By Lilit Marcus. Photos: Courtesy Canopy.
The first thing most people in marketing will tell you is that the goal is not to create things specifically aimed at millennials, the oft-maligned generation who have never heard TV static or a dial tone in their lives. It's simply that every product evolves for the next generation of customer, and these days millennials are that group. But when it comes to creating a hotel room for the business traveler whose expense account also covers Airbnbs, hotel brands have had to get rid of some existing stereotypes and go back to a time-tested technique: asking people what they want.
Case in point: Hilton's new Canopy brand, which launched its first hotel in Reykjavik in 2016 and has further openings in the pipeline for D.C., Chicago, and Dallas. The company spent three years interviewing potential clients, bringing them into Hilton's D.C.-area headquarters to check out model rooms, and narrowing in on specific dynamic neighborhoods before even breaking ground in Iceland. "The top three drivers for guest satisfaction are room, check-in, and greeting on arrival," says Gary Steffen, the global head of Canopy by Hilton. "Then for millennials you would add on free Wi-Fi, free breakfast, and in-room fridges."
While many brands are eager to imitate the Ace hotel model—where lobbies are so cool, even locals hang out there with laptops in tow—Canopy's research showed that focusing on common spaces often meant that rooms were lackluster. Even if a millennial business traveler wants to meet locals or have a space full of free coffee to sit at and respond to emails, it's also critical to have a warm shower and a comfortable bed—something anybody at any age could agree with. The way to cope with a long flight and the 12-hour time difference between New York and Hong Kong isn't fashion shows and TED talks in communal spaces—it's with a room that will be ready when you check in, even if it's 4 a.m. local time.
"We took so much time in creating a guest room that works," Steffen adds. "Plugs, Wi-Fi, and lighting are at your fingertips. If I have a bad guest room, I don't care about how energetic the lobby space is. It's the entire package that we’re creating." And though the brand's first hotel is already open, that doesn't mean Canopy's work is done. Steffen and his team constantly monitor feedback, both from guest surveys and from social media outlets like Twitter and Instagram as well as ratings sites like TripAdvisor. Some suggested changes are easier to make than others (Brighter lights in the bathroom? Easy. New wallpaper? Not as much) and the hotel was designed with this easy-to-alter concept in mind: Furniture is modular and not built into the structure of the walls or rooms, making it easier to switch pieces in and out without having to make capital improvements.
"We call it a white box approach—furniture, fixture, equipment. Everything is modular and brought in separately, which is great for adaptive reuse buildings—you don’t have to hardwire everything." One small but significant change came during the model room phase of development. "When we brought customers in to touch and feel rooms, the one thing we learned was we had made something called a 'hall boy'—a full-length mirror with a shelf. You could put your keys and stuff down on it." Despite the practical applications of the hall boy, customers voted for simply a full length mirror, no shelf included, which isn't always standard in hotel rooms.
The way to cope with a long flight and the 12-hour time difference between New York and Hong Kong isn't fashion shows and TED talks in communal spaces—it's with a room that will be ready when you check in, even if it's 4 a.m.local time.
That ability to learn and adapt is what will make or break a hotel room, even if the change is so small a guest doesn't initially notice it. The Marriott M-Beta hotel in Charlotte, a test kitchen of sorts for the Marriott brand that has red buttons around the hotel to gather real-time feedback on shared spaces like the bar or the gym, also had to rethink its preconceived ideas about millennial guests. To wit: The hotel actually removed the desks from all the rooms, believing that millennial business travelers preferred to work in bed on their laptops and tablets—until customers started specifically requesting desks. Turns out they wanted a surface for spreading out their work or charging devices. Now, about half the rooms in the hotel have desks, so customers can choose to have a desk room like they might pick, say, a king-size bed.
Toni Stoeckl, global brand leader and vice president of Marriott's Distinctive Select Brands, works on two young and vibrant hotel chains that both target millennials: Aloft and Element. Like Canopy, the teams behind both brands did focus-group testing, but not just in their offices—the company created a "mobile innovation lab" to take model rooms on the road, most recently to Downtown Los Angeles, where people had a chance to look at the rooms and give their real-time reactions. "You may travel as a group of friends, or for a family reunion, so when you travel together you never have your own space to share—you're in a lobby or a guest room," Stoeckl says. "So we made a communal room with a dining space, worktable, and has three to five rooms around it. We thought about how a group of consultants could stay there for a few weeks on a project, so there’s time to work together privately. We tested this in L.A., and consumers gave us great insight."
The focus-group testing also helped to challenge some clichés about millennial travelers. "We got a lot of feedback on the refrigerator. Do people really use it? Should we eliminate it and replace it with a high-end coffeemaker? But people said no. They wanted us to keep it, but they complained that it was sitting on the floor and you had to bend down to get to it, so we relocated them. We moved it up by two feet so it's at arm level."
Stoeckl refers to these small but critical changes as "friction"—if it's too hard to find a light switch, figure out how to use a TV remote, or open and close the curtains, little annoyances quickly eat away at overall comfort. Research showed Stoeckel and his team that the average traveler brought five devices that needed to be charged: They needed to add more regular and USB plugs, and get rid of Pay Per View and bedside iPads because people were more comfortable using their own tech. "You have your own device with you already. Why wouldn’t you want to use that? You can stream Netflix or Hulu on the larger TV, and that is a direct response from feedback. Everyone travels with their content, so we worked out a technology solution."
Will millennials respond positively to the way hotels are changing, or will they still prefer an Airbnb or crashing on a friend’s couch to save on expenses? Aloft, Element, and Canopy seemingly know how to find the answer—just ask.
This story originally appeared on Conde Nast Traveler.
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