Travel in 2020
Henry Harteveldt is the founder of Atmosphere Research, a boutique consumer research firm that studies travel-industry trends. We spoke to him on the road to get his perspective on the changing world of hospitality, how big hotel brands are navigating in the age of homesharing, and what travelers really want (hint: it’s consistency, not conformity).
What are the travel trends you’re studying today?
Our clients are interested in how consumers shop for and book travel, to what degree people are using various digital channels, and how they feel about the growing potential for personalization. Attitudes toward brand loyalty, and so on.
How many trips on average are consumers taking every year, and how are they traveling?
With the exception of the recession between 2008 and 2010, the typical leisure traveler takes about four trips a year. On average, two to three are going to be by air. In Europe, Asia, and the U.S., almost all travelers make at least one road trip to a destination of more than 50 miles or the equivalent in kilometers away from their home. In Europe and Asia, we see a lot more use of rail.
What other sorts of trends have you noticed?
One thing is the growing use of home-sharing accommodations. Airbnb, HomeAway, and other firms like that. We’re trying to understand why travelers use and prefer these home-sharing services. If they like them, why? If they have problems, what were they? And what does that say about their future interest in using these services. We’re also tracking interest in how people want to be sold to. The importance, for example, of content: visual, written, artificial or virtual reality, etcetera.
Do you think the culture of a destination plays a role in travelers’ choices?
Our research shows a significant number of leisure travelers in every country we survey are, indeed, interested in local culture. It isn’t everyone, and even for those who are interested in local culture, it may not be on every trip they take. But the interest is there. Not everyone, and not on every trip. There are plenty of travelers who want what we call the “fly and flop” vacation, a mindless getaway, either by themselves or with friends, spouse or partner, or family. Where you're just on a beach, relaxing and reading, taking advantage of the activities offered through the hotel. A “put your mind at rest” type of trip.
Where does culture come into play?
Food! Because we generally like to eat, and want to experience the authenticity of the destination through dining. We also see this in choice of hotel, which is an interesting challenge for large hotel brands. The largest hotel brands have built themselves up through a decades-old promise of consistency. In the U.S. in the ’70s, Holiday Inn used to advertise that the best surprise was no surprise. In other words, every hotel would be consistent, conforming to a certain look and feel, a certain standard of service, a certain set of amenities. Travelers want certain consistencies; safety, security, well-being. But they don't want conformity today.
What do they want?
They want hotels to reflect their sense of place. I'm talking to you now from a Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta which could be anywhere. The room is attractively furnished, but I could have spent the night in an Ikea showroom. There’s nothing distinctive about this room, nothing that has that look and feel that makes me know I'm in a Marriott. I couldn't tell you what hotel I'm at until I look at the room-service card, and I have no idea whether I'm in Atlanta or Sacramento.
And this is a collapsing model?
Right. What travelers want — and this is across all ages, so it's not just a Millennial thing — travelers want authenticity. People really like the promise that the Marriott or any chain offers. But they want that hotel to be a certain reflection of the community they’re visiting. We don't want the Marriott on the Rive Gauche in Paris, for example, to look, feel, or seem the same as the Marriott in Atlanta. We want to see a sense of place, and that can be presented through room design, art, and other things. Hotel brands really have to figure this out.
If you combine the growth of soft brands (for example, Curio by Hilton) with the mass adoption of the Internet, it’s now easy for travelers to find that great independent or smaller boutique hotel if they want a more authentic experience.
Like the Ace or the Standard?
Yes, because they aim for consistency. You immediately know you're at one of those properties because of a certain look and feel. They don't get it through mass forced void conformity. They allow the hotels to interpret the personality of that destination. Accor does a good job, especially with its higher-end brands like Sofitel, Pullman, and Novotel to try to take in the local environment and use architecture, art, food and beverage, and room design to reflect that back to its guests.
How do digital platforms encourage a sense of place?
Instagram and Facebook provide platforms that allow hotels to put their personalities out there. The challenge is for brands to take that content and reflect it back through their websites. They may have rigid templates they're required to use. The traveler who’s browsing and booking a Hilton or a Loews needs to be familiar with the brand and the hotel doesn't want that website to slow the traveler down. But by using photography, its guests social media, sites triggered by search through ratings and reviews, written and visual content, video content, graphics, employee interviews, whatever else may be appropriate, hotels now have more opportunities to bring that sense of place to the forefront.
Is that true for both mobile and desktop platforms?
It may be more difficult to do through mobile apps or mobile-optimized websites. You may not even want to do that on mobile, because it tends to be used more last-minute. But for someone who’s using a tablet or laptop or desktop (where they’re more likely to be stationary and have more time available), it's very important to incorporate that richer content, including, by the way, augmented and virtual reality to help that customer better understand the hotel. For resorts where guests may be staying multiple nights and may want to have a more involved experience, that richer content becomes essential.
Design Hotels does this well…
That's a great example. Their concept is to create a platform where independent hotels can come together. Each has its own personality, what in the industry is called a soft brand. Hard brands like Hilton or InterContinental have a more defined set of standards. Design Hotels has capitalized on the growth of the boutique hotel business design where authenticity is paramount.
Part of Design Hotels’ agenda is to re-visit the star scale on a more human scale, in terms of the quality of experience rather than cleanliness and efficiency. Experience is subjective: shouldn’t ratings be?
