As I madly type away on the keyboard of my MacBook Pro, thousands of dumbstruck hoteliers across the world are slaving away in a blurring succession of days and nights in the mindless pursuit of completing an ignominious document known as The Hotel Business Plan. It’s Friday and I’m over-caffeinated, so hang on tight. Wait, I can hear my heart beating fast, or is that a gang of unruly wild cats on the roof of my office? Never mind.
Every great religion in the world has a voluminous written tome aimed at spelling out in truly arcane, absurd, and most often monotonous overtones why they are the true one and only el supremo. These are fanatical spiritual guidebooks that expect unquestioning followers to simply take instructions and question nothing. They are in essence literary lobotomies.
Global hotel chains over the past few decades of meteoric growth have taken on a similar game plan, recruiting unquestioning disciples, racking up bureaucratic organizational charts, and enslaving hotel owners under a doctrine of utilitarian standardization. The entire process has become one of abject objectification (nice eh?).
Perhaps one of the leading examples of this dumbing-down process to the lowest-common denominator is the tortuous exercise of compiling an annual business plan. Essentially, as much of 25% or in many cases more, of each year is spent creating a plan for the next year based on past events. It’s the equivalent of trying to make your shiny car go faster, as you take your belt to the nearest horse and awkwardly bludgeon them into a doomed forward sprint.
In days past you could peek way up high onto a General Manager’s top bookshelf and there somewhere at the back, gathering dust would be an enormous brick-like book that was of no practical use whatsoever. Today, we have things like The Cloud, and if there is such a thing as digital dust, baby this is where you’d find it’s cosmic twin.
I am not a total idiot and understand the need for standing in line, order, and rules. Yet, at the end of the day, these cannot be unquestioned or in many cases better ideas sought. And yet, year in and year out, the massive waste of time spent on business plans remains an industry obsession by the messianic cult of hoteldom.
In perhaps the most bizarre circumstances amidst the catastrophic backdrop of Covid-19 and a global pandemic, dutiful hoteliers are shifting into zombie-mode and creating a 2021 yearbook that they, their executive teams and most everyone knows is entirely meaningless. It’s a bit like preparing for the breakfast buffet the night before, as the Titanic sinks rapidly into those icy waters of oblivion.
Today the epidemic tasks that remove hotel managers from their immediate tasks of survival are representative of a tragically flawed and broken system that is a day late and a dollar short. For General Managers the time spent on group generated meetings, reports, countless forecasts, and ultimately the doomed business plan as a hotel owner is fighting for survival is pure and simple nonsense.
What I’d advocate is the time has come to tear the house down, kill the annual business plan. Create strategic rolling cash flow forecasts as lead documents. Forget the typical STR comp set of hotels that are only intended as a masturbatory pat on the back for those at the top. Sadly this mentality ignores the multiple non-STR hotels that lay a stone’s throw away, or what about those restaurants, bars, and other businesses that compete with you?
The tragic reality is hotel owners build and invest in properties that extend way beyond rooms but the only true measurement of success is a pre-determined set of indicative rooms in chain hotels. It’s a rigged system that supports the notion that managers lack the brains or skill to manage a business and all that’s left on the table are enablers. We’ve lost our entrepreneurship willpower and ingenuity. What happened to DIY, or have the hotel brand police imprisoned our collective soul?
My thoughts down the raging river of 2020 and no return refocus to the need for absolute disruption of hospitality’s broken infrastructure. One that places the ineffectual bureaucracy where it belongs, into the nearest dumpster. Hotel chains have to learn to act as ongoing business concerns, to live up to their promises to serve hotel owners’ interests and to foster and promote managers who touch, feel, and act as business leaders, day in and day out.
Someday in the very far future, after our civilization has faded, as new generations wander about the world, finding vacuous empty hotels in not unlike the way explorers landed on Easter Island and questioned those massive stone images, they will come upon these large dusty copious volumes of useless information that proudly tout a headline title – The Hotel Business Plan, and wonder why? I know I do, what about you?
Despite the global pandemic, Bangkok’s rapid-fire megacity growth trajectory has remained largely in place. While life in Covid-19 times is a bit like sparring with wild gangs of chaos monkeys in a dead-end ally, thankfully one of the singular guilty pleasures of these strange times is the ability to at least travel domestically.
Last week, in the country where time stands still or at least it seems that way, as the waning days of the lost summer blaze away, I bumped a ride on the big bus in the sky up to the streets of Thailand’s capital.
New hotels were on my mind, as my pulse raced along with a staccato beat. Or maybe it was the third double shot Americano. Glancing at my phone, thinking out loud who still wears a watch? It’s only bloody ten in the morning and here I was amped and ready to roll. Bright sights, big city, drum roll, please.
First stop, down Langsuan to the expansive Sindhorn Village, landing me on the front door of the new Kimpton Maa-Lai. Being from the US (though lately, I’ve all too often opted for the pseudonym Miles from Canada, thanks to the Tweeting Cheeto), I have some history with the Kimpton brand which is part of the IHG brand stable.
Yet, for those in Kingdom come, the name is a blank slate here in Asia, with the City of Angels providing an opportunity to cut its teeth as it looks to rep-up. My first impression is that of a gentrified West Coast vibe, posh dog walkers (part of the Kimpton brand DNA is pet-friendly) glide by, and rightly so in the age of dining dogma, the focus is on food and beverage from the get-go. Scions of the leisure class are a common sight, leash in hand.
