Why the hospitality industry needs to focus the conversation around designing for the modern traveler rather than Millennials.
It has been said many times the future of the lodging industry will greatly be affected by hotels’ ability to appeal to Millennials. On the surface, this “Millennials or bust” attitude seems like a logical view to endorse. After all, Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers in the U.S.,1 and a recent study predicts Millennials will account for 50 percent of the workforce by 2020.2
Unfortunately, these statistics are causing tunnel vision within the hospitality industry, leading to certain misguided conclusions being drawn, especially as they relate to the practice of architecture.
I’d like to offer a few thoughts on a different approach. Instead of being focused on trying to design hotels for Millennials (a demographic), the conversation should be broadened to address how to best design hotels for the modern traveler (a psychographic).
Guests Are All After the Same Thing
Multiple studies agree Millennials are looking for the following from their hotel stays: authentic experiences, contemporary design and seamless connectivity. But really, isn’t that what all generations want?
Consider the following examples of “Millennial design trends” that, when examined, arguably appeal to every modern traveler regardless of age:
- Minimizing the presence of front desks in lobbies: Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are now more accustomed to using their smartphones to book airline tickets, schedule Uber rides and pay bills. So it’s not a stretch to assume they will embrace downloading a mobile app allowing them to check into their hotel rooms. And what if that same app were to also uncover locals’ favorite spots to eat, drink and shop? Being able to bypass long lines at the front desk, and no longer relying on a concierge to provide hit-or-miss advice on hot spots to visit, are both positives outcomes for all guests.
- Smaller rooms that offer modularity: When visiting a city, whether for work or play, guests of all ages typically leave their hotel room in the morning and don’t return until late at night when ready for bed. They expect their room, especially if it’s a newer hotel, to be intuitive, comfortable and offer modern conveniences, such as accessibility to easily power electronics. With the small amount of time people spend in their rooms, it’s no longer an expectation the square footage accommodate a desk or a traditional chest of drawers. A small space can be just as functional as a big space if designed thoughtfully.
- Restaurants that offer authenticity: When guests spend extended periods of time on the premises of their hotels, behavior patterns indicate they want to be where the action is. In newer hotel restaurants and bars, it’s not unusual to see younger business travelers seated next to a table filled with older tourists in full-fledged vacation mode. Both groups gravitate toward modern food and beverage options largely because they appreciate the eclectic mix of local design elements that give the space its character. A contemporary vibe paired with a menu of artisan cuisine has become the recipe for attracting a breadth of business travelers, tourists and locals.
- A sense of community that enables connection: People over the age of 50 tend to not be Snapchat or Instagram stars, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t texting, emailing and sharing photos via Facebook with their family, friends and colleagues. When it comes to leisure travel, guests of all ages are taking photos of everything in their hotels — the lobby, the view from the room and the room itself. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers share the same desire to share experiences digitally as Millennials do. Designing beautiful, open spaces is key for allowing that to happen.
Upon examination, it becomes clear that anyone who travels these days is looking for the same design traits from their hotels. It doesn’t matter if you’re 25 or 65. Age is simply one way to segment the market, the same way categorizations in gender, ethnicity, region and income can be applied.
As an architect, when I hear or read about lumping segments of the population together because they share similar birth years, I feel we as an industry may be becoming too fixated on who we are designing for, opposed to why specific behaviors and tendencies lend themselves to certain design solutions.
Lag Time is Lessening
When assessing the below Innovation Adoption Lifecycle Curve, history shows the majority of Innovators and Early Adopters of a particular service or product are generally members of the younger generation. Almost every societal movement, whether it be rock n’ roll, yoga pants or social media, has been initiated by a younger demographic before surging in popularity and influencing the masses.
Especially noteworthy, is that recent studies reveal the pace in which we as a society are adopting new views and preferences is speeding up. Today, if a trend becomes part of Millennials’ lives, it’s sure to catch on with Gen Xers and Baby Boomers within a relatively short time period.
In the past, cross-generational embracement of a new concept might have taken several decades to achieve. Case in point, the amount of time it took for the Silent Generation – those born between 1925 and 1945 – to fully embrace using computers and cell phones seems enormous when compared to the amount of time it took Baby Boomers to adopt smart phones and tablets into their daily lives in the early 2000s.
Early Adopters and Early Majority phases are currently comprised of more people from more diverse age ranges3 than ever before. Also, the window of time it takes for a trend to move from the Early Adopters phase to the Early Majority phase has decreased. These findings suggest hotel operators don’t need to utilize separate marketing or design strategies in order to appeal to different generations of guests.
Weekday Travelers vs. Weekend Tourists
Studies reveal that for the majority of U.S. hotels, weeknights outperform weekend nights in terms of occupancy rates.4 The reason for this is simple, weekday hotel reservations are driven by business travelers, while weekend reservations are derived from tourists on vacation. Worth noting is the substantial amount of overlap that exists between the two segments, i.e. guests vacationing at a hotel over the weekend are often the same guests that stayed – or will be staying – at that same property for a business trip during the work week.
During these weekend mini-vacations, it is common for spouses and kids to join the original guest at the hotel. This regular weekly shift in the composition of a hotel’s clientele reveals why certain proven design criteria should not be abandoned in favor of hyper-Millennial(ized) layouts. A Millennial travelling for business has a different set of expectations from his or her hotel experience than when accompanied by their families.
Case in point is the current configuration of hotel guest room bathrooms. Somewhere along the line, the notion arose that Millennials prefer walk-in showers. A frameless glass enclosure indeed offers a modern aesthetic and eliminates unsightly elements, such as rails, that can distract attention away from surrounding décor. Unfortunately, the architecture of a walk-in shower also presents a major challenge for parents (Millennials or otherwise) travelling with kids. Namely, it doesn’t allow for sit-down baths.
Hotels with guest rooms that only feature walk-in showers effectively takes themselves out of consideration for parents travelling with children. With more than 80 percent of Millennial travelers reporting using vacation days as add-ons to either end of a business trip and 62 percent of those travelers having children under the age of five,5 the traditional shower-tub combo remains the best architectural option for bathrooms because of the versatility it provides.
With brands intentionally designing hotels to attract solo business travelers Monday through Thursday, it can create a challenge when it comes to hitting RevPAR (revenue per available room) goals during the weekends should design considerations fail to appeal to a broader audience. Designers must remain cognizant that the “Millennial mindset” is not a stagnant mentality. Guests’ needs vary based on circumstances, and hotels’ designs should address as any many of those needs as possible.
While there are certain industry disrupters aimed at appealing to younger generations – ordering room service by texting emojis for example – most changes in the hospitality industry, especially those relating to design, are arguably being embraced by the population as a whole.
By no means should Millennials’ preferences be disregarded when it comes to designing hotel experiences. Far from it. Millennials should be a large part of the conversation being had by hoteliers and designers; however, the focus on this specific demographic should never become so magnified that other important factors get excluded. Besides, Gen Z is right around the corner.