Designing for the Millennial traveller

Designing for the Millennial traveller

Marcos Cain, Director and Co-Founder of Stickman Design, writes about six things to keep in mind when designing hotels for Millennials.

All drawing by Marcos Cain 

I love hotels. I love the very idea of hotels. But let’s be honest, one hundred and fifty years ago a shoeshine boy in the lobby would have been de-rigueur, and guests would have doffed their hats at what a neat idea it was.

That all changed, and I have one word for anyone who begs to differ – Airbnb.

A shift in taste, a boom in technology, a reaction to what’s gone before, all this can create a trend, but every now and then it happens on such a vast scale that it requires a tsunami of reinvention and redesign in response; a generational shift that leaves unprepared hoteliers wondering how their profits have vanished quicker than Roadrunner on Redbull.

Now I’m not a journalist or knee-deep in the dark and murky art of marketing, I’m just a designer, but along with my company, Stickman, I’ve been studying hospitality trends, and based on our research we’re lucky enough to be designing some of the first super-hotels tailored specifically to the Millennial traveller.

So what do they expect? And how can the industry cater to them?

1. Fortune favours the brave

The hotel industry has always been trend led, with many within it still wondering if they should take Millennials seriously. They should, and for one very good reason – money.

According to Deloitte, by 2025 Millennials will make up the bulk of the workforce, and over the next decade the ground is going to shift definitively in their favour, creating a completely new hospitality landscape.

Vertical connection along five hotel floors: brewery, wine gantry, climbing wall and pool.

Someone is going to have to lead this change.

Those who do will become the new blue whales, recognisable by both the size of their smiles and their bank balance. Those who don’t can still appeal to the budget-wedding sector, but they’re set to become relics, no longer aspirational, and no longer profitable.

As a nascent generation, however, Millennials are only just beginning to stake their claim on the world, meaning that the bulk of revenue opportunities connected to them have yet to emerge. Picture that.

2. OK, so what DO they want?

Millennials feel connected to their stay as never before. Not content to wait until retirement to take that dream trip, they are more likely to live in the moment, to travel rather than seek financial security, and throw themselves and their bank balance at the world. They want things simple, casual and efficient. Most importantly for us, they appreciate great design and personalisation of experience. Cookie cutter moulds are no longer going to cut it, and only quirky individual statements will do. The expression “seen one, seen them all” is set for the scrap heap, to be replaced by “seen one, can’t wait to see what the next one’s got to offer”.

Glass bottom pool.

3. Designing for the Millennial traveller

Henry Ford once said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” And this is more relevant than ever, with many of the big branded hotels still finding it difficult to step out of the traditional mindset and keep up with the actual needs of this new generation. Market research can only take you so far, but questioning possibilities is limitless.

For a hotel to appeal to Millennials it needs a unique, lasting fingerprint – the experience of a boutique hotel, in every hotel. When designing the new brand hotel for China World in Beijing, aimed specifically at the Millennial traveller, our brief was: “Think Millennial – and don’t hold back.” We took this literally, placing only one limitation on ourselves – physics, and even that took a beating.

Internal running track.

In our concept presentation we based its interior on the workings of a Tag watch; a kinetic core connecting the hotel’s different layers – from the internal climbing wall as a backdrop to the lobby, the oxygen bar to revive the weary executive, a half pipe, even a craft brewery. All, however, were linked by the internal spiral, so that a brewer in the basement could look up and spy a swimmer at the very top peering back down. And we loved every second.

When it came to rooms, we began by accepting that, like big cats, they are not all the same, though do possess certain recognisable traits; archetypes that we called The Entrepreneur, the Urban Explorer, The Fashionista, and the Artist. The Entrepreneur’s concept room had a three-point desk fit for the chairman of the board. The Artist’s was more relaxed, with a bed that converted into a comfy day nest to maximise those sweeping, inspirational views of Beijing. The Fashionista’s had open wardrobes allowing them to gaze at their outfits, and making the simple cupboard part of the interior décor. Finally the Urban Explorer, always active and on the go, had monkey bars above the bed for impromptu pull-ups.

