|By Christopher Boyd, The Orlando
Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 16, 2007 - America's hospitality industry is undergoing a dramatic makeover designed to attract young travelers who find high-tech suites and latte-bar lobbies more appealing than uniformed bellhops and full-service dining rooms.
Fancifully named hotel groups such as Aloft and Cambria are preparing to go mano a mano with such old-guard icons as Holiday Inn and Ramada. The nation's big lodging companies, which control most of the major brands, are gambling that the new hotels will resonate with Generation X travelers and their younger siblings.
"There have been 30 new brands of hotels announced in the last 30 months," said Bjorn Hanson, a hotel-industry analyst with the PricewaterhouseCoopers financial-services company. "Since 2004, Generation Xers have been traveling more per capita than baby boomers. What is important now is to focus on their tastes and preferences."
The new wave in lodging is already taking shape in Central Florida, the nation's second-largest hotel market.
Hyatt Hotels is converting its AmeriSuites group, including two in Orlando, into Hyatt Places -- a new brand that targets tech-savvy business travelers. Cambria Suites, a new division of Choice Hotels International, has two new Gen- X-focused hotels in the works locally.
It's as if hotel developers suddenly became sociologists. They concluded that younger travelers are more gregarious than their elders and enjoy lobbies with lots of comfortable furniture, where they can strike up conversations or sink into an oversized chair with a laptop.
"Younger travelers who arrive in shorts and a baseball cap aren't looking for a lobby decorated with English hunting scenes," Hanson said.
This new breed of hotels is concentrated in the midrange in terms of price. They emphasize public spaces that are meticulously designed yet informal, while mainstream hotels in the category typically place more emphasis on amenities such as restaurants and less on fabrics and seating arrangements.
The hotel companies behind these brands have concluded that younger travelers, and business customers whose expense accounts don't allow for $300-a-night rooms, want high-tech features such as flat-panel televisions, wireless high-speed Internet and automated check-in and checkout.
These younger travelers, who came of age sipping coffee in ever-so-cozy Starbucks cafes, have an affinity for trendy design -- as long as the price is within reach.
Derrick and Jennifer Richardson of Fort Wayne, Ind., for example, like the idea of designer lobbies, even if they aren't inclined to spend much time in them. The couple, both 25, were staying at the Major Boulevard Holiday Inn in south Orlando last week.
"For our age group, the retro look really works," Derrick Richardson said. "If they can put some posh design into a hotel at the right price, it's something we would go for. We're a generation that lives beyond its means, or at least we like to feel like it."
'They take trade-offs'
Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services with PKF Hospitality Research in Atlanta, said the public wants good design but balks at high prices.
"People are looking for value," Mandelbaum said, "but they also want newer facilities with more contemporary furniture and fixtures. So they take trade-offs. Starting in the 1990s, for example, people began to accept hotels with limited food service."
Many of the new hotel designs share attributes that allow their owners to offer ambience associated with high-end lodgings but at lower costs. Many are being built in secondary markets, where construction and labor costs are lower, which allows for nightly room rates of less than $150.
Their designs, which have large open areas combining eateries, lounges and retail shops, allow hotel workers to multitask, serving a coffee in one place before going to the retail area to ring up a sale.
William Edmundson, vice president for brand management with Cambria Suites, said Choice Hotels wanted a completely new look. All of its hotels are built from the ground up; the first one opened in Boise, Idaho, this year.
"We're starting with a clean slate," he said. "We found that today's guests want a new look, but one that their parents would be happy staying in."
Cambria's designers studied attributes of young business travelers. They concluded that they don't stick to fixed schedules. So Cambria offers dinner entrees with room service late into the evening -- yet it doesn't have a formal dining room.
The budding chain also has more-elaborate fitness centers than conventional middle-market hotels, offering a hint of the luxurious health spas that have become a fixture of high-end hotels.
"What used to pass as a workout room doesn't get it anymore," Edmundson said. "We offer a 1,200-square-foot fitness center with an indoor pool. And it has wired and wireless Internet access."
Rooms like urban lofts
Aloft, which is Starwood Hotels' entrant in the field, will debut next year rooms designed to resemble urban lofts, replete with high ceilings and exposed beams. Like its emerging competition, it will have public gathering places and lots of venues for accessing the Internet.
In many ways, the new hotel category reflects a trend that has permeated many areas of public life. Businesses generally spend large amounts of time and money analyzing their customers and designing new products that cater to ever-more-precise niches.
"We originally thought our customers would be younger travelers," said Alison Kal, vice president of marketing for Hyatt Place hotels. "What we have found is it is really about mind-set.
"The people who like Hyatt Place are people who blend many activities in their lives. These are people who call home to check on their kids from work and who check on their work from home using e-mail."
Christopher Boyd can be reached at email@example.com 407-420-5723.
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