What you really, really want

Airbnb

At this week’s R&R advisory board, Philip Bacon, senior director, Horwath HTL Spain, said that the sector was “seeing a period of creativity”. In the good times, you see, hotel operators just do what they want and the guest has to suck it up, but when guests must be fought over, suddenly what the guest actually wants becomes a factor and that’s when change happens.

There is the exception, of course, and that’s the Steve Jobs effect, where the customer is told what they want and, having been unable to imagine an iPod in a context outside Star Trek, is delighted by the innovation. It’s not a flawless example: many of Jobs’ colleagues would rather he had worn shoes in the office. You can’t please all the people all the time.

But outside technology, the guest is starting to realise that they might just have a say.

Frits van Paasschen, former Starwood Hotels & Resorts CEO, put it rather well to this hack last year, commenting: “Without naming names, there are many brands that are soulless monuments to how people thought they wanted to travel 40 or 50 years ago and the only reason that you would know what brands they are is by walking outside and looking at the sign. They have large tired ballrooms, an F&B that is pretty depressing  -  and that goes all the way up to what the industry calls upper upscale.” Van Paasschen, currently on the CitizenM board, knows a thing or two about disruption, he’s written a whole book about it.

The issue for the hotel sector is that what the guest really wants might be being provided somewhere else, as was the case with Airbnb. The industry felt like it was onto a good thing, spewing out more and more brands along the same, traditional lines, when a platform started offering access to much more flexible accommodation, often at a better price and a rich array of locations. Suites for all and sometimes a bottle of wine thrown in.

This came as a shock to the hotel sector and it started to tweak the edges and, in the case of Hilton, launch Motto, which has flexible sleeping/living options, although if you ask Hilton it wasn’t influenced by Airbnb at all.

The platform has been through a number of business plans since launch and, under its new PE overlords has claimed a move to long term, but as there’s been no evidence of that yet, it continues to pose the same threat to hotels.

Which takes us back to what customers want - now. Airbnb had reported a very enjoyable round of bookings of late, as what guests want - now - is, yes, cleanliness, but also remoteness. And control. If you rent a whole property you can ensure the cleanliness yourself, then kick back without any shared spaces and take a breath. Rural retreats have, anecdotally, taken over from the seaside and one look at the photos from Bournemouth beach in the south of England this week tells you why.

As we have seen in recent weeks, this has led to deals in the resort sector, as pent-up leisure demand is forecast to spew out over the market this summer. Resorts offer control and cleanliness and, as we heard on this week’s In Focus, are also becoming flexible enough to attract business guests too (yippee! You can still work on holiday). Because, before the pandemic, the average guest was proving that they were not the average guest, they were all guests all the time, rolled into one. And, outside the need for hand sanitisers, this is another trend that has been accelerated by the virus and one which is likely stick long after people have stopped taping distance markings on the floor. The business hotel, the leisure hotel, the this, the that, will become less and less distinct and hotels will instead be built for people. And that’s surely something we all want.