Journalist, film producer, and media consultant, mixing it up for TV, online, newspapers and magazines. I cover travel & tourism, lifestyle, and design. Mainly. This is the HQ for previous work, and an introduction to current projects. I work all over the world and live on a farm in Cadiz which I write about at www.somewheresville.org.
“The hotel industry is entering an era of unprecedented change”, says Jérôme Destors, Director of Hotel IT at Amadeus. “Change requires bold actions . . . requires hoteliers to think in different ways. We no longer expect to continue as we were.” So what can we expect? Coat-hangers that come off the rail? Room service breakfasts at a reasonable price? Emerging trends, fast-evolving technology, and the industry professionals questioned by Fast Future Research for a recent Amadeus report, Hotels 2020, all suggest something even more dramatic. Here’s a dozen.
REVOLUTION: CUSTOMERS UNITE AND RULE
Communication between guests used to be limited to a glance of commiseration in the check-in queue. Hotels dealt with us individually. Now, we’re united as packs through social media, keen to share our experiences – instantly – with thousands. We have power and we know how to use it. Room rates are under attack and the reverse auction is becoming more common. A big enough group of people with a shared objective– ten couples, say, looking for boutique hotels in Barcelona for a spring break –through sites and tweets can come together as a temporary group with enough leverage to offer their business to the hotel that can gives the best price.
This clearly has ramifications for hotels. And reputations are being made and broken online. W Hotels Leicester Square had attracted two and a half thousand friends several months before even opening. “Social media is getting serious” Paul Richer of travel consultancy technology, Genesys warns marketers. “In 2011 you’ll need to be finding ways to promote your brand in this new arena.”
Social media sites already hold more information on some hotels than the hotels’ own websites – and they’re already persuasive. Six out of ten people change their travel plans after consulting them. The new wave of geo-social sites, like FourSquare, and Dopplr, will take things further, giving real time information, reviews, discounts and offers relevant to any location – useful collective intelligence that anyone with a smart phone can tap into. Starting with a user base of 550 million, the new arrival, Facebook Places, is set to dominate. Hotels that don’t claim their place page and play the game will be invisible in this digital reality (or possibly represented by an unfavourable review); hotels that do will be drawn into appeasing guests and undercutting offers from neighbouring properties not seasonally, but by the hour. But they’ll need to play the game.
Of course good service will be rewarded, but this is definitely a development that puts the power in the hands of the guest. By 2020, finding a room, finding a bargain and finding a nice two-for-one dinner deal will be easier than ever before.
THE LISTENING HOTEL
When a salesman staying at the Marriott Orlando tweeted complaints, he was instantly upgraded. It’s set a precedent for whine and response that many hotels find unnerving. But as well as having hotel Twitter teams running 24-hour damage control, the start of a two-way communication between hotels and their markets could bring about real change in the industry.
Across other sectors, companies from Muji to Fiat are inviting interested parties to participate in shaping products and services. Sometimes it’s a case of using crowd-sourcing to test existing products. Through its vocalpoint.com site, Proctor & Gamble for example, gets people to review new lines and take surveys in return for perks. This crowd-sourcing is mutually beneficial – companies are more likely to develop the things customers need, and engaged customers are more likely to buy and promote them. As a result of direct conversations with customers via an online forum, the InterContinental Hotels Group did create a credit card that makes it easier for their frequent travellers to claim rewards, but there’s clearly a long way the industry can go.
By 2020, competition may force hotels to be more receptive to the idea of open innovation, and tap into a wealth of creativity and expertise in and outside the sector for a collaborative rethink about hotel design and service norms. Starting gently – Los Cabos Resort in Mexico invited the public to invent a hotel job that would enhance the guest experience and submit it by video. We can expect radical but logical change and, perhaps – the H.O.T Project suggests, the foundations laid for the wiki-hotel co-designed by customers of the future.
WHAT DO WE WANT? CHOICE
“There’s been an explosion of personalisation” says Rohit Talwar, Chief Executive of Fast Future. “With an iPhone app people can completely customise their experience. And now they’re asking why they can’t have the same control in customising a hotel experience.”
I’d have thought that was fairly obvious, but according Talwar, “ whilst some might be sceptical about a hotel’s ability to shift to such an extreme level of individual tailoring, 86 per cent agreed that by 2020, personalization will have been embraced wholeheartedly by the sector.” Instead of taking the hotel package, it seems we’ll be presented with the all-new ‘consumer-led spectrum of choice’.
And advances in technology suggest there will be much to choose from. We’ll be able to customise decor, audio-visual entertainment and select how we check in – via our smart phones or biometrics, at an airport style self-check-in kiosk, or by forming an orderly queue at reception.
