||The Millennials Check In
The hotel industry, struggling to recover from the depths of the recession, has begun to contemplate a group of travelers it sees as crucial to its economic growth -- those in their 20s to mid-30s who are obsessed with technology, social media and design.
Many hotel owners and operators are remodeling existing hotels or introducing new ones that offer free hotelwide Wi-Fi connections; large, welcoming lobbies with plush, comfortable furnishings; state-of-the-art fitness areas; in-room power consoles to plug in iPads, laptops and other devices; and stylish bars that spill into the lobby.
Some are also scheduling nightly social events, like happy hours and free wine tastings, aimed at luring the iPhone-toting generation to their hotels.
"All of the major brands -- Hilton, Starwood, Marriott, InterContinental -- have developed hip products that are targeted at the younger traveler," said Chris Klauda, a vice president at D. K. Shifflet & Associates, a travel and hospitality market research company.
Travel spending by these younger travelers rose 20 percent in 2010, making them the fastest-growing age segment, according to American Express Business Insights, though they still lag the baby boom generation in overall spending.
Hotels that ignore these younger travelers, said Mark Woodworth, president of Colliers PKF Hospitality Research, will be at "a very severe competitive disadvantage."
About a decade ago, the hotel industry was concentrating much of its effort on luring people who are now mostly in their 50s and 60s. The changes involved higher-quality beds, brighter lighting and bigger work spaces. And those travelers were loyal to brands that offered reliable, comfortable services.
Today, the Millennials, or Generation Y, seem to be seeking the opposite: the innovative and the off-the-wall attract their attention and their wallets.
"Interesting is more important than comfort," said Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. "It's the reverse for baby boomers."
Mr. Hanson said wall-to-wall -- and free -- Wi-Fi service was not only demanded but expected. "High-speed Internet is almost like air to Millennials," he added, with most considering it as essential as beds and towels.
Hotel owners are also installing power consoles in rooms and public areas so that charging all those cellphones and laptops is easy and accessible.
"Gen Y'ers don't want to have to unplug lamps or crawl under the bed to get their laptops and P.D.A.'s plugged in," Ms. Klauda said.
The Plaza Hotel in New York has gone one step further, placing iPads in every hotel room. Guests can use the device to control the lighting, adjust the air-conditioning, order room service and read the morning paper.
Marketing and communicating through social networks are also important among hoteliers. When young travelers have a problem at a hotel, they are less inclined to complain to the hotel manager, as their predecessors generally do; they go online and post on Twitter about it. In early 2010, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide responded by setting up a team of about 20 people whose sole job is to monitor and respond to online complaints and comments.
Probably the biggest physical change has been to the hotels' lobbies. Executives are retrofitting lobbies with comfortable sofas and Art Deco furnishings.
"If Millennials are wearing shorts, a T-shirt, a baseball cap and athletic shoes, a lobby that has mahogany paneling, English hunting scenes and Oriental rugs doesn't connect as well," Mr. Hanson said.
Young travelers also tend to spend far more time socializing and working in the lobby than they spend in their hotel rooms. "We coined the phrase 'isolated togetherness,' because if you watch them in the lobby, a lot of them are texting -- but they're texting each other in the lobby," Ms. Klauda said.
Older travelers, on the other hand, often prefer solitude at the end of the day. They "like the face-to-face interaction during the day, but at the end of the day, we're done -- bring us our room service and leave us alone," said David Loeb, a senior research analyst at Robert W. Baird & Company, a wealth management firm.
Younger travelers also tend to visit three or four different restaurants and bars a night, so some hotels are opening up multiple bars and lounges with different themes at different times of the day to keep them in the hotel. Many also offer free daily events, including tea tastings, yoga sessions and wine tastings, said Raj Chandnani, vice president for strategy at WATG, an architectural design firm for the lodging industry.
The hotelier Ian Schrager, a founder of the Studio 54 nightclub, was a pioneer in creating designer hotels with hip nightclubs, like the Paramount, Royalton and Hudson hotels in Manhattan in the 1980s and '90s.
Starwood followed with its W hotels in the late 1990s and the debut of its Aloft brand in 2005. Other major brands have since jumped in, among them the InterContinental Hotels Group's Indigo brand, Hyatt Hotels Corporation's Andaz and Hyatt Place brands, and Marriott International's concept to turn its lobbies into so-called great rooms.
Gerard Greene, a former hotel analyst, said he felt so strongly about the need for designer hotels at affordable prices that he quit his job, sold his home in London and used cash from the sale to finance his dream.
Now, 10 years later, his brand, Yotel, has four hotels, including one in Midtown Manhattan that some guests have described as futuristic. That hotel has an airportlike check-in kiosk (there is no registration desk); social public spaces; Wi-Fi access, power consoles and entertainment systems that devices can plug into; giant Monsoon shower heads; and compact 200-square-foot rooms, which were inspired by airline cabins, that have floor-to-ceiling windows.
Yotel's other hotels are at the Gatwick and Heathrow airports in London and at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, and it is planning on new ones in Miami, San Francisco, Paris, Hong Kong and New York, at Kennedy Airport.
But could all of this be a passing fad that will fade as the travelers get older?
Mr. Greene said he was not concerned, comparing it with the Apple phenomenon.
"Younger people were the first to adopt the iPods, iPads and so forth, and now my mom has an iPhone, as do many older people," he said. "But the people who got it first were the younger people."
Similarly, he said he believed that older travelers would follow the young in hotel trends.
"My sense is most people think there's been a change," said John Fox, a senior vice president at PKF Consulting, "and it's a permanent change."
(Source: The New York Times, 03/12/12)
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