The transformation of the hotel lobby: The impacts of technology and young traveler trends

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by Bill Lally

Industry disruption can arise from shifting customer preferences or technological advancement. For years, millennials – or the emerging generation of any era – are blamed for the changes in retail, food, transportation, and other industries.

The same is true for the hospitality market, where millennials, and younger generations, are driving change based on a few factors. A study from Allianz in 2017 showed that this generation has the least amount of vacation time compared to its predecessors, at about 12 days. They prefer a booking experience with less interaction, leaning on mobile apps and social media; overall, they are focused on the experiences that a venue can provide. Millennials’ desire to include both business and leisure in their travel time is changing the very landscape of hotels, forcing them to adapt to better accommodate this new crop of young travelers.

These changes are impacting the hospitality industry’s adoption of technology. Traditionally, this adoption in this industry moves more slowly than other retail, residential, or commercial industries because of the longer time commitments and larger overhead required to implement new systems and devices across hundreds or thousands of hotel rooms and locations, but the emphasis on hotel technology has spiked in quite a short time.

Two of the largest hotel rating companies, AAA and Forbes Travel Guide, have – within months of each other – announced new commitments to evaluating technology in hotels. Forbes Travel Guide released its annual list of 2018 Brand Officials in the luxury hospitality market in January. With over 20 categories ranging from chocolate and event management to digital media and operations technology, it named its first Brand Official of a new category: Technology Integrator, with Mode:Green as the first title holder. In April, AAA announced its updated guidelines for 2018 inspections, which will now take technology and connectivity into account in customer interactions, guestrooms, and meeting spaces. These updates will put pressure on hotels to focus on and improve their technology offerings to maintain top ratings.

Another factor is affecting the rise of technology in hospitality: the concurrent rise of technology in the home. A study from the University of Delaware found that the true competition for guestroom technology is not that of other hotels, but the technology of guests’ own homes. For example, many homes are taking on internet-connected devices, such as smart lighting, or assistants like Siri or Amazon Alexa; this is driving both the demand and the expectation for similar experiences in hotel rooms.

Many hotels are approaching this demand for technology by adding more app experiences to their loyalty programs and new IoT devices in the guestrooms, such as in-room Wi-Fi, mobile keys, video and music streaming content casting, USB charging, lighting automation, voice assistants, and more. These features are being adopted first in the world’s top hotels as a means by which to provide new amenities and to differentiate from the Airbnbs that have become popular among young travelers. The movement towards technology integration further appeals to guests with benefits like energy management and operational efficiency. Eventually, these new tech amenities (e.g. automation, voice control, and the like) will be standard in every hotel room and expected by all guests.

As hotel guestrooms becomes more technologically integrated, the hotel lobby will follow suit. In the past decades, the hotel lobby has evolved to resemble a sleek living room or a lush library, with floral prints, elevator-like background music, and generic artwork commanding the space. A place where guests only pass through to collect their room keys and to wait for their cars or taxis, the traditional lobby makes little effective contribution to the hotel’s overall appeal. In recent years, hotels have worked to improve their lobbies with local artwork or live music from local performers. But, amid the heightened competition for guests and, specifically, for millennial travelers, hotels are finding that injecting technology into their lobbies is the next best move – this is causing the previously-overlooked lobby to become a key feature of hotels. Instead of being just a space for guests to pass through at check-in and check-out, the lobby is now becoming the social hub of the hotel, serving as a venue for hosting local events, a social gathering place for guests, and a hotspot for the local nightlife.

The W Hotel in New York exemplifies this shift towards emphasizing the lobby. The hotel renovated the space in 2017, styling it as a tribute to Times Square. The design team recreated the sights and sounds of the iconic Manhattan hub with neon signs and lighting, graffiti, and interactive displays that help evoke the atmosphere of busy New Yorkers, star-struck tourists, and street performers.

It’s more than just the fixtures and décor that make the space dynamic; technology also played a key role in transforming the space and bringing it to life. The lobby is ready for New Year’s Eve parties, featuring a digital countdown clock that reaches almost seven feet tall behind the front desk and a custom DJ booth inspired by the New Year’s Eve ball by the bar. The room has vibrant sound delivered from 32 independent zones and hidden, custom speakers. LED lights and signs help to make the lounge lively, with the help from a digital brain that powers the space. An automation system is smart enough to shift the atmosphere to accommodate either a daytime event or a nighttime party.

Technology enables the hotel’s lobby to be transformative, serving as both a delight to guests as well as an attraction to locals. The room is lined with cabana booths to host several small groups who can then adjust the volume of their own music as needed, turning it down to support quiet conversations or turning it up for a celebration or party. Despite its size, the whole room can transform from a single button press; using a touchscreen, staff can activate and adjust every light and speaker from a set of customized presets, including Happy Hour, Party, Morning, and even Fire Alarm, which shuts off the music and brightens the lights for a safe exit.

