An uptick in hotel meeting bookings and room occupancy rates suggests that the hospitality industry is expected to strengthen next year and continue rallying for the next two years, according to industry experts speaking at ULI’s 2010 Fall Meeting in Washington, D.C.

As the hospitality industry starts to recover from the low point it reached over the past couple of years, some trends have emerged that show changes in consumer preferences — particularly at the ultra-luxury level — that will likely dominate the industry for years to come. Among the trends identified by panelist Timothy Harmon, chief executive officer of Solage Hotels & Resorts:

  • A preference for elegance that is more casual than formal. While the affluent still want the highest quality in accommodations, services and amenities, they prefer comfortable, more relaxed, less formal environments. The response: lobby space converted into gathering places designed for interaction, and developments that emphasize inclusivity, rather than exclusivity, through steps such as opening recreational and fitness facilities to the surrounding community.
  • A shift toward localism, in terms of incorporating more of the local heritage and history into a development, to “brand” it with the community.
  • A continuing shift toward green and sustainable design and development. (“Customers still want it and they ask about it.”)

According to Fausto Barba, vice president, finance and development, The West Paces Hotel Group, consumer preferences in the highest luxury lines of the hospitality industry do not tend to vary from country to country. Asian consumers, he noted, represent a promising growth area for luxury hotels and resorts, as Asians are accumulating vast wealth at a higher rate than consumers in other countries. While Barba concurred that some affluent consumers prefer a more casual atmosphere, he said others, particularly from outside the U.S., still expect formality. The key to success is balancing the desires of both groups, Barba noted. Consistently high performance is even more important than ever, he said, due to the rise in the use of social media, which has greatly enhanced the ability to share good – or bad – experiences.

Alison Cumberland, vice president of North American Hotel Development, Western Region, Marriott International, Inc., said the company has shifted from a U.S.-centric to a more global focus — a move it is now pursuing to better position itself as the hospitality industry recovers. This strategy includes seeking opportunities and pursuing trends indigenous to specific countries and markets. The company has also developed its “Autograph Collection” of ultra-luxury hotels, which allows individual projects to keep their brands and identities, but use Marriott’s global resources to vastly expand their marketing outreach, she noted. 

Going forward, the most successful firms will vastly improve how they tailor their services to match the desires and needs of their customers, Cumberland said. “Really knowing what the customer is looking for” is more critical than in gaining a competitive edge in the hospitality business, she added.