It's lodging's age-old question: What will the hotel of the future look like? Mobile check-in? Smartphones that unlock guestroom doors? Rooms that adjust and react to guests when they are in and out of the room? It all sounds pretty futuristic, and—wait—it already exists. The question really is: What's next?
That query was on demand and on stage at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit, during a session called "Hotels of the Future: What’s in the Cards?" There, a brand, a management company, a design company and a creative agency sussed out the traits and feel of what a hotel's essence will be in the years to come. While it's tough to project, one thing is clear: there's a delta between what some think a hotel will be and what it actually will be.
The future of lodging, many agree, is focused on the guest experience, particularly as millennials commit to more travel. "It's the notion of experience over possessions, and travel is such a part of that," said Lauren Chewning, VP of consumer insights at Marriott International.
The experience, Chewning alluded to, is not just specific to the physical hotel anymore. "Consumers view travel broadly; it's not just the hotel experience, but beyond it. They are looking for authentic travel experiences—internally or beyond."
Chewning pointed to Marriott Moments, which allows customers to book "unique experiences" the world over using Marriott Rewards points. Not unlike eBay, rewards members can bid on experiences, of which some 100,000 exist. For example, a current biddable experience is: "Access NBA All-Star 2018 & Stay at the W Hollywood." This year's All-Star weekend is in Los Angeles and the experience includes tickets to that weekend's events, such as the Celebrity Game and All-Star Practice, and two suite tickets to the actual All-Star Game on Feb. 16. The experience also includes a three-night stay at the W Hollywood. The current bid stands at 407,500 points with bidding ending on Feb. 5. To date, 68 bids had been placed.
A Community Experience
Ron Swidler, a principal at Chicago-based design firm The Gettys Group, is also on the experience train, and sees it continuing to define the hotel of the future. Swidler believes that design will help fuel it. "We used to think that our role was to just take care of basic guest needs, but now design is a differentiator, creating memorable experiences."
Hotels, Swidler said, are an opportunity for transformation. He sees hotels serving the community as much as its paying guests. The idea is that hotels should be fulcrums of a neighborhood, to transform neighborhoods, what he called "the responsibility to contribute to the overall betterment."
Elizabeth Keating, partner and president at creative consultancy Revolver New York, took it a step further, remarking that hotels should have a sense of service, and to serve the local community. She thinks hotels have a duty to staff the hotel with those in the immediate location, which not only promotes job growth, but also gives the hotel a level of authenticity that everyone is after. "Not just people who are a bus ride away, but use people who are there, who live right there," she said. "That brings a local flavor to it."
Labor is a salient issue for the hotel industry; finding and retaining talent, at a fair price, is no easy task when the country is essentially at full employment. Scarcity of labor, James Biggar, EVP of hotel management company HHM said, has to be factored into the hotel of the future. "As the cost of labor goes up, hoteliers have to look for ways to be more efficient with labor, while also upping the guest experience," he said. In order to do that, Biggar said technology can help, particularly in the pre-arrival experience and with the advent of mobile check-in. Biggar alluded to the myriad transactional moments of a guest stay, which he said can amount to almost 85 percent of a stay: collecting and swiping a credit card, assigning a room, to name two. "If that mundane stuff can be done in advance, then labor can be focused more on the guest experience," he said.
Too much automation, however, is detrimental to an industry that thrives on human interaction, Chewning said. "Hotels are a human business and enhanced technology, while it can solve many things, should do the things that are dirty, dull or dangerous," she said.
The future of hotels, many have suggested, won't need humans to run it, but will rely on robots or other non-sentient beings. If this is the future, Chewning wants no part of it. "A hotel without anyone working in it would be creepy," she said. "You have to deliver the human element."
A New Perspective
This seeps down into the design of the hotel, specifically the placement of objects, and the look-and-feel of staff; hotel employees of the future will dress more similarly to their guests, and differently than each other, allowing their own personality to come through. The Gettys Group's Swidler expects the traditional front desk to go away, in favor of what he referred to as "stations, which still need to be there for guest arrival." Swidler also thinks that as more technology and automation inevitably trickle into hospitality, employees will be tasked with doing more than just one singular job, such as a traditional front-desk employee also pitching in in retail and F&B.
Swidler praised the citizenM brand for the way it staffs and operates hotels. The brand hires actors, employees with theatre backgrounds, which are called Ambassadors, and who don't need hospitality experience. Building on that is the idea of hotels cultivating an environment that promotes interaction between guests and between guests and employees. Staging TED Talk-style seminars, for example, is a hallmark of RLH Corporation's Hotel RL brand. In 2016, Marriott took it a step further via a partnership with TED, which brings curated TED Talks, blogs and original quotes to hotel guests worldwide. The themes change every quarter.
Interactive public spaces, like these, are the wave of the future, Chewning commented. "Academics and actors engaging with guests," she said.
Still, not everyone is sold on the future. In fact, if it's up to Keating, a nod to the past is what the hotel industry needs; what she called a "return to classics with a twist—a blending of the old and new."
Keating said the industry has gone too far in the other direction. "You don’t always want to be public," she said. "Some guests want more private moments." She pointed to the NoMad Hotel, with outposts in New York and Los Angeles, as a brand that has been able to find the right balance.
New technology, from virtual reality to artificial intelligence, has and will continue to be intertwined in the future of hotels. Marriott, for one, has been at the forefront of the movement, creating what it calls "additional points of engagement for guests, powered by artificial intelligence." Last September, its Aloft brand, which serves as the hotel company's "innovation incubator," launched ChatBotlr, a chatbot available via text message that gives guests an additional way to make service requests. Aloft’s ChatBotlr joins Marriott’s other innovations. Marriott Rewards chatbots are available on Facebook Messenger, Slack and soon are promised on We-Chat and Google Assistant.
"Data is the new oil," Chewning said. "Customers are expecting that you will deliver a personalized experience so we are investing in data science."
Advanced research, Biggar said, is the only way to truly understand the guest.
The future hotel, Swidler said, will allow prospective customers to experience the hotel virtually before physically through virtual reality. In fact, during the ALIS conference, Hilton showcased VR that allowed one to don a pair of goggles and experience two of the hotel company's newer brands, Canopy and Tru. "This will progress," Swidler said.
No one can really know what the hotel of the future will surely look like, especially if you are asking to predict 15 years in the future. In a moment of levity, session moderator Bob Alter, president of Seaview Investors, a hotel ownership group, asked Marriott's Chewning what, indeed, a hotel will look like 15 years from now. Her response was that 15 years is a bit far out. An exasperated Alter countered: "But you ask me to sign a 30-year franchise agreement!"