Designing for competing audiences: Catering to Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers

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by Justin Vellucci

Alarm clocks.

For Meagan Johnson, the major focal point or fulcrum of inter-generational design in the hotel and hospitality industry boils down to alarm clocks.

Johnson, a Generation Xer, professional speaker and generational humorist from Phoenix, AZ, shares a story about a time she was staying in a hotel in the Boston, MA area and the room simply didn’t have a clock anywhere in it – not a clock on the wall, not a clock on the table by her bed-side, not a clock to be seen. Everyone, especially members of younger generations, travel with a smartphone with a built-in alarm these days, right? The problem was that, when she called the front desk to request one, they didn’t have any. To make matters worse, they didn’t understand why she’d need a clock in the first place.

“It’s not about alienating one generation to make another happy – that’s not sustainable,” Johnson says. “You want to connect with all of the generations, all of the people.”

And such is the battle for the contemporary designer, property manager and hotel staff: how to cater to Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, while also appealing to Millennials and the increasingly present Generation Z, born from around 1998 to around 2016. What’s the right way to do it?

The questions even have vexed researchers. A study such as the one published in 2011 by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst picks apart the generational differences between hotel employees – and differs on whether they impact operations. A more recent study, completed in 2017 at MODUL University Vienna, looked specifically at Millennial hotel preferences and found that “reference room price and travel mode influence Generation Y’s hotel considerations independently.” They also determined more study on the topic was necessary.

To Johnson, every generation leaves its mark.

When Baby Boomers were entering their early middle age, say the 30s and 40s, in the 1980s, they became increasingly health-conscious. Enter the hotel gym, the non-smoking room, and the smoke-free airline flight.

Generation X, with its alternative tendencies, marked the death of the stale floral pattern on hotel bedding; suddenly, hotel linens became sophisticated.

What about Millennials? Their sense of collaboration has encouraged hotels to design and create more open spaces, not to mention make the customers’ visits more experiential – enter local cuisine, wine-tastings, and even food trucks. And Millennials’ love of technology has made free Wi-Fi a necessity for those who want to compete for the youth market.

Thanks to this adoption of generational preferences, many hotels are even transforming into destinations for local residents. Gone are the days of the stingy hotel restaurant or the shady hotel bar.

“They are enjoyable spaces to be in now,” Johnson says. “You even see older, established hotels making these changes, so they’re a reflection of their place.”

David Stillman has been studying the sometimes-subtle, sometimes-dramatic differences between generations since 1995. A self-proclaimed Gen Xer, he speaks and works nationally and internationally with his 19-year-old son, Jonah; they refer to themselves as the first Gen X/Gen Z speaking duo.

For Stillman, Baby Boomers, a generation focused on keeping up with the Joneses, stick with brand names. To top it all off, they aspire to, some day, stay at premium-brand hotels like the Ritz Carlton. And age is ever-present.

“Baby Boomers are of a generation that is raging against aging,” he says. “If it’s cool, it’s okay, as long as it doesn’t make them feel old. They don’t want rails in the tubs.”

But what hoteliers need to realize, Stillman stresses, is that Baby Boomers aren’t necessarily their big audience anymore. Younger generations, more skeptical generations, are today’s parents.

“If you’re planning for family vacations, you’re targeting a Millennial,” he adds. “Collaboration really is huge with them. And they trust their peers, not the experts. Those experts, even travel agents? The younger you go, the less weight they have.”

Across the board, experts agreed, hotel patrons want clean rooms and good customer service, but they need to analyze just how they define that. Many people travelling around the United States today might not want a call to the room after they check in. And, though Millennials and Gen Zers might do away with the check-in desk and conduct transactions instead on tablets or phones, à la an Apple Store, that approach won’t fly with everybody.

“They have to have a fundamental shift in how they ask themselves questions,” Stillman explains. “The question every hotel employee has to ask is, ‘How is our customer service?’ The smart ones are starting to ask, ‘What is our customer service?’ – not ‘How is it?’”

To Stillman, who lives in Minneapolis, the absolute essential part of any hotel is its workout facility and gym, and not just a room with some bar-bells. That’s not so with Jonah, his Gen Z son, a digital native who’s grown up in the world where Wi-Fi and smartphones know no bounds.

“Jonah looks at properties and is looking for something new he hasn’t seen before – and he wants things customized for him,” Stillman says. “The basics [for hotel staff]sound silly. You’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason – just listen. Your goal isn’t to treat everyone the same.”

Stillman says nobody and no brand arguably might be better at playing the generational design game than Virgin Hotels, with whom he has worked in the past. Which begs the question: why?

Teddy Mayer, the Vice President of Design for Virgin Hotels, says Virgin is ahead of the generational design curve because his company is attentive to create a colorful prism of spaces that can accommodate different types and groups of people simultaneously.

Virgin Hotels’ lobbies and entrances feature a multi-space suite of rooms with a club bar at its heart. One space, a kind of library, offers the environment of a casual coffee shop, perfect for a Millennial to pull up a couch and whip out their MacBook. A “kitchen” space offers casual dining. And “the shag room,” as Mayer dubbed it, is more posh and a kind of after-hours lounge.

“This all helps people hack their environment – we offer them flexibility,” he says. “We love the idea of putting the experience in the hands of our guests.”

That brings us to Scott Schaedle. A former art student and graphic designer, this Millennial with what he called “an entrepreneurial spirit” founded Quore Systems, one of the hospitality industry’s providers of hotel management software, back in 2012.

But, at first, he was just Scott, another employee at another Tennessee hotel.

“I was just working and thought, ‘Why don’t we have a piece of software to run this?’” laughs Schaedle. “[I thought] ‘Maybe there’s something more efficient out there.’ The reason I created Quore is because nobody was using the mobile devices, even though we all had mobile phones. I was like, ‘I can figure this out!’ Six months later, I had the first prototype.”

Today, Quore is used on the back-end for hotel operations by more than 65,000 users in 3,100 different hotel properties. Schaedle said the software works and helps staffers work more efficiently because, quite simply, it makes sense.

“The user experience is probably the most important part of the software,” he shares. “I’ve always believed the same thing: a designer’s job is to make something easy and engaging to use.”

“If you have to create a training manual,” he adds, echoing the words of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, “you failed.”

Keeping it simple and engaging was particularly important for hotel staff, some of whom are older and technology-averse, and others who come from a mix of different cultural backgrounds with different relationships to technology.

What has Quore taught Schaedle about hotel patrons?

“[People my age] go to the travel sites and review user ratings every time,” he says. “My dad’s generation? They go on recommendations. And, when they find one, they stick with it. Millennials? They’re willing to try different things.”

Which brings us back to Johnson and the alarm clocks.

She’s quick to note that not every change made for a younger generation alienates its elders, whether they be Baby Boomers or Gen Xers. She recently stayed in a boutique hotel and expected to be surrounded by nothing but young people. Not so; quite the contrary.

“It was filled with Baby Boomers. Now, there was an Eagles concert in town,” she laughs. “But the Baby Boomers were enjoying the space’s pool tables as much as the Millennials.”

And let us not forget free Wi-Fi, created for a younger, tech-savvy set of hotel patrons but serving all of them.

“See, we all benefitted from the change instigated by a younger generation,” Johnson says.

Then, again, when asked for one piece of advice for hotel designers, owners, and staff aspiring to simultaneously engage an audience consisting of different generations, Johnson cited what could be called the Golden Rule.

“If you’re a Baby Boomer, a Millennial, a Gen Xer or a Gen Zer,” she says, “we all want good customer service.”

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