We’ve all been there: checking into a hotel at 11 p.m., jet-lagged, bleary-eyed and fumbling with room cards, light switches and AC controls. There’s got to be an easier way.

With keyless entry, mobile payments and interactive gaming centres, hotels have embraced modern technology, but there’s room for more fluid and intuitive innovations. After all, everybody wants a joyous hotel experience, with a room that’s easy to navigate, says Adele Rankin, senior associate at Chil Interior Design in Vancouver. “So technology is straddling that line of simplifying and yet accelerating in its technological advances,” she adds.

Rankin experienced a fluid and intuitive design during a recent stay at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski in Munich. The contemporary rooms are kitted out with impressive multimedia features, including an iPad — a virtual concierge that allows guests to place room-service orders, message reception or book spa treatments — in addition to displaying personal welcome messages. But Rankin was most impressed by the flat LED panels, which were installed both outside and inside the room to display messages for calling an attendant, ringing the doorbell or posting a “do-not-disturb” note. The screens featured simple, user-friendly graphics allowing guests to control the lighting in different zones and adjust the temperature. “I was invested at that point, and they made it personal for me and easy,” she notes. “Everything becomes simplified and user-friendly, akin to what Apple has been doing for the last decade.”

Integrated and intuitive room functionality is already top of mind at Zurich-based Swissôtel Hotels & Resorts, which caters to road-weary business travellers who stay between one and three nights. “They don’t have time to invest in finding their way around the room,” explains Thiébaut Ossola, director of Brand Experience. “So a simple push of a button that can control all the lights [is] quite good. It’s not that fancy, but there’s a lot of thinking to make sure this remains intuitive and guest-friendly.”

Rohit Talwar couldn’t agree more. “There’s this sheer dichotomy between the efficiency of the technology around me — where I’ve configured it and immersed myself in it, so I’m getting into everything I need with one click — and the inefficiency of in-room technology,” says the London, U.K.-based futurist, author, speaker and CEO of Fast Future.
Typically, customers are looking for experiences that are equal to or better than their home environment, and that trend is expected to continue moving forward. “It’s important we create an experience that is aspirational for the guest; that they have what they want, when they want, where they want it,” notes Mike Tiedy, SVP, Global Brand & Innovation at Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Stamford, Conn. It all comes down to choice. Providing customers with television channels they watch most frequently or stocking the mini bar with their preferred food and beverages are a few examples of the heightened personalization, which may be coming soon.

More customers are also expecting choice about the location of their guestrooms — whether they are close to the elevators or have a southern exposure — choices about the types of bed sheets or bathroom amenities and choices about what they can order for room service, says Talwar. “[Provide] menus from local restaurants so I can choose what I order rather than being restricted,” he notes.

“You’re getting that already with airlines, and now you’re getting it with hotels,” Talwar adds. “It’s happening to us across society. [Personalization is] available to us, and it’s shaping our fate. I can configure things infinitely with technology. Technology gives us choice; it gives us power. And they’re taking that into every domain. So Old World businesses like hotels need to work out how to become New World enterprises.”

What guests want from their travel experience has also shifted, says Martha Cotton, partner and researcher at Chicago-based innovation consultancy, Gravitytank. “They are looking for more authentic, meaningful experiences — a bar in an up-and-coming neighbourhood, a unique non-chain coffee shop, a small storefront theatre. Guests are looking for hotels that are explicitly part of a community, whether it be via the artwork displayed on the walls or the beer offered in the bar,” she explains.

The growing desire for more choice and customization will also continue to shift into the design of guestroom furnishings, which are becoming more modular, pared down, streamlined and open. Furniture can be moved around to accommodate various needs, such as hosting a meeting, working on a tablet or having a meal. “We’re moving away from the room developed in the ’70s or ’80s, which was blocks of furniture pre-formatted and directly fitted into the room, and going towards freestanding furniture that really serves the purpose of the guest,” explains Ossola. At Swissôtel, workspaces provide ample surface and lighting, chairs are height-adjustable, and drawers are placed where they won’t bump into guests’ knees.

Millwork is also becoming more integrated; everything is floating and coming off the walls and away from the ceiling. “It’s in keeping with a modern European esthetic,” notes Rankin. “But it makes the rooms easier to clean, and it makes them appear bigger, because the light is able to bounce in and underneath things. That plays into a higher-end feel without having to spend too much money.”

Design is also trending towards more open case goods and closets — even barn doors to eke out valuable inches for more luxury elements, such as bathrooms. “Everybody likes a bigger bathroom, so that will usually eat into a closet, and I think everybody’s OK with that,” adds Rankin. “We’re sacrificing storage that doesn’t get used for a larger vanity or a four-piece bathroom.” Though experts agree bathtubs are becoming obsolete — Rankin estimates that approximately 75 per cent of bathtubs are being replaced with walk-in showers — freestanding tubs still provide an air of luxury. “Even though 95 per cent of people take a shower, they still want to have the bathtub,” Ossola notes. “And, even though they’re not going to use it, they feel like you’re taking value away from them [if it’s not there].”

Tub or no tub, experts agree more emphasis is being placed on the wellness component of bathrooms moving forward, particularly when it comes to using lights for therapy, relaxation or to ease jetlag. Swissôtel’s new Vitality concept room already includes a well-being experience, which integrates lighting and scent during a bath, whereby an orchestrated sequence of light complements a signature scent infused into the room for aromatherapy. Showers will also be outfitted with rain features, cascade effects and body jets to rejuvenate guests who may not have time for a lengthy spa visit. “The key to all these experiences is to make sure they remain intuitive for the guest, and that he doesn’t need to spend two or three nights before he can understand how it works,” says Ossola.

Some St. Regis hotels, owned by Starwood, include bathroom mirrors with integrated televisions, not unlike the competition. But the new trend is streaming personal devices through guestroom monitors and wireless sound systems. Guests are more and more data hungry, bringing their own content and expecting lightning-fast connections for free. “Any hotel chain that isn’t taking steps to offer it for free is running the risk of alienating their guests,” says Gravitytank’s Cotton. “In the guest’s mind, it would be like inviting someone over for Thanksgiving dinner and then telling them they have to pay for the turkey; it just doesn’t make sense. Charging for Wi-Fi is akin to charging for the air you breathe.”

The demand for free and unlimited Wi-Fi is an infrastructure challenge hoteliers will continue to face. “With a 300- or 600-room hotel, how do you make that pipe big enough, thick enough to handle guests’ growing needs? Typically what happens for us at Starwood is we create a standard, and we require that pipe to get bigger over time,” explains Tiedy.

Whether that pipe can support future demand plus innovations, such as voice-activated or motion-activated applications and an increased use of robots and drones, is to be determined. But Talwar is certain about one thing: “There’s a dichotomy between what’s happening in the wider society and the struggle hotels have keeping up.”

Volume 27, Number 4


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