“If hotels present guests with 122 menus it will go down like a lead balloon” says Talwar, “they need to make it fun; something people can do before check-in, sitting on train playing with apps.”
Embedded intelligence at ‘touch points’ (anywhere we make a transaction or select an option) will record our preferences, and use data analysis to extrapolate information from what we did, used and bought , to refine and enhance the service we are offered on subsequent visits.
Today we’re impressed that the Sofitel Manila Plaza has virtual trainers on its gym equipment capable of giving guests a personalised workout. In 10 years we’ll be complaining that the lighting and fragrance in our rooms hasn’t been set to our preferences and the fruit selection’s wrong.
As Peter de Jong, former CEO of PATA confirms: “the client is king and will demand a deepening customisation of travel”
NEW CUSTOMERS – OR RATHER, OLDER ONES
While recognising we are all individuals with our individual needs, hotels will need to adapt to accommodate two increasingly important and not mutually exclusive market segments – the older traveller, and the Asian traveller. The ever-ageing population in Europe and the US is also richer, healthier and more likely to travel than ever before. The over-60s, on average less-active and staying longer, they’ll be looking for health, education and culture-rich packages, and entertainment. Hotels will need to provide onsite medical facilities, priority rooms located by lifts, adapted bathrooms and more easily-readable signs. And it will have an impact on staffing – guests will require more attention and support.
While recruiting, hotels would be advised to opt for staff with language skills. Asia will account for one-third of global travel spend by 2020 [Travel Gold Rush 2020]. The prediction that China would by then generate 100 million arrivals worldwide annually [World Tourism Organisation] was, it transpires, conservative. China represents a huge market, the needs of which are very little understood, except for the fact they are used to paying a lot less for a room and smoke under No Smoking signs. Accor has been proactive in preparing for an influx of Chinese customers. Already well-established in China where domestic travel is continuing to boom. Hotels attempting to expand in China in the next decade will be up against an explosion of Chinese budget brands including Jinjiang Inn, Home Inn, and 7-Days Inn. Chinese hotel brands will provide competition internationally as well. Not only in the budget, but the luxury sector where high-technology, innovative design and architecture combined with exceptional service are raising the bar.
BEDROOMS OF THE FUTURE
Once more properties make it possible to go online and take virtual tours before booking, we’ll start to be more specific about the rooms we select – from size, floor and corridor position, to views and layout. There will be more hypoallergenic rooms. Hyatt, Sheraton, Wyndham are among the dozens of chains that have tapped a rich vein by pandering to guests with allergies and neuroses and added Pure Rooms, in which (claim Pure) 99% of pollutants have been filtered from the air. The Hilton, Chicago, has gone the whole hog with Enviro-Rooms stripped of carpets and curtains, with anti-microbial agents applied to knobs and handles.
Having (finally) decided on a room, we can expect a pre-check-in menu of beds, pillows, linen available at a range of different prices. If we’ve stayed before, the temperature, lighting and entertainment channels in the room will be set to our preferences. If not, we can sort it all out through the central control. We’ll configure the artwork (contained within digital frames), and customise the wallpaper. My son used to do this when he was four, but with widespread use of intelligent materials, and photoactive films and organic light emitting diodes applied to wallpapers (floors and furnishings) we’ll be able to control light and colour in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing.
And we’ll never be bored in bed again say the experts. According to Guestoom 20X, by 2020, beds will be designed to offer ‘an all-in-one multimedia experience’ , with a surround sound system, built-in PC and full multimedia components, and a 3D, perhaps a 4D screen, at the foot.
SCIENCE FICTION BECOMES FACT
Every report into the future of hotels has confidently predicted a science fiction style makeover. This time it’s looking more likely.
Three-quarters of Hotel 2020 survey respondents expected augmented reality – where layers of digital information pop up over the things around us – to become widespread. To see that via phones and cameras and pop-up screens is one thing, but researchers are perfecting Terminator contact lenses, or rather lenses with wi-fi LEDs allowing data to be superimposed on our visual field. Add in Facial Recognition and hotel staff can run security checks on everyone that passes through the lobby. Brain control headsets so we can interact with hotel facilities just by thinking (benefitting disabled customers), and 3-D touchable holograms also “seem far-fetched but aren’t” according to Talwar.
Hotels will be expected – by their Generation Y customers at least – to keep pace with technology and to provide a smart environment and an increasingly rich, immersive experience. But for hotel brands, which need to evaluate the merits of each new technology before investing, installing, and rolling it out, this will continue to prove a major challenge.