4. #FoldedSwanTowel OnFleek

A hotel can no longer wait for the room to impress its guests; it needs to begin at the door. Actually, it needs to begin with the very idea of the door. Some 75% of Millennial travellers post images on social media at least once a day; images that are just as likely to be the hotel lobby as the Taj Mahal.

A boomer may have enjoyed the towel folded into the shape of a swan, but the Millennial traveller will send a picture of it to everyone they know, making that swan as much a business decision as an aesthetic one. A well-chosen minibar concept, meanwhile, filled with local craft ales and intriguing products, can affect the perception of the entire hotel, not to mention earn a quick tweet or photo. If a build doesn’t have that integral # moment in the first few seconds, it’s probably in trouble.

As designer’s we’ve been waiting for generations for people to realise this and, more importantly, to budget for it. However along with operators, we now need eyes equivalent to Leonardo di Caprio at a spot the model contest, as a tired corner becomes an invitation for a negative post and a bitingly sarcastic comment.

5. Social Spaces and Space to be Social

There’s a blurring of the lines happening between functional and social spaces. The lobby is no longer an interim zone, but an interactive, welcoming area, as likely to be used to meet, work and hang out as check in. A boomer might sit in their room and work, but a Millennial is just as likely to sit in the bar, the background noise neither distracting nor irritating to them.

Some cutting edge operations are even colliding the bar with reception, creating a dual use space – check in and have a drink, or have a drink as you check in, cutting staff costs, maximising space and increasing spontaneous revenue. As for the restaurant, stand-alone operators have been defining the experience for years with farm-to-table authenticity and this is spreading to the high-room-count sites.

And it doesn’t end there. Meetings are more casual now, with the best business centres becoming business hubs — less clinical, more socially inspiring, where the occupants are just as likely to bust out and continue the conversation in the bar, or create a great on-the-fly concept over a sandwich.

6. Alone together – the digital traveller

Perhaps the key difference between Boomers and Millennials is that they are are more willing to trust technology. It might crash, but it doesn’t get cranky or forgetful at the end of a long shift, or look like it wants to stab you with a complimentary pencil for asking one too many questions.

However this doesn’t mean integrating gadgetry for the sake of it, but embracing technology that makes their world easier, quicker, and more glamorous.

Let’s test the boundaries. Ever seen an in-room safe big enough for a laptop? Why then not make the wardrobe the safe? Why look for light switches and flick them repeatedly until you find the one you want when a phone app can offer complete control and personalisation. Why root around looking for a socket to charge your phone? Photovoltaic surfaces mean simply placing your phone down is rewarded by an instant charge.

There’s more. Take the hotel concierge, holder of the golden keys, full of local advice and handy restaurant recommendations. But so is TripAdvisor, and with substantially less chance of money changing hands somewhere along the line. Why queue for reception when you can go straight to your room via online check-in and open the door via an app? Hilton has made the pledge that all of its rooms will be smartphone enabled by the end of 2016 and Starwood won’t be far behind.

While we’re at it, does the concept of reception even need to exist anymore? Could it become mobile, closer to an operational butler service, where the customer simply tags their location and reception comes to them?

Think any of this sounds maverick or expensive? I’m sure that airlines thought so once, but how much do you think they’ve saved by implementing an online check-in? Or fast track luggage drop? Has the customer benefited from not having to join a snaking queue? I’m willing to go out on a limb and say they have. However remember, when designing tech solutions, that Wi-Fi is considered an essential service by Millennials, and charging for it, particularly at traditional hotel prices, is nothing less than a distasteful tax on connectivity.

When you look at the desire, the development and the implementation already required, and the fact that it is only set to increase year on year, this is the best time in history to be a hospitality designer. The question is no longer, can operators afford great design, but can they afford to live without it?

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