This lobby experience is completely unique to the W Hotel in New York, as it was designed based on their vision for the space. A similar AV and lighting automation system can be created for any hotel, customized to its branding, operational goals, and guest preferences. For example, 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge in New York also has smart technology in both its guestrooms and common spaces – but the focus is on sustainability. The system coordinates devices throughout the hotel to mitigate energy usage, and the lobby décor even features a live plant wall. To suit its specific needs and preferences, each hotel goes through a design process with its technology integrator who identifies the features that would best contribute to the hotel’s operation, brand, and goal, be it in the guestrooms and/or in the new lobby space.

This new, technologically integrated lobby can heighten appeal for both business and vacation travelers, as well as those of the emerging category created by the millennial generation: bleisure.

First, for business travelers, a lively lobby could serve as a convenient working or group collaboration space, used in lieu of a local coffee shop. Former, library-like lobbies may have been too hushed to support a conference call or group discussion, but a space with cabanas like the W Hotel could provide a venue for guests to leverage during their stay. Specifically for millennial business travelers, research from MyTravelResearch shows that 60 percent of millennials would pay more for services or technology that contributes to a more seamless trip, and that they “choose hotels that can offer opportunities such as co-working meeting spaces with free Wi-Fi and barista coffee.”

This new lobby format with integrated tech could also impact and appeal to vacationers by providing a convenient spot for nightlife at the end of a day of excursions. Events held in the lobby or its night-time version could be an additional draw for guests, as they can take advantage of their hotel as a space to enjoy local music or artisans and to experience the regional culture.

As millennials have begun dominating the business travel sector, they have created a new travel category: bleisure, or business-leisure. Defined by Travelport, bleisure is when business travelers “extend their business trips by a few days for leisure purposes.” When evaluating hotels, young business travelers put an emphasis on this bleisure experience – so hoteliers should pay attention.

Therefore, leveraging a new, revamped lobby space is a powerful way for hotels to appeal to these new bleisure travelers. A tech-integrated lobby can bring benefits to both the business and the leisure aspects of their stay. Bleisure millennials are after more than just the usual amenities of a top-tier hotel; they are looking for unique experiences that can bring efficiency to the business part of their trip and fun to the leisure part of their trip. Plus, for these young travelers who probably won’t spend much time secluded in their own rooms, an immersive, experience-rich lobby will bear an even bigger attraction.

Consider how technology transformed the lobby at the W Hotel. The space’s cabana booths allow it to function as a work environment during the day, with bright lighting and upbeat, softer music. It’s a trendy setting that would appeal to business travelers in place of heading to a nearby coffee shop to work. But maybe after taking a meeting or attending a conference, the traveler comes back into the lobby, which has transformed with dimmer lighting and music to create an atmosphere for enjoying a craft cocktail. The transformation is done easily through automation technology and a custom sound setup, which adjusts the features automatically throughout the day based on natural lighting coming into the lobby or events planned. Automation to simplify the daily operations of the lobby can make it easier for staff to manage, instead of having to tweak the lighting throughout the day.

To see if a hotel can help them balance work and play, travelers may seek a 360-video, panoramic photo, or even a virtual reality view of the rooms or common spaces. For hotels, the ability to provide such a virtual tour is new, as the technology has only become available in the last few years (or even months) and is still on its way to becoming more accessible. But, for hotels who have created an immersive, tech-integrated lobby experience, a virtual tour could be one of the best ways to showcase this exciting feature to potential guests.

The W Hotel’s website, for instance, could virtually welcome visitors to its home page with a view of what the lobby looks like during the day. Upon scrolling down, visitors could watch the lobby transform itself into its nighttime lounge version. This transformation could pique the interest of a potential guest. Moreover, for hotels seeking to please the millennial bleisure audience, properly showcasing this tech transformation could be particularly useful, as some millennial guests may see the unique lobby as an opportunity for “Instagram gold.”

Technology integration is the next big leap for the hospitality industry, as it can help to better serve guests’ preferences and meet operational goals. With rising demand from new generations of guests as well as from top hotel rating companies, hotels are eager to stay ahead of the technological curve and are increasingly planning to add improved Wi-Fi, digital room access, voice assistants, social media and app loyalty programs, energy management, and other offerings to their properties. In this surge of tech renovations, hotels must not overlook the lobby as a key factor in upping appeal and garnering the interests of new guests. Creating a transformative, immersive, and technological lobby can contribute to a hotel’s overall branding and add a new layer of experiences that can appeal to a wide range of travelers. No longer will lobbies be bland, hushed spaces where guests only stop by to pick up and drop off their keys; instead, they will become hotels’ veritable hubs for activity, culture, and interaction. ■

Bill Lally is the president of hospitality integration firm Mode:Green. A serial entrepreneur, Bill has extensive experience and a unique background in a variety of areas ranging from commercial audiovisual and control systems to energy management, broadcast, recording, post-production and hospitality. Bill is on top of new technology trends in the latest and upcoming audio/video, energy management and automation technologies to use in work for his clients, and is a continuous technology tinkerer on the side. He was also a founding member of the STEP InfoComm Task Force and is part of the InfoComm Smart Building Task Force, which drew on his ability to create energy management solutions for commercial buildings.

PHOTO CREDIT: WIRACHAIPHOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

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