For example, do they install 3D TVs? Or wait for the inevitable 4D with smell and touch capabilities? Or the holographic TVs with 3D images that pop up from a table-top projector? The new-fangled GoBoards and Surface interactive screens installed recently at a few Marriott and InterContinental Hotel properties to display local information in response to touch (and in the case of the latter, gestures) don’t have a huge wow factor for guests who own iPads and Wiis.
And it’s not only about what to install. With forecasters predicting pop-up displays for mobiles could be commonplace by 2020, hotels have to think about how to accommodate the hi-tech products guests will bring. “Information that used to be in laptops will be in the public domain creating privacy issues and changing the whole experience of hotel lobbies” says Jérôme Destors. “Hotels need to understand what technology is coming in, and the changes they will need to make”.
DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT ONE
Mobiles are set to be the principle tool for researching and booking travel, as well as checking in, opening our rooms, storing and sharing readable health profiles, communicating with the concierge, placing room service orders, collecting perks, uploading video reviews, tweeting complaints – and making calls.
We’ll keep our own increasingly detailed personal profiles in the cloud, and access the information via our phones. Phones, then, will become the primary interface for communicating with sensors within hotels, alerting staff that we’ve checked in, where we are, relaying health information to the gym and dietary requirements to the kitchen.
The Clarion Hotel, Stockholm is one of several hotels currently piloting the mobile as door key scheme. The technology that makes it possible is expected to be built into smart phones in the future allowing guests to check-in remotely and enter their rooms without any sort of interaction with hotel staff. InterContinental Hotel Group CIO, Tom Conophy is also behind the idea, telling Smartplanet.com “Today, it’s a pain in the ass . . . You have to wait in a queue, talk to a human, transact, then get your key. Why not have no check-in? We know who you are already.”
Order a drink or chips from a phone with a geolocation app, and the hotel can deliver it to wherever you go. Hotels can promote services and offers that are timely and relevant, for example beauty products as you enter the spa, or specific drinks brands as you pass the bar.
Several hotels have started developing apps that give their guests insider guides to the immediate vicinity and, like Hilton and the Hyatt offer a twitter concierge. Even budget chain, Premier Inn has been trialling the service (albeit just on Fridays for a month).
Unfortunately, guests may be ahead of the staff in seeing the phone as omnipotent. A recent survey in the US into hoteliers’ views on mobile apps revealed that while most accepted they were the way forward, few had any firsthand knowledge of them, one director of sales at a San Francisco hotel saying they were ‘for the younger generation’. [Knowland Group].
STARS GET A SHAKE-UP
Judging by the 35 million reviews on TripAdvisor, people seem to think it is service and ambience that make a hotel special, not infrastructure. Under such pressure, the long-established star classification systems might finally morph into a something that better reflects the customer experience. Staff would be required to continually throw themselves into maximising guest satisfaction to ensure a hotel maintains its rating. Israel has eschewed the whole star system altogether, and now Jordan has introduced ranking that’s based on the guest’s perspective.
Interestingly, there is also talk of mixed-tier hotels, where different categories of hotel from budget to luxury are co-located at one location and share leisure facilities. Presumably, under the new system, the different zones would be differentiated by the staff – the unhelpful ones in budget, and the kind and gracious in deluxe.
SUSTAINED INTEREST IN SUSTAINABILITY
In the survey, 83% agreed that by 2020 ‘environmental considerations will play an increasing role in the choice of business and leisure hotels’. This is generally what industry professionals predict, but with the next generation of customers justifiably snippy about baby boomers using so much of the earth’s resources there’s virtually nothing left for them, hotels have to take action to win their trade.
The hotel industry has one of the lowest environmental awareness of all business sectors, says the UK’s Environment Agency, but things are changing. London’s newly re-opened, famously traditional Savoy Hotel has the world’s first Green Butler who’ll not only unpack for you but recommend eco restaurants, eco bars and eco-retail outlets. Over £2.4 million has been invested in environmental technologies including a combined heat and power (CHP) plant cutting the hotel’s reliance on the national grid by half and a system which reclaims the heat from kitchen appliances to provide hot water and they also plan to recycle 90% of their waste.
Starwood Hotels and Resorts turned to Conservation International for advice in setting a goal to cut water consumption by 20 percent, and energy use in each of its 1,000 properties by 30 percent by 2020. And it’s a hotel, the Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers, which boasts the largest building-integrated solar panel system in northern Europe.
The hotel industry demand for environmentally sound building materials is a great incentive for more investment in nanotechnology and biotechnology, and the invention of products that will eventually be available in our own homes, like solar light harvesting wallpapers and self-cleaning bathrooms. The demand for locally and organically-produced sustainable food is prompting hotels to explore the possibility of vertical farming, where crops would be grown hydroponically, behind glass-walled floors on top of the building.
