This article appeared in the summer issue of Urban Land on page 52.
Experts in hotel development discuss the rising popularity of social spaces in hotels, the role of technology in the hotel experience, the ways guests are shaping in-room furniture design, the competition from Airbnb, the need for “Instagrammable” spaces in hotels, and changing approaches to hotel restaurants.
What do guests want to see in the design of hotel environments?
Joel Eisemann: Hotels need to have inviting public areas that can be used in a variety of ways, whether by an individual or by a group, whether for working alone or for informally congregating with colleagues before leaving the hotel for a meeting. The design and layout of the furniture matters. There needs to be soft seating, like couches and living-room types of chairs, and communal tables; today, that’s generally the first place that fills up in a hotel lobby. When people are traveling alone, they often don’t want to just stay in their room by themselves. They like coming down to the lobby or the public areas of the hotel, maybe having a glass of wine, maybe working on their laptop.
Dan Welborn: In the lobby and public area, people want a social environment where they can transition from working during the day to playing in the evening. Many hotels are putting the bar in the center of the activity, with some work-zone areas spread throughout. That bar can transition from a café experience in the morning to a drinks experience at night. The hotels that do this successfully create different zones, where one zone may work well for an individual and another may work well for groups, but everyone can coexist in that space. Rooftop spaces have become pervasive as well: people like to enjoy the fresh air. As public areas become more and more prominent, the guest room is shrinking a bit. It doesn’t mean that it has fewer amenities; it’s more about a focus on better design that allows guests to have everything that they expect in a smaller footprint, and the public space gives you the rest of what you’re looking for in that stay.
Roger Hill II: People like to be alone, but not lonely. If you can find a public space where you can work and be around others yet have some privacy, you feel better. At the same time, guest rooms are getting smaller. Developers might be fitting three rooms into the same area that two used to occupy and then creating relief spaces that people can enjoy. Also, guests increasingly desire a connection to the surrounding community. If you’re staying in a hotel and you see a lot of coats over chairs in the public areas, then you know that locals are there in addition to hotel guests, and it makes you feel like you’re in a place where people want to be. Hundreds of years ago in great European cities, hotels were the living rooms of the community, and we’re seeing that return in all property types, from luxury to economy hotels.
John Hardy: Grab-and-go food and beverage concepts are very popular because guests want to get a gourmet coffee or a sandwich whenever they want without going through a lot of formalities with a restaurant. And guests like a hotel to offer an authentic experience that’s related to where they’re staying so they feel like they’re in Chicago or in New York or Miami or wherever the hotel is located. They want differentiation in their stay. Guest rooms are getting smaller because of the public areas being more interesting, and furnishings are more contemporary and scaled down or integrated into the room design to make the room appear larger.
How is technology changing the design of hotels?
Hill: The airline industry has had mobile check-in for more than a decade. We’re now starting to see this option for more and more hotels. And before you know it, guests will be able to choose a particular room with a particular view, just as they can select a seat on an airplane. You might pay a premium for that, but you will at least have that option.
Hardy: Automated check-in with a smartphone is going to become more common. Different hotel companies are experimenting with it, and some have it already. There have been issues with security and payment. For example, if you make a hotel reservation and you have a key already on your smartphone, you know what room to go to. But if someone hasn’t paid their American Express bill and their card is canceled, do they still get their room when they arrive? There is also the danger of someone hacking into your room rather than stealing a physical guest room key. So there are challenges to work through. High-quality wi-fi is everywhere on a property now as a given. On the operational side, online travel agencies have been delivering 30 percent of the room inventory. There’s more of a trend now for hotel brands to sell their own rooms online, which is good for the brands and the hotel operators and owners. Hotel brands will become even more focused on data science because they have a lot of data on their customers and they’re looking for new ways to mine that to draw business.
Eisemann: People are traveling with more devices, and they need to be able to use all of them in the guest room. On weekends, three or four people might be sharing a room and have a total of ten or 12 devices with them—iPhones, iPads, laptops, etc. In the hotel industry, we need to accommodate that. People are streaming videos and movies, so bandwidth is an important feature. The speed of the internet service in a hotel is crucial.
Welborn: What’s been an issue for hotel owners in the past is that as soon as they install a technology, that system becomes antiquated. For example, many hotels have installed Jack Pack systems, which allow guests to plug all their electronic gear into the room’s television. Now, wi-fi and Bluetooth allow guests to connect with the room’s audiovisual devices without the use of cords. These digital connections allow hotels to skip hardware updates that quickly become obsolete.
