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Airbnb is a game changer. But not for the familiar reasons.
Sure, you can book a socially vetted room in just about any city from your phone. But the model, and the the requisite political struggles that come with scale, is old news.
What is most interesting is the knock-on effect that Airbnb, and other home share services like One Fine Stay are going to have on traditional hospitality. With apartments in every city as potential extra capacity and competition, what does this mean for the market?
Airbnb is preaching membership to a likeminded community and makes users feel like they are the in-the-know local. Their user experience reflects this. Their content and hyperlocal recommendations reflect this. And so far, people are responding favorably.
To counter, traditional hotels from the Ritz-Carlton all the way down to the local innkeeper need raise their respective games and remember what the core of their business is: service, grace and providing comfort for guests. They need to bring back small, human moments that add up to something far deeper and more substantial than a points scheme. And they need to remember that the best hotels are vibrant ecosystems in the community and that is part of what makes them interesting.
This is easier than it sounds. For one, like the airline industry, there’s a lot of weird, operational scar tissue that still exists in the hotel world. Namely the fact that you can’t officially check-in until 3pm and have to be out at noon. And, sometimes you get the feeling there’s been so much emphasis on operational efficiency (read: cost-cutting) that some of the texture and nuances of a stay are missing.
The temptation for a lot of these hotels is to look to better technology: Marriott recently launched an app to let you check in. Starwood has launched keyless entry using your mobile device. There’s been experimentation with beacon technology. Everyone is figuring out how to crack complicated, multi-channel content marketing and original editorial delivered through the feed. Websites are getting cleaner and more intuitive. Data is getting better.
But this is only part of the solution. The real opportunity for hotels is to re-invest and reinvigorate the magic of hospitality. Getting back to the core values that private equity backing and spreadsheet-based management can squeeze out. And understand that modern technology isn’t going to completely solve, but rather augment, the work of trained staff. A lot of the solution lies in appealing to very human desires and looking to the fundamentals rather than the shiny new platform.
So what should the modern hotel brand do?
1. Improve neighborhood diplomacy
When I set foot into the Crosby Street Hotel in New York for a breakfast meeting, I am curtly asked for my room number. Not exactly the best welcome. Without fail, I remind them that locals plus out of town guests together equals better business. And generally a more interesting vibe at 8am.
A former Morgans Hotel Group executive complained to me about the fact that locals often stayed away from their food and beverage offerings due to price and perceived value. This affected the bottom line. Not entirely surprising. Hotels need to attend to their neighbors and be a part of the community. The Ace in New York does this well and though I find the laptop brigade parked in the lobby slightly annoying, it clearly shows that people that live in town want to hang out there and mingle with everyone else.
Contrary to the surly hostess I mentioned earlier, The Crosby does a Sunday film screening that has become a neighborhood staple. The High Line Hotel’s well-tuned espresso bar in the lobby is an an example of a great little hub that adds to the experience. Little touches like this can go along way; they just need a bit of creativity and finesse.
2. Strive for the perfect lobby
There is a strange magic of a good lobby and when it works, suddenly that flat you rented on Airbnb seems a tad lonely and disconnected. A lobby can be a real-life social network, a place where serendipity can happen, or you can sit and watch the world go by. Think about the hushed discretion of the celeb haunts the Mercer or the Greenwich Hotel. Or hang around Claridges in London or the Waldorf in New York around the holidays and they are electric with atmosphere. There’s drama in the mundane: people from out of town on vacation, the local having a quiet drink, the father waiting for family members to come downstairs. Simply put, the right lobby can make you want to stay in a hotel as opposed to an apartment.
3. Remember the magic of the right scene
Andre Balazs stages a scene better than anyone in hospitality. The multi-layered lighting alone in his spaces like the Chiltern Firehouse makes everyone look glamorous. You can’t set foot in a Standard without seeing a bit of sex appeal and people having a good time. Restaurants like Narcissa knock it out of the park in terms of cuisine. But most importantly, if you are a guest in one of their hotels, you have built-in socializing: ideal for those traveling on business where people want to come to you and very convenient if you don’t really want to venture out to eat or drink.
4. Use data for a better human touch
I recently stayed at a new Rosewood in Abu Dhabi. On arrival, I was given a scented towel and a cold glass of pomegranate juice. My room had figs and small, local accoutrements. And the service was impeccable. With some of the bigger chains, it is important to state that “customer relationship management” and “big data” has to move beyond a cold database of static information, but as a tool for highly trained humans to better focus their skills. The fact that I like a cold, dry Ketel One Martini may be sitting in a database somewhere. But when asked if I’d like my “usual drink” at a hotel I frequent by a great bartender, this never ceases to amaze, and make me love the place. Data can help nudge this in the right direction, when put in the hands of capable staff who actually care versus who are trained to care. A nuanced but important distinction.
5. Break up the scar tissue
The Peninsula in LA launched a program where if you arrived from the East Coast at night at 9 or 10pm, you have your room until the same time the next night. This changes the game, and is much more likely to have a business traveler make the hotel his hub for meetings and generally enjoy the luxury. Plus it is just gracious at that price point to not get booted out the next day at noon. How many times have you gotten off a flight into London at 8am only to be told your room won’t be ready until 3 despite them having your flight information? Sometimes it’s impossible due to capacity, but some hotels have experimented with a “room ready” policy for certain loyal guests fresh off the transatlantic flight. It just takes effort and better operations and planning.
6. Revel in the blank slate
In his essay “What is Hotel?” Adam Greenfield hits the nail on the head on one of the strangest appeals of a hotel:
“[A hotel] is always a blank slate, an idealized terrain not subject to the cluttering accumulations and biological drifts of everyday life. Designed to be serviced, it holds forth the promise of a new beginning with every passing day…”
Returning to a freshly cleaned room is like starting over. There’s something strange and oddly comforting about it. There’s no clutter, no accoutrements, no other people’s stuff and other people’s lives. Just simplicity.
Staying in a hotel can be an occasion, even for weary business travelers or for budget-focused leisure travelers. Sure, there’s a lot of hype around the disruptors. The media needs new, sexy things to talk about and Airbnb’s ballooning valuation makes it the elephant in the room. But if hotels focus on the softer side of hospitality, stimulate their local community and bring back small human touches, they can have the upper hand.