I think that that’s creative, innovative, and in a way, noble. Consumers are always going to want that 'hard rating,' if you will. For one thing, in some countries, that's how governments rate hotels. It provides a sense of relative, intuitive comparison. That objective scale lets me know it's a three-star hotel, so it probably won't have as many amenities, the rooms may not be as well-furnished, but it shouldn't be as expensive as the four-star hotel and so on. But that subjective scale, that “human star rating” if you will, says, hey this might be a three-star hotel but it has the most gorgeous views of this monument in Paris, or this part of New York City, or this farm across the street. Or it may have an absolutely outstanding restaurant. Or its people are truly, truly well-trained and very helpful. That’s equally important to travelers who may be willing to trade off a certain amount of comfort and quality and convenience.
When does a hotel become the destination itself?
A lot depends on the trip. When I go to Paris, I want a hotel that is going to make me feel like I'm in Paris, not some antiseptic sleeping chamber. The Pulitzer Hotel in Amsterdam does a great job with this. It’s a series of 25 or so canal houses that have been put together. You know from the inside out that you’re in Amsterdam. The restaurant features Dutch specialties. It’s a very warm setting. So you've got the great location and everything else to make you feel at home, but you know you’re in one of the most fascinating and engaging cities in the world.
Hotels and airlines used to be more closely connected, weren’t they?
Airlines used to own hotel companies! Pan American started the InterContinental Hotel chain. TWA, Hilton International. Lufthansa once had a stake in Kempinski. Air France may have owned Sofitel or something that became part of that core. Nippon Airways used to have a stake in one of the Japanese hotel chains, and so on. Right now the airlines will tell you we don't want to be in the hotel business… we can barely handle being hospitable to our guests! What’s interesting now is seeing closer partnerships between airlines and hospitality companies. Delta, for example, has had relationships with Starwood and Airbnb. At one time, in the ’80s, United Airlines, Western International hotels, now Westin, as well as Hertz, were owned by the same holding company, Allegis. The problem is the hotel business is dramatically different from the airline business. Hotels don't want to be in the airline business because frankly the profit margins suck and they're even more operationally intensive than the hotel business. And the airlines don't want to be distracted by the hotel business.
“Even if it’s a small boutique property in a city, a hotel has a story to tell.” — Henry Harteveldt
But a continuum between airlines and hotels creates a sense of place.
Right. It's interesting that a new hotel being built at Kennedy Airport by the JetBlue Terminal is going to use the name TWA, because it's going to be integrated with that beautiful main terminal building. TWA had this great sense of style and it's a throwback to a more glamorous time of air travel. But even large brands have recognized that if they don't have hotels to appeal to different types of travelers, they’ll lose those travelers to smarter, more nimble hotels whether they’re independent or competing chains.
It’s a way to develop authenticity?
Yes. The key reason Intercontinental Hotels Group bought Kimpton was because they wanted to learn how to be authentic. Not just a great sense of visual style and room design, but employee personality and sincerity throughout the experience. And learn how to adapt that to its other brands, whether that be Indigo or Holiday Inn or Crowne Plaza. You look at Loews, for example, and Omni, two U.S. chains, small in comparison to the big global brands, trying to bring a sense of place to all of their properties through room design, beverage outlets, art and architecture. So again you have consistency in terms of the standard of service and comfort, and the right degree of lack of conformity. So you know, the Loews Regency on Park Avenue in New York is different from the Loews in Tuscon, Arizona.
How do you see the future of hotels like the Versace Hotel or the Muji hotel?
Brands that integrate fashion have a potential for certain markets. Versace, for example, might work in cities like Milan, Miami, New York, or L.A., where you have fashion-forward, design-focused travelers and the hotel can appeal to people whether they're local or visiting, who aren’t staying there perhaps, through its restaurants and bars. But you'll never see a Muji Hotel in Mobile, Alabama, or a Versace Hotel in Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s simply impractical.
How big is the potential for home-sharing… and what are those travelers looking for?
We’re now seeing close to 20% or more of leisure travelers using home-sharing sites, and 10% of business travelers are using them. These travelers are looking for a different sense of authenticity. They like the physical attributes: more space for the same amount of money, more privacy, and the location. They can be in a real neighborhood, living amongst the locals. One thing we hear even from business travelers is that it’s important to live like a local. Hotels, because of zoning, are usually in more commercial neighborhoods.
And staying in a hotel makes you feel like a guest, not “at home.” It’s new. It’s clean. People are polite. It’s not real life.
Right. The trend with home-sharing is renting the entire home or apartment so there may be a host to meet you, give you the keys, share some information, but after that you're on your own. Others want access to that host, a person-to-person connection. So the challenge then, and this is where technology comes in, is to use customer data to empower guests to create more personalized experiences without it being creepy, inauthentic, or disrespectful.
How do you see the future of travel?
Hotel brands intended for extended stays, like Marriott Residence Inn, could reposition more to a home-sharing customer as opposed to a business person. It requires a different look and feel, different set of amenities, food and beverage and staffing. I think you’ll see hotels and home-sharing starting to come together through partnerships. We've already seen the first steps of this. Hyatt just partnered with Oasis. Accor bought One Fine Stay. Hotel owners are going to property managers and saying, look: use our bedding, use our professional housekeepers, so your guests will have this added sense of confidence for what they're getting. To me, that’s very clever. You may not be able to beat them, so you have to find ways to join them.
Words by Henry Herteveldt and The Editors. Top photo: Chablé Resort & Spa in Mexico, Photo by Karyn Millet.