Journalist, producer and media consultant based in Spain working for UK press. My focus here is safe travel and the tourism industry. I also cover current affairs, business, architecture and rural regeneration, and work / have worked for The Guardian, BBC, FT, The Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Reader's Digest, Evening Standard.
Ten top predictions for hotels was written for Business Life in 2007. It’s interesting now to see which predictions were on the ball, and which . . . well, weren’t.
Undersea resorts, holographic teleconferencing, and doors that unlock with a blink may seem fantastical and even superfluous when all most travellers want from a hotel is Wi-fi and a decent bed. But as travel and technology accelerate change, the hotel industry has had to abandon its slow cycle of evolution and get inventive, both reflecting today’s desire for style, convenience, free water and personalised service, and designing a stage for the lifestyles of tomorrow.
All big brands will build in China: China will become the world’s largest inbound tourism destination by 2020. Hotel chains that move in fast stand to get treble returns. Not only is business guaranteed to be healthy with a predicted 180 million visitors a year, but the World Travel and Tourism Council reckons China’s new middle class will be making an annual 1.1 billion domestic trips. If a hotel brand can establish itself here as a household name, it will be a first choice as the outbound tourism market grows tenfold to 100 million. “These are compelling reasons to grow our brands in China” says Andrew Cosslett, CEO, of the InterContinental Hotels Group which plans to increase its hotels in China from 52 to 125 over the next two years.
Beijing and Shanghai, hosts to the 2008 Summer Olympics, and 2010 World Expo respectively, are already saturated with luxury hotels – Starwood alone will have 10 in Shanghai when Le Meridien opens this month. Now major hotel brands are snapping up properties further afield. Holiday Inn grew out of Eisenhower’s road building programme to link the 44 US cities with populations of over one million. “That process is now being repeated in China” says Cosslett, “They are building 85,000km of road joining up the 166 cities with a population of over 1 million. The argument that Holiday Inn will grow in modern day China as it did it 50’s America is a compelling one.”
So its off to Dameisha, Urumqi and Qingyuan for us, and back to school for sales staff tasked with filling large hotels in destinations nobody knows much about – although the Mandarin Oriental which is opening a property on Hainan Island next year, describes the location as ‘the Hawaii of China’ which is helpful.
Dubai hotels get bigger, taller, weirder: Winter sun and conference centres brought 6 million visitors to Dubai last year. Now it’s time to get down to business. About 17 percent of the world’s cranes are deployed there as Dubai embarks on phase two of a scheme to develop a viable alternative to the oil industry and a target of over 70,000 new hotel rooms set to meet anticipated demand. The newly unveiled $27 billion Bawadi project alone will add 29,000 hotel rooms and accommodate 3 million tourists when finished in 2016. Its 6-mile strip of 31 hotels modelled on ancient Egyptian palaces, Hollywood and the Houses of Parliament will be the largest concentration of luxury hotels in the world. The Asia-Asia (opening 2010), will steal the title of the world’s largest hotel from the MGM Grand in Vegas by an impressive 1,500 rooms. Construction is also underway on the world’s first luxury underwater hotel, not 20,000 leagues but 20 metres under the Arabian Gulf. Sourcing funding and strong Perspex delayed the build, but the £300 million Hydropolis with its 220 ocean view suites is set to open at the end of 2007. “I believe that the future lies in the sea” says the designer, Joachim Hauser who is now planning a chain.
Hotels become homes: Timeshares used to be for people who couldn’t afford a whole second home. Now they’re big business, high-status and much in demand but called fractionals, condo-hotels and vacation clubs. “The names are an effort to distance themselves from something that’s slightly nasty” says Philip Bacon, managing director EMEA & Asia, HVS Shared Ownership Services, “but the concept is essentially the same. Just done better.” Luxury hotels are leading the way, building mixed-use developments that offer a sliding scale of ownership options between a suite for a week and serviced condo for life.
It’s a perfect solution for the peripatetic wealthy and globe-trotting executives. Accommodation is safe and secure and owners have the use of pools, casinos, gyms, restaurants, golf courses and ski resorts on the doorstep. There’s five-star service – at Ritz-Carlton Club Residences, they’ll warm your ski boots, stock your fridge, have the chauffeur meet you at the airport, and the chef rustle up souffés in your kitchen. A hotel’s involvement is sometimes discreet (London’s No.1 Hyde Park will be covertly managed by Mandarin Oriental and The Knightsbridge, by Hyatt) but in general, it’s the association with a luxury brand that’s driving demand. Announcing an 800 hotel-condo project in Panama recently, Trump International talked up the ‘signature brand’ but also ‘world-class amenities and tenants’. Hotel brands attract like-minded people – so many pro athletes have bought the $4 million apartments at W Residences, Fort Lauderdale (opening this winter, and one of eight in development), it’s been called Jock’s paradise. Essentially, hotels are blurring the distinction between rooms and homes, and creating the communities of the future.