And thanks to crowd-farming, guests will not just use, but generate energy, pedalling exercise bikes and tromping along corridors capable of storing it.
From lagging behind public opinion, hotels by 2020, could be sustainability showrooms.
ONLY PAY FOR WHAT YOU USE
The old adage, ‘waste not, want not’ will figure large in hotel construction, furnishing and staffing decisions. Instead of constructing and maintaining buildings that have only occasional use, hoteliers will take advantage of modular construction, pods and flat-packs to add and remove space as required. This might be tricky on a daily basis, but we can expect to it work seasonally. It’s a sign of the times that destination design firm WATG won first place in the Radical Innovation in Hospitality competition for Mosaic, a system of collapsible geometric-shaped prisms complete with fixtures, fittings and self-contained energy, plumbing and lighting. There’s the potential for Northern European beach hotels to be constructed entirely of prisms and pods, and to relocate to the tropics for winter. We can also expect the emergence of hotel properties that have no specific location but are transported around the world serving as branded pop-up accommodation for festivals and sporting events.
Waste is also being eliminated within hotels. Guest movement and pressure sensors will show which areas of hotels have the highest and lowest traffic, and allow managers to use spaces more economically. There will be a general reduction in the amount of stuff that’s placed in the rooms. “I go in and automatically count the things I won’t use” says RT. “Rather than say ‘here’s my product,’ hotels should be providing customers with a basic shell which could be customised to meet their needs.” Almost all respondents (92 per cent) felt it likely that customers would be offered the choice of a standard, ‘fully loaded’, or basic room which they could then fill with the items they needed by selecting from a menu at the time of booking.
Soon it seems guests won’t have to pay for things they don’t use. That includes their empty room. Hotels are expected to shift from charging for rooms from a fixed check-in time, to charging for a 24-hour period from the time the guest checks in. One day they might even charge for just the hours the room is used.
So things look good for tomorrow’s guests, not quite so good for staff who might also be affected by savings. Robots are cheap, efficient, multilingual and rolling off the production line. Hotels may begin using intelligent robots to clean and reset rooms by 2020, and before long, to act as bellman and concierge.
SELLING MORE THAN ROOMS
With guests adopting a BYO approach to technology, it’s harder for hotels to make a profit from movie rentals, phone calls and internet access. They’ll need to work harder at making buy the few things they can still sell – food and drink, spa and gym, and they’ll need to find new money-making ventures that also happen to add to the guest experience. Working on the principle that people on holiday like buying things, several hotels have introduced own-brand catalogues, and been successful in selling things guests have tested at their properties including, improbably, beds. Westin Hotels & Resorts have sold over 35,000 Heavenly Beds in ten years.
Expect more co-branding in the next few years – if books and films can profit from it, so can hotels by introducing guests to brands of cereals, audio equipment, home furnishings. Hotels will become (soft) salesrooms.
According to 80% of people surveyed, hotels will extend their reach and try to capture some of the spend their guests make before and after the visit, offering people discounts on insurance, luggage, car hire and so forth when they book, and acting as ‘honest brokers’ sending out promotional offers on behalf of interested parties based on what guests did and purchased during their stay.
All the data-mining, collaboration and increase of choice should result in hotels that meet our expectations, but there will always be room for hotels that surpass them. The rising number of high net worth individuals (HNWI) will seek out awe-inspiring hotels for new experiences. This doesn’t equate to traditional luxury. In an age of total connectivity, getting off the grid will be highly desirable. In the quest for a USP, hotels will pick odd locations, from cliff-side to helicopter access-only peaks, and the idea of an airship-style floating hotel is still being floated. Splendid isolation will be offered at a premium for what’s been termed the No-Frills Affluent.
Hotels also need to coax in the Stay-Home-Gamers. It’s anticipated that brands focused on younger markets will form partnerships with home entertainment companies to offer their guests exclusive previews of the latest gaming technology.
“There’s a need for hotels to be innovative,” says Jerome Déstôrs, “and the potential for them to act as living laboratories for the development and testing of new ideas.” This could be in the build. China’s hotel architects, like Zhu Pei who gave Beijing’s Hotel Kapok, walls that glow like a Chinese lantern, and W Hotels’ support for new designers, create an impact through fresh design. But it could also be taking and reflecting the biggest, brightest and best ideas each generation has to offer.
SORREL DOWNER, BUSINESS LIFE, FIRST PUBLISHED 2011
This is the HQ for archive features, and an introduction to current projects. See also somewheresville, the travel blog; Vimeo for videos, LinkedIn for skills and contact details, and Joy Soup for multimedia content news, reviews and services offered.