How has the rise of Airbnb influenced hotel design?
Welborn: I’m not seeing Airbnb influencing hotel design necessarily, but it is certainly a disrupter for the hospitality industry at large. Airbnb could be an interesting way to track hotel demand. If people are starting to turn to Airbnb to stay in a particular neighborhood of Hong Kong, for example, because they can’t find a hotel there, then that says something.
Eisemann: Starbucks has probably had more of an impact on the design of public spaces in a hotel than Airbnb has. We saw that people were using Starbucks as a “third place,” as their office on the road. They would bring their laptop in, buy a cup of coffee, and then spend time working. That has likely had more impact on how we think about designing the public spaces of hotels than Airbnb has.
Hardy: I haven’t seen it affect design myself personally, but most everyone in the hotel industry has been concerned about the threat of Airbnb. It may have a negative effect on occupancy and rates, particularly in the major markets like New York and Paris. It seems to be more of a leisure product. It’s not as well suited to the business traveler because the business traveler wants certainty. You want to know you have a certain kind of room, a dry cleaning service, free breakfasts, a restaurant, a bar, a meeting space. Hotels more reliably provide these. Airbnb may have a more visible effect in a down market when cost is the driving force in the choice of overnight accommodations.
Hill: Airbnb offers larger groups a place to stay together—for example, grandparents and their children and grandchildren can all rent a house together. Now hotels are starting to follow suit. We’re developing a hotel in Nashville with some partners that will have a series of guest rooms that can be reserved individually but also allow six people to reserve them together and have an associated common area to gather in. Also, Airbnb is leading the way in curating incredible local experiences because the hosts live in the community. You want to know the best place for a handcrafted cocktail? They can tell you. Hotel companies are now recognizing that they need to offer the same thing.
What other factors are changing the ways hotels look and function?
Hardy: Hotel operators have traditionally not been very successful at food and beverage as independent restaurateurs or celebrity chefs [have been]. Hotel operators have been typically creating a reasonably good hotel restaurant, but that’s not where people want to go unless they are not leaving the property. There has been a trend recently for some owners and operators to upgrade the food and beverage experience selectively where it makes sense in a particular market. They are figuring out ways to enter into licensing or leasing agreements with celebrity chefs or true restaurateurs. A successful local restaurateur who can fit with the hotel concept should be able to create a much more successful restaurant operation because that’s their strong suit.
Welborn: People really want to document and share their lives more than ever before, and so we take that into consideration as we’re designing, ensuring that we create “Instagrammable” moments within hotels—places where you know people are going to want to take a photo. That brings you credibility on social media sites: it’s marketing that you’re not paying for. That has definitely influenced the way we think about moments within the hotel. Another trend is that, particularly in gateway cities, a lot of great old buildings are being turned into hotels. That happens not only because of the lack of available real estate and the barriers to entry for new development, but also because people are looking for authenticity. Examples include the Ned in London and the Nomad in Los Angeles, both in former bank buildings. People appreciate connecting with that kind of history in a city.
Hill: The major global hotel brands are working more with affiliates. A decade ago, about 5 percent of our work was budget hotels that were totally independent. Now, I would say 35 percent of our hotels are independents affiliated with the major powerhouses like Hyatt, Marriott, or Hilton. Guests can take advantage of the global brand’s loyalty program, the owner can take advantage of the global brand’s reservation system, but these independents can deliver unique, authentic, curated experiences and compete with traditional boutique hotels and Airbnb. This is happening at all price tiers, from luxury to midscale to budget.
Eisemann: We continually survey our guests to find out what they like and don’t like about their hotel experience and how we can improve it. For example, when we developed a new FF&E [furniture, fixtures, and equipment] package for Holiday Inn Express, we took into account that our guests told us they don’t like drawers with a closed front. They are worried they might forget their belongings. They want open cubbies where they can see everything. Another example: when guests are working in their room, they’re not necessarily sitting at a desk. So we’re trying to provide more comfortable chairs and, in some cases, a table that people can roll over to the bed to work on. We’re trying to adapt the rooms to accommodate the ways in which people want to and are using them.
Contributing their insights:
– Joel Eisemann, chief development officer, InterContinental Hotels Group, Atlanta; vice chair/ULI Foundation ambassador, Hotel Development Council
– John Hardy, president/chief executive officer, the John Hardy Group, Atlanta; member, Hotel Development Council
– Roger Hill II, chief executive officer, the Gettys Group, Chicago; member, Hotel Development Council
– Dan Welborn, principal, the Gettys Group, Chicago; member, Hotel Development Council