Style up, prices down: There’s rapid growth in the UK’s midrange bracket. Malmaison which first proved affordable style wasn’t a contradiction in terms – even in England, opens properties in Liverpool and Reading (November, March 2007) while stable mate, Hotel du Vin adds Cambridge and York early next year. Abode gives cool quality below designer prices (3 open, 10-15 planned, rates: around £125), Dakota from Malmaison founder, Ken McCulloch and David Coulthard gives business travellers with cars a great deal more style and comfort than the Travelodges and by saving on locations (the first of a 40-50 chain sits off Junction 27 of the M1 Motorway on Sherwood Business Park) can do it for £84.50 a night.
“The days when the bland and grand dominated the market have run their course” says industry expert and PR, Nigel Massey. “The trend is for upmarket, low cost, low service. It’s about giving people what they want.” Pret a Manger’s Sinclair Beecham isn’t alone in hating mini-bars and hidden charges. His hotel, The Hoxton, will provide the essentials, water and Wi-fi, free have extras available from a shop in the lobby charging retail prices. His mantra ‘budget doesn’t have to be ugly’ manifests itself in stylish rooms, art in the lobby, and London rates of £99 a night. base2stay, Kensington, also strips out the extras. The serviced apartments have upscale boutique touches but “edited service”. Instead of room service and a gym they may or may not use, guests get a base directory to supermarkets, cafes, gyms and spas in the area and pay just £80.
Pods and capsules: Lobbies are getting bigger, and rooms, equipped with sleek gadgetry, and walk-in showers not baths, are getting smaller. Sometimes much smaller. BA business class sleeper beds and Japanese capsule hotels were the inspiration for Yotel from Yo! Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe. The prospect of 10m² windowless rooms – or cabins, was viewed with suspicion, but clever design, an airline motif and monsoon showers, flat-screen TVs and Wi-fi have won over detractors. Months ahead of opening, Yotel is already described as iconic, an “iPod of the hotel world”.
Yotels will open at Heathrow Terminal 4 and Gatwick Airport later this year (where they can be booked in four-hour blocks) with a third in Central London in 2007, and 50 more planned for major airport locations around the world within seven years.
Luxury yacht cabins inspired the rooms at the 104-bedroom central Birmingham nitenite hotel. At 2.1m by 3.4m including the hi-tech bathroom, the rooms are even smaller than those at Yotel and they don’t have windows either, but, says owner Neil Tibbatt, “the CCTV automatically comes on a 42 inch plasma screen as the guest puts a keycard in the control panel showing the view from a camera panning across the roof, and that really helps. People, whose expectations are based on the price (£49.95) have been pleasantly surprised. We call it budget boutique. The rationale is “to utilise awkward space, fit more rooms in a small area, and offer affordable accommodation in prime city locations.”
Generation Personalisation: “Generation P expects a more personalised experience” says Ron Swidler, Senior Vice-President of Chicago-based design and architecture firm, Gettys, and the challenge is for hotels is to provide it.
Brands can only be stretched so far before they snap. So instead of making radical changes to established names, major hotel groups are sub-dividing and launching, or acquiring, multiple lifestyle brands that closely match the different needs of the new market sectors they spot. The company behind Taj Resorts and Palaces is rolling out Ginger, a chain of $20 a night rooms from Bangalore to Goa, IHG has launched the boutique-style Indigo, while Starwood, quick to respond to lifestyle trends, is to launch Aloft, urban loft-style retreats, for the young, urban and hip – 500 will open by 2012. Despite the value of thepink pound, no major chain has launched a gay hotel brand. Now the independent gay hotel, Axel Hotel Barcelona, has announced it’s building a branch in Buenos Aires and considering a rollout, it’s only a matter of time before they do.
Guests are encouraged to fine tune their experience, choosing between floors created by different designers at the Puerta America in Madrid, or between firm or fluffy pillows, and functional or inspirational wake-up calls at a W hotel. Personal service has reached motherly levels, with Lifestyle Butlers at the St. Regis, Shanghai escorting guests on visits to local artists and events, and W’s chefs rustling up meals-to-go for the plane journey home. Services like Contempo from the house of Elegant Resorts, ensure a personalised experience right at the point of booking, with Travel Designers familiarising themselves with clients’ preferences and making hotel recommendations accordingly.
