Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Don’t mention the M word: travel habits are about Lifestyle

Recently I stayed in a category of hotels that aim to re-define the convenience / consistency / perks driven experience that dominates mainstream travel with a highly individualised one, and which have increasingly sprung up across all regions to cater for the supposedly ‘new’ generation of travelers.
Upon arrival I was ushered by a friendly girl in sneakers to a self-check in terminal. At the restaurant I found a mishmash of cosy sofas and dining tables and the menu came on an iPad. The room was a loft room with separate lounge and sleeping areas. You know by now that I am talking about a hotel that is from the outset targeted at the so called Millennial generation. The experience was awful, but before I go into the details why, let’s get a clearer idea of this much overused category: the Millennial traveller.

Shock, horror - Millennials are not as
different as previous generations
The Millennial Myth demystified
After a flurry of breathless predictions over the past years on Millennials’ uniqueness in shaping every part of our lives, most industries and commentators have now realised that Gen-Yers are – shock, horror - not quite as different than previous generations. A recent US centric study on this that can be found here shows that it is more the times we live in, rather than generations themselves that have shaped behaviour. People respond to the changes around them and according to the report, any differences in travel behaviour between Millennials and previous generations have more to do with the 2008 Global Financial Crisis than with dramatic shifts in attitudes and as such are likely to be evened out as Millennials mature.

The ascendancy of the Lifestyle brand
If we take the Millennials out of the equation, what we are left with is essentially ‘Lifestyle’, which as a travel category has been on the ascendancy for quite a while. It seems that we have mistaken the Millennials’ sheer power of numbers with our changing habits and preferences, which are in fact inter-generational.
The first W hotel in New York

We all like a little more personalisation and special experience when we travel – who wants to stay in a hotel room that is totally interchangeable with the one in the hotel next door if you can avoid it? It seems to me that what used to be called a boutique hotel, which was by nature geared towards attracting a niche, has now become a lifestyle hotel.

A quick check into the history of hotel brands shows this very well. Ian Schrager, often referred to as single-handedly creating the boutique hotel genre, saw the emergence of a more individualistic trend in travel three decades ago. And the original “Lifestyle” hotel brand, W Hotels, was created as far back as 1998, a time when the term Millennials wasn’t even coined, mobile phones looked like bricks and AltaVista reigned as the Internet search engine of choice.

The newer brands in this category such as Moxy, Aloft, Tribute, VIB and the likes are the W’s of our times and share the corresponding design principles pioneered all those years ago, namely high-tech amenities, communal spaces, as well as an emphasis on the experiential and wellness. These are all attributes that I respond to as well, and I am certainly not a Y’er. They may all look kind of bland and same-ish, but as long as what they do is well executed these hotel brands should do well in any demographic. 

The fundamentals of guest experience have not changed
Which brings me back to my experience at the hotel I mentioned at the start.

Hipster aesthetic:
bland and same-ish
What appears to have gone wrong there was that the owners/developers wanted to quickly jump on the Millennial bandwagon without doing the home work. If what we are seeing today is the emergence of lifestyle brands, not Millennial brands, it is an obvious conclusion that the fundamentals should not have changed either, such as good customer service and guest experience.

Is there room for improvement in the check in process? Absolutely. But just slapping a check in kiosk in the lobby and letting the guest do all the tedious work of typing in address details (as opposed to being able to hand front end staff my business card so they can do it later) translates into a terrible guest experience. That this part can be handled much better has been proven by early adopters in the lifestyle category such as CitizenM, that engage the guest early and thus have a complete picture at check in that requires just a few steps by the guests themselves in order to walk away with the room key.

And just to complete my list of complaints at that hotel: if you do go to the length of having an iPad for ordering in the restaurant, make sure that it actually is doing what it is supposed to do. Handing me the tablet and warning me to ‘check the order with the server before placing it’ translates into a very expensive exercise in futility.

Last not least, just giving the appearance of ticking all the right boxes with a contemporary design and ‘communal spaces’ is simply not enough. A loft room may be cool and contemporary, but if it is not equipped with enough power points and/or USB charging stations frustration will set in very quickly. And only allowing me to access WiFi with two devices when I need access for 3 (the average is 3.6 today and 4.3 by 2020) will make sure this hotel will disappear from my favourites list forever.