Locality’s effect on design evolution

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To compete with the sharing economy, hospitality design should cater to travelers who seek a one-of-a-kind environment.

By Eric J. McBride

With approximately two million listings worldwide, Airbnb hardly seems like an underdog in the hospitality industry. Financial analysts have taken notice: Last fall, Airbnb was valued higher than industry giant Hilton Worldwide. It is clear there is an ongoing shift within the industry, as a segment of the travel market appears to have put the traditional hotel industry on notice. Is Airbnb a real threat to hotels as we know them?

However you choose to answer that question, you cannot deny there are lessons the hotel industry can learn from Airbnb’s success.

I tend to view this as a huge opportunity for the hospitality industry – an opportunity to not only modernize the travel experience, but to also enhance it in unique ways. Hotel executives would be wise to study Airbnb’s unique consumer appeal and respond creatively, even if they do not foresee an immediate threat to their businesses.

Airbnb’s significant gains in both popularity and profitability over the past year can be attributed to several factors, from its novelty and ease of use to its non-corporate charm that many consumers find refreshing. The Airbnb homeowner, or host, can give special attention to his or her guests and bring a unique cultural aspect to the guest’s experience. In that regard, every Airbnb booking is a one-of-a-kind experience, complete with interesting conversation, personalized attention and an unbiased local perspective that hotel operators often find difficult to offer.

Of course, no discussion of Airbnb is complete without mention of its digital infrastructure. The platform that supports Airbnb is highly interactive, and key end-user information is readily available. Additionally, Airbnb is easily linked to a variety of social media channels, which increases brand awareness. The efficient integration of technology aligns perfectly with the personality profiles of millennials and gen z-ers, who share a strong sense of technological self-efficacy and make up a substantial number of Airbnb’s user base.

Yet the most attractive characteristic of Airbnb is its innate ability to make the traveler feel more like a local. Airbnb offers something many believe resonates as a more “authentic” travel experience compared with staying in a branded hotel. In effect, Airbnb can offer travelers an easy way to feel adventurous, as if they are part of the fabric of a community, even if it is only temporary. This point is much more important than it may first appear. In fact, it is crucial to understanding how the hotel industry can properly evolve in response to Airbnb’s success.

Bottom line: More travelers want an authentic experience. This is where creative designers come in. Every step of the design process should be geared toward creating a hotel experience that springs from the local culture.

Designing authenticity
Airbnb’s portfolio includes millions of properties, some incredibly unique: houseboats, castles, treehouses, converted vehicles and private islands, to name a few. The success of these offerings presents a challenge for traditional hotels: The concept of two million Airbnb properties (and growing), each with their own unique guest accommodations, highly contrasts the corporate, branded hotel model that promises consistency.

To combat the perception of uniformity, the industry must work toward infusing individual hotels with details and opportunities that do not exist anywhere else – not even at another of the brand’s locations. A main way to accomplish this is by examining and embracing the region’s authentic culture, style and traditions in order to design a hotel destination that is truly intertwined with its locale. No guests should enter their hotel in Back Bay in Boston with the impression they could be in Anywhere, USA.

To that end, consider positioning a new hotel brand as a collection in order to escape from the perception of a chain. Of course, hotel businesses want to maintain elements of the brand across all properties, yet it’s important to accomplish this without creating completely identical spaces. In fact, delivering the quality and security of the brand with the energy of the local scene is a powerful mix.

When considering the hotel collection, the ratio of recurring brand elements to unique attributes should be carefully considered. The city where a particular hotel is located should have a strong role in dictating the food, atmosphere, amenities programming and interior design. A rule of thumb we often use is 65/35. In other words, about 65 percent of the finishes and branded elements will carry over from other properties within the collection, while about 35 percent will be one-of-a-kind, leaning heavily on the local area for influence. (In the long run, this approach just may inspire visitors to plan trips around each of the singular hotel locations within the collection.)

It is worth noting that in some cases, the uniqueness of each Airbnb location can translate into a negatively inconsistent experience, especially when certain locations don’t live up to branded hotel service standards. This is where the traditional hotel model can leverage its background and provide consistency in services and conveniences that travelers often crave alongside their longing for adventure. Melding the consistency of services with the unpredictability of atmosphere and amenities can be a highly successful formula.

Promising discovery
In addition to taking a more creative approach toward the design of each unique property, hoteliers need to explore more innovative ways of incorporating the promise of discovery into the traditional hotel stay. Travelers who choose Airbnb because they view it as more authentic and adventurous need a reason to start viewing hotels as real opportunities for immersion too.

The strongest statement a hotel property can make on this front is rooted in the earliest stage of development: selecting the site. Seek diverse properties with character, including everything from historic buildings to industrial conversions. Task your architects and designers with highlighting the history and uniqueness of the space and location.

If adaptive reuse is not an option, there are other methods of creating an atmosphere of discovery intended to rival the appeal of Airbnb. Namely, this can be done by effectively energizing and incorporating local businesses. The amenities and services offered through the hotel should be reflective of the neighborhood culture and offerings. For example, bring in local chefs and restaurateurs to create a gathering place that will attract locals as well as hotel guests. Ditch the nationally recognized, brand-name coffee retailer and feature the smaller “mom-and-pop” coffee roaster everyone in town prefers. Consider partnering with local art galleries to feature emerging artists in the hotel’s common areas.

Augment the property with public space, offering seating areas and activities where travelers and locals alike can interact. The goal is to incorporate a bit of the authentic character and “vibe” of the location so it serves as more than an isolated place to come and sleep.

Looking ahead
Finally, what about the business traveler, that stalwart of trusted hotel brands during the week? Does the appeal of Airbnb risk reaching them too? Even business travelers seek a few chances for exploration or leisure when visiting a new place. The hotel brand that best caters to the vacationer within them stands a stronger chance of warding off any major Airbnb effect on this group. Give guests a dish unique to that region, or feature an architectural style indigenous to the area, and the business traveler just may choose to stay with you when on a vacation, too.

Look to your design team to help you find ways to achieve a little brand anonymity in favor of creating a hospitality experience that feels more unique. If we’ve learned anything from the success of Airbnb, it’s that most guests aren’t just drawn to comfort, high standards and reliability alone. More than ever, a traveler’s lodging should reflect the atmosphere, values and local customs of the destination.     ■

Eric J. McBride is COO and president at The McBride Company, a creative concept and design firm that specializes in creating hospitality and leisure destinations. Eric oversees the design process from concept through construction, coordinating the creative and technical resources needed for cohesive and buildable project designs. Eric’s knowledge is based on 25+ years of diversified work, both within and outside The McBride Company. To learn more, visit http://mcbridedesign.com.

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