What’s a hotel anyway? Is it any more than a well done up shared space?
With new business models in place these days, the hotel you visited last time may have moved to a new brand license. So the Radisson becomes a Crowne Plaza, which in turn might be another brand from one of the big brand franchises. There is an absolute lack of distinctiveness and the way the large aggregator networks seem to be operating; it seems we might have something akin to the economy class flying syndrome. Nothing distinctive, as rooms are fought or lost at a specific rate. The experience is then nothing to write home about.
While the hotel industry has seen significant changes, there is one thing that has not changed. It is the need to have a place to stay when visiting another city. In fact travel for work or leisure has only seen a significant upswing and most people book hotels either through the travel aggregator or some corporate desk. People also expect much more from their travel. Increasingly people are looking at alternatives that provide the uniqueness of the city in the staying experience as well. Think Airbnb kind of places.
So what does the hotel room offer? Choice of Pillows, silence, comfort at the upper end of the spectrum or a functional space that is mostly indistinguishable from the other. In-hotel entertainment has seen better days. It certainly needs to be reimagined for contemporary times.
The unique food of a city is best consumed in favourite places in the city. The hotel food is rarely that. It may be good quality, but unique it is not. Then there are the hotel shops. They look the same, the products are similar, and there is not much of service. Everyone has a bored look because there are hardly any walk-ins. I wonder how they make ends meet? When people travel, they want to experience the city, take back a bit of that city, and its experiences. Most hotels don’t seem to provide any of this.
So what is a modern day hotel then? A place with unique characteristics of the city that only the ultra-rich can afford or a place that reflects the rich culture of the city and connects to the more modern ethos?
Is it a shared space which promises a particular safety in a new place?
On the topic of shared spaces, there are shared spaces galore now. Shared working spaces are cropping up everywhere. They look as posh as the upmarket hotels and sometimes even have better food and entertainment. Coffee shops are shared spaces too. People talk, work and have fun. And the coffee tastes better and more often than not its priced at the same level.
Another shared space in a hotel is the ubiquitous business centre. I find it a bit anachronistic in these times. Most visitors have some computing device, and the need for a dedicated business centre with related hardware is somewhat limited. However, it is also a place, mostly tucked away, and I have rarely seen anyone inside. So I am sure the footfalls must also be reasonably limited. However, how can hotels, where so many people come to do business, have mostly empty business centres? Surely there is a need to reimagine what a business centre means to a hotel’s customers.
In the mid-1990s a hotel in Delhi opened a cyber café complete with cutting edge hardware of the time, a unique ambience and an internet connection. It was at the lobby level and visible to all. It was quite a thrill as internet services had just started in the country, and this was indeed a statement of intent by the hotel. It caught the attention of the business traveller and created quite a buzz amongst the residents of the city.
Modern hotels need to think about their connection with the city. There are many hotels you pass by and know that you will never enter there. One reason is that you don’t need to stay there. However, every day, there are people in a city who will habitually go to some café and work from there. They will spend a long time there, maybe not the most comfortable of places but they go there. For the coffee, for the people to meet and work and have great conversations. Laptops, tablets and the familiar aroma of coffee. These cafés have designed around this need with easily accessible power and workstation like common spaces.
Further coworking spaces are offering the kind of experience that hotel lobbies once did. The interesting term they use is not guests or tenents but members. It has implications in service and offers continuity that is beyond the transactional point system.
So, what more can be done?
People are writing, making videos and podcasts, designing products and so much more. Imagine a podcast recording in the hotel itself. Imagine a podcast for hotel guests. Would a 3D printer in the business centre offer people a different way to experience this innovative hotel? Alternatively, help the product designer working late in the night to test their hypothesis?
Most guests who stay there might not be averse to having next morning delivery from the stores in the hotel. Let’s say you need something before you fly out and you can’t go due to your schedule. Why not have unique pop-up stores that offer a flavour of the city. For other things, a kiosk-based system that allows you to order items mainly from the city and these are delivered by the logistics company the very next morning. Worth exploring?
Think about all the people who stay there, people in the loyalty programme of the chain, all the events that take place. People are there to work, to connect, to learn and to enjoy themselves. What is the real experience of these people in these objectives? Could these hotel chains benefit from a members only forum which is available when you are at a hotel? Can serendipity create unique hotel experiences?
Could the hotel come alive with augmented experiences of the city? In ways that help its staff talk about the places, people and food with these visual and sensory aids.
Hotel relationship programmes are jaded. They still offer room nights, points, food discounts and some entertainment. Yes, some will have better shows that can be termed exclusive, but most are the same. So, the jaded travellers seek out the new disruptors who might offer unusual places. I recently read that they are offering houses/stays with surprising twists like historical moments, genetics and more. So can a reimagined programme include coffee club memberships, hours at the business centre, internet access that works across multiple destinations, digital services that go beyond mobile app check-in and much more. The relationship programme would not just unlock services for the hotel but might become a place for customers to do business with each other. Think of it as the app store for the hotel chain. The programme would not be based on the surveillance kind of analytics but with privacy by design objectives.
Finally, any hotel is part of the ecosystem of the city. In a world with severe climate concerns and the growing water shortage, hotels need to rethink their pool strategy. No matter what you say, the water is coming from the local city reservoir. There is a big disconnect between a city starved for water and hotels with their vast pools meant for fun and frolic. Most hotel photos include a pool picture, and that is likely to change very shortly. Will these be replaced with eGames / holodeck experiences?
The hotel industry needs to change. Fast!