Tryvertising: “Tryvertising is on the rise in the US” says Swidler, “It’s a way of getting consumers familiar with products by trying them. And insperience: integrating goods and services into daily life in a relevant way. Hotel of Tomorrow, our industry-wide think tank identified retail inside hotels as becoming a much larger part of the hotel experience. It’s only a matter of time before brands like Nike or Apple start designing hotels, or a furniture company opens up a hotel as a showcase for their product.”
Indeed, IKEA have already signed a deal to furnish 60 Etap hotels in Germany, Muji look poised to cross over, and Liberty’s, long associated with lush interiors, will open a 41-room boutique hotel at its London site. Opening a chain of hotels seems a natural career progression from designing a suit these days with Bulgari, Versace, Cerruti and Camper well ensconced, but the $1 billion Armani Hotels and Resorts collection moves designer hotel projects onto a new level. Giorgio Armani has agreed to oversee all areas of design on three vacation resorts and seven luxury hotels, scheduled to open within the next ten years, starting, inevitably, with Hotel Armani Dubai in 2008, while Missoni have licensed Rezidor SAS Hospitality to build and operate 30 lifestyle brand hotels. “We believe” says director, Vittorio Missoni, “that hotels are a natural extension for our core brand and will work with and complement our fashion business, our Missoni Home collection and our new fragrance range that will launch in spring of next year.”
Hotels as monuments to great architecture: “The hotel sector has become one of the great areas for innovation” says Howard Watson, author of Hotel Revolution – 21st-Century Hotel Design (Wiley-Academy). “Established designers from Norman Foster to Zaha Hadid to Jean Nouvel have all dipped their toe in the water, but brave new radicals such as Marcel Wanders, Karim Rashid are finding there’s an audience (and financial support) for their inventiveness.” People are becoming more design-savvy and cash-rich. “They expect a new hotel to be experientally and visually extraordinary: they want to have an experience they have never had before, and they are willing to pay for it.”
With tourism now one of the world’s biggest industries, hotels have new social, cultural and economic significance. “The Burj al’ Arab hotel was used as a potent symbol for the rebirth of Dubai as a global financial, property and tourism centre. Hotel Puerta America in Madrid, has become a focal point in that city’s attempt to combat the cultural appeal of Barcelona.”
There’s resigned acknowledgement that until energy costs account for more than 2.5 percent of a hotel’s expenditure, designing green buildings won’t be a priority. However, for a marriage of high design and eco-sensibility in the heart of Europe, Watson considers Italy’s Matteo Thun-designed Vigilius Mountain Resort, the model for the future.
Big Brother: You leave a digital trail. Sensors in entertainment consoles, clocks, curtains and thermostats relay information to a data network, the hotel collates, a profile is built and stored, and when you next visit your room is automatically adjusted at check-in: lights dimmed, heating up, frequently dialled numbers loaded into the phone, and TV set to your favourite channel. The Mandarin Oriental, New York was one of the first to reach this heady level of IT-facilitated personalisation, but all top-tier hotels are following as fast as they can. Of course the goal keeps moving. “In the near future,” says Swidler, “I’ll be able to go into a hotel room with my Blackberry and have it constantly send out and feed information back to me. We’re heading towards a seamless interface between self and the environment.”
In the meantime mobile phones keep us connected. W hotels use text messaging to tell guests when their rooms are ready, or when dinner reservations are confirmed, and du Vin hotels will link baby monitors up to them. Furniture’s being modified accordingly with wireless battery chargers set into tables, automatically recharging phones that are dropped on them. And biometric security is imminent: Guests at Hotel Palafitte, Lausanne can access their rooms by touching a sensor after having fingers scanned at reception; retina scans are being trialled at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport, and it won’t be long before rooms are unlocked with a stare.
Rooms 2 Go / Mobile Hotels: “Imagine going to sleep in a Yotel in New York and waking in London, your bed having been automatically transferred by plane” says Woodroffe. It’s beginning to sound plausible. Mobile hotels from pods on stilts to spaceships are the fascination of the day. The America World City Ship -a floating city with three 21-storey hotel towers, giant blimps 600 ft long containing luxury hotels, plane ships that skim across vast stretches of water, opening up new destinations in the Amazon and the Arctic, are just some of the concepts in development at the offices of hotel design specialists and boundary pushers, Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG). And because in a recent survey 50 percent of hoteliers believe we’ll need one by 2050, they’ve even drawn up the design for a hotel on the moon.
SORREL DOWNER, BUSINESS LIFE, 2007.