and apartments all over the world, I could see entire floors of properties gutted and reconfigured to offer a different co-living/working experience, or perhaps leased to a successful Airbnb superhost that can design and style the rooms, common spaces and activities to attract specific segments (digital nomads — perhaps they like capsule rooms and staffed barista bars, foodies – perhaps a floor with an experimental chef’s kitchen and frequent tastings, families – perhaps a large playroom where the kids can make friends).
Mastering Local Culture
When traveling for work, I tend to stay at slightly edgier, small hotels close to city centers so I can easily find a coffeeshop or bar after meetings, but I would probably book towards hotels that offered “micro” cultural experiences for the very limited downtime on a 18 hour stay. The Hilton Reykjavik and Sheraton D-Cube city in Seoul do this very well with a huge Icelandic sauna / Korean jimjilbang and health club that guests have access to. But there are so many soft experiences that could be grafted onto existing hotels that move them more towards local and away from the mass-market trends of the 80’s and 90’s.
The Bureaucrats (and Residents) Get Their Say
Lastly, while local governments are fighting back against short term rentals, under the premise that they take away housing from current residents, policies will likely stabilize, recognizing that cities often need flexible housing supply that caters to uneven peaks and troughs of demand. Will Rio be able to fill all of the hotels it built for the Olympics? Perhaps during Carnivale, but probably not every day. The income from Airbnb rentals help many residents’ pay rent for several months, allowing them to live most of the year in the city at a subsidized rate. It also opens the city to travelers that may not be able to afford big brand hotels, but can afford a spare guest room (or an air mattress – which is how Airbnb started).
How do you see hotels evolving? Is the Westin White Tea Aloe scent going to be seen as a cornerstone of hotel innovation or the apex of the former Age of Mass Market Consistency? Would you stay in a flexible live/work space? Do you think in-person concierge recommendations are useful or smarmy?