By Dean Minett
The reimagining of common areas in hotels is really part of a larger question: How and why is the social function of hotels changing? We know that work habits have become more fluid in recent years. We know that “being alone together” has become a favoured way of working for many young professionals. Work may require us to concentrate on a laptop for hours at a time, but doing so in vibrant communal spaces feels healthier than sitting alone in our room.
Whether or not it’s actually healthier is unclear. An oft-cited book by an MIT professor bears the title Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The book was widely covered by international news outlets upon its release in 2012. That same year, an essay appeared in the New York Times entitled The Flight from Conversation. The gist of these commentaries is that being alone with our devices in the midst of other people who are alone with their devices may actually condition us to avoid direct interactions with other human beings in public. (Take a walk in any gaming venue to see this at work with the people playing poker machines.)
But it goes to show that social ideas are always changing.
And what does this have to do with hotels? Everything. So much of today’s hotel design hinges on social concepts. It hinges on the shifting interactions between work and play, which are deeply affected by technology. It hinges on the ability to feel a sense of community, both with other travelers and with the locality. And that is why hoteliers need to study these things; we need to understand where the equilibrium is today, and at least try to visualise where it will end up five years from now.
Several hotels are pushing the envelop into more innovative social events; things that have nothing to do with hammering away at your laptop. Rooftop film screenings at Yotel NYC are one example – at least everyone there is looking at the same screen. Also in New York, The Hudson Hotel built a professionally curated pop-up miniature golf course and launched it in conjunction with the Masters golf tournament. It’s the kind of thing that could have been a smash hit or a distinct loss, but at least it gets us thinking about innovative social opportunities and how they can tie in to promotions.
The Red Lion Hotel in Spokane NY has a live stage that actively books local musicians. It’s not unusual for hotels around the world to have entertainment venues, like the Star Sydney or Crown Melbourne – but as the hospitality landscape continues to shift, we will likely see more boutique hotels setting up performance spaces and trying to connect with local artists. The increase in pop-up exhibitions and shops in hotels, which usually focus on visual and handicraft artists, is a natural introduction to performance arts. Hotels are trying to change themselves into relevant social venues which blur the line between visitors and locals, and as they do so, they inevitably find that authenticity is the key. It can’t look like a clever business strategy. It has to genuinely feel like a part of the community.
Some of the questions we need too consider with any engagement include:
- Am I connecting the guest with the community?
- Am I telling a story that will resonate with my guests?
- Will my guests feel better for having interacted with my event? And, most importantly,
- Will the guests return because of it?
Years ago, I joined a company where they had taken over a hotel from a well known local group and we had to find ways of connecting with corporate clients, many of whom did not know our company. I proposed introducing weekly Drinks with the General Manager which our DOS thought was old-fashioned and would not work. I am pleased to say after a few months she agreed she was wrong and in fact it was a major contributor to our retention of major clients. Now it is true it was a slow take up initially, but because we persisted, we eventually had guests changing their business trips to ensure they could attend and meet up with other regular visitors and our team. (And we had a mix of management and front line staff joining us as well to ensure that everyone knew who our guests were.)
Ours is a constant study of what guests want, and in what combinations, and how to wrap it all up in a package of genuine authenticity. Our industry is in an ongoing state of identity crisis, where operators are continually trying to find the next edge; if we stop and think about it though, the basics haven’t changed, we are just constantly repackaging them into ways that resonate with new audiences.
Here’s another bit of good news: As a hotelier, navigating towards a more innovative social approach doesn’t actually take much effort. Set aside a few hours of industry reading a week, take another good look at your own property, walk around your neighbourhood and talk to your staff; ideas will come easily. Maybe you’ll discover that social innovations like the ones listed here don’t apply to your hotel – but at least you’ll have weighed the possibilities. And let’s face it, any attempt to improve engagement isn’t a bad thing.