Really, when you look at it, nothing much has changed in hotel design since – well, since the introduction of ensuite bathrooms. The Savoy Hotel in London, which opened in 1889 was, the tale goes, the first to have ensuite bathrooms, and the owner, Mr Richard D'Oyly Carte, faced criticism, along the lines of “why the blazes would anyone want a bathroom in their bedroom?”!
In the mid20th Century, the fitness centre entered the scene, with one pioneer in that field, Holiday Inn, dubbing it the “Gym & Tonic”, thereby daring to introduce a bit of fun to the business of hotels which had previously been rather austere and forbidding places.
Rooms have got larger, and have got smaller. 20 years ago Hilton’s standard room size was 32 square metres (including the now-obligatory bathroom), but their standard is now 38 square metres – “by customer demand”. At the other end of the scale, don’t pack that cat when you stay in hotels such as easyHotel in London, or Ibis hotels – there’ll be no swinging tonight, in hotels where the developer’s objective is to fit in as many rooms as possible to the available space. For conversions, such as an easyHotel I once stayed in, that even means no windows in some rooms – and you can pay an extra US$8 or so to reserve a room which does have a window! Well, I’m all for customer choice, but hey! (I paid the extra, and had a tremendous view of next door’s wall – but a window’s a window).
Customer choice, or need, is of course what should always drive design. The brands will tell you that upscale and luxury hotel rooms are getting bigger because that’s what the customer wants. And that in other hotels, they are getting smaller, because customers in those rooms are really only buying sleep and clean water. Exploiting that trend, of the budget traveller who just will not pay for anything else, are the hostel brands such as Generator and Meininger in Europe, and Zostel in India, which are taking the customer back several hundred years to shared bedrooms (but not, as was the norm in the early coaching inn, sharing the actual bed with strangers!).
That fun element I mentioned has become something that is not just a feature, but in some hotels defines the whole concept of the experience. I recently stayed in one of Starwood’s Aloft hotels, where the public areas seemed to be one big party place, with live music in the evenings, piped music everywhere except in the bedroom (peace at last!), and were attracting a young crowd, in-house guests and from outside, as a result. So the facilities in that brand, and several others, are not just there for the in-house guests, but are aimed also at the local community, to get them to spend their leisure time and money in the hotel’s public areas. Hotels such as Aloftdon’t typically (there are exceptions) have restaurants anymore, you go to the pantry, the grab-and-go, then munch and mingle.
In my introduction I said “when you look at it”. The real changes that have taken place in hotel design since Mr Carte’s late 19th Century “revolution” have been behind the scenes, in areas and amenities that the guest never looks at, but certainly feels the impact.
Go into many hotels these days and what’s going on in the lobby (and probably in the bedrooms as well)? People are sitting around, working or playing on their laptops and smart phones, using something that none of us could hardly conceive of 20 years ago – Wi-Fi. Ten years ago it was still a novelty, because we still used plugged-in cables in the rooms, and it was a treat to be able to do that in the public areas as well. Now cables are there, but rarely used (although some companies still forbid their staff from using wireless networks, for security reasons), and we demand wireless, not just any old wireless, it has to be high speed. It is a fact that potential guests, both business and leisure travellers, will choose their hotel on the quality of the wireless connection, and need electrical sockets (which take a variety of plug types) everywhere. This is very often overlooked, so we retreat from the public areas (and stop spending money on food and drinks there) to our rooms, where we have to search under the desk or behind the headboard for a socket. Grrr!
So first it was water, we couldn’t do without it being right there, in our bedroom, for our private use only, and now it is fast wireless internet connection. Hyatt have just announced that wireless internet is to be free in all their hotels, recognising that it is no longer a nice-to-have but now an absolute requirement. Others are highly likely to follow suit, the service being now so far up the hierarchy in customers’ needs, and therefore determining where they spend their dollars. Today we have to be connected, and hotels must fulfil that need.
Another “unseen” advance in design is in the MEP – mechanical, electrical and plumbing. Banging water pipes and radiators, and trickles of brown water from the taps, used to be comic clichés in hotels, but no more – we demand clean hot and cold water, with good pressure, when we want it, now. And air-conditioning (climate control) is more and more a standard feature, to put us more in control of our environment, especially in the bedroom.
What’s happening in hotel design is that, instead of the old “one size fits all” approach, hotels are being designed to meet not just the changing needs of the customer base as a whole – today’s travellers are very different, in so many ways, from those of 50 or 100 years ago – but also aiming their design at specific segments of consumers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, Baby Boomers, Grey Panthers, the lot. So there are those design elements that are common to all. Everyone has an iPad, tablet and/or smart phone these days, don’t they? And everyone wants the other basics to be efficient. Other elements, such as the live music, the absence of a restaurant, the open-plan lobby/bar/lounge/pantry, appeal more to some than others – some guests, like me, still prefer “normal”, walking into a restaurant, that kind of thing. But all, including me, must have excellent Wi-Fi!
Hotel developers and investors who ignore the new basics, and who fail to recognise that different segments want different things, do so at their peril. They are so vulnerable to competition from others who get it right first time. The brands, with their research and development departments, and their sheer scale, have led the way in adapting to those needs, but there is absolutely no reason why an independent hotel cannot do so as well. Let’s face it, we don’t do rocket science in the hotel industry, what we do do is common sense, and that means listening to what our customers want, right from the outset, before any cement is poured.
W Hospitality Group, Lagos