Most memorable is the rooftop Bar Yard, which has Bangkokians buzzing, but I did love Craft on the ground floor and is an homage to a variety of stunning Thai coffees. Ex-IHG F and B concept guy Shane Giles who is now out on his own, leading consulting start-up – Blue Salt is behind the current and soon to be expanded offerings. It’s a big ask with all the bars and restaurants in this hotel, but let’s just say it will be an interesting ride. The hotel rooms will open in October.
Shifting the chit chat to Sindhorn Village on a warm breezy day you can take a look into the future and feel the vibe of great things to come within a New York Central Park way. Lumpini as it goes is starting to see a massive set of mega-projects in the peripheral area such as Bangkok One and Dusit Central Park. It’s a strong promise of lifestyle in the margins, without a dancing bear. Some of the city’s most expensive addresses will are yet to come with uber-luxury dog walking crash pads.
Keeping the flame burning, my next stop takes me past the wall of voodoo and down to the resurging Chao Praya River. One of Asia’s most notable accidental tourism phenoms has to be how the two-decade-old commissioning of the BTS sky train shifted tourists away from the river and Silom, and up into Sukhumvit and beyond.
Today, the culture club is seeing a virtual renaissance in the area. In the mood for art, I took some ‘me time’ to head over to the River City complex to browse the Andy Warhol Pop Art exhibition which runs through 24th November. On display are 128 original works of art from the king of pop, and what am amazing happening for Bangkok. My recommendation – just do it.
One organization that is getting thing rights is the Bangkok River collaborative project that is being led by a stacked deck of leading hotels, retail, and travel players. The connection to the creative district that is driving some of the most exciting urban redevelopment in the region. Hats off to David Robinson for some inspired thinking and giving creativity a sense of belonging.
Near but oh so far away I was about to be blown out of my tattered green, road-weary sneakers. There was no dancing bear, but a quick looksie at the new Four Seasons left me gobsmacked. Everything about this place speaks luxury, from the architecture of John-Michel Gathy and Denniston to an articulated horizon of river life on the move. General Manager Lubosh Barta poked his head around corners, to point out a series of memorable discoveries.
Part of the mega complex which includes the towering posh Four Seasons Residences is the sleek, low key chic Capella. Talking to the GM John Blanco, my first line was “it just looks like a Capella.” Understated, intimate, and boutique the sizing suite size rooms and riverfront villas, make it a formable object of desire. The bottom line is with October openings, these twins are both stunning yet provide a distinct yin and yang to Bangkok nouveau lux.
Meanwhile back on the BTS, clutching my tattered, massively worn-down Rabbit Card, that looked like it had been chewed on by some beat weasel, I masked up in Anglo Batman style and rode the rails to Sukhumvit. It was time to scuddle down Soi 8 to the spanking new lyf from Ascott. Bright, brash, coliving in a social setting. I love it. It’s a spontaneously engaging entry for affordable travel, with a somewhat sophomoric tongue in cheek sense of place. It was in all a coolio moment.
As the afternoon waned, cocktail time neared, my trip to the big smoke was indeed a look behind the curtain of tomorrowland. Bangkok’s splitting atoms is seeing a new set of districts or mini-metros that look to throw a curveball into the current marketplace. Had I seen too much, or did it only wet my appetite for another trip?
Jesus, the virtual ink from the title isn’t dry yet, as my mind swirls into gender-neutral territory searching for a replacement to the term middleman. After a fast and furious visit to cyberland, the best alternative is probably the word intermediary. Sadly, it’s weak as English tea and as saggy as an aging, punched out, a heavyweight boxer in the waning seconds of the final round. One thing for sure is death, in this case, is DOA (for those unfamiliar with noir, that’s dead on arrival).
As usual, I have digressed at an early stage. Is it too late for a comeback or have you moved onto browsing those all too funny endless stream of cat photos? Cats are hard to beat on IG or YouTube, but let’s give it a whirl anyway.
Covid-19 has taken an unimaginable toll on the global travel business. One of the most in-your-face examples is the endless line of rapidly closing travel agencies and keeping the theme going, hitting terrifying high-speeds onto a narrow thin runway, into a head-on collision are the collapsing DMC’s (destination management companies). Boom! In both cases, the goose, the golden egg, and even the entire house have been entirely blown away. Obliterated. Nada.
Last Thursday (sorry if this is too specific), I was noodling on LinkedIn and dodging pesky job seekers and personal wealth managers and came upon a news feed about the tragic closing of the STA Travel in the U.K. My eyes came to rest on the heart-wrenching commentary of 500 job losses and nostalgic posts over how student travel was intertwined with personal life journeys and emotional outbursts over how tourism could never recover from the impending lack of human interaction. OMG. Doomsday hit home, humanity was totaled and there was still another 48 hours to go before the weekend.
At this point let me make it clear I am not, or at least do not believe I am a cold-hearted bastard, though my first two wives might say otherwise. But for those of you who know me, I do like to cut to the chase, and so I threw in a post essentially saying that Covid-19 was just an accelerator of trends that were coming anyway and the brick and mortar travel agents and DMC’s were essentially deer in the headlights of technology.
To my credit, I did offer up that the pandemic was an opportunity to reinvent and innovate, but by this time the angry flood of counter-posts started rolling in about the heartlessness of business, the immorality of job losses and the total disintegration of travel as it had lost its inherent human touch.
This is of course bollocks, and I should know as my fat human fingers type away at the groaning MacBook and reach out every so often for the double-shot Americano. Reality bites and while I firmly believe we need to pay homage to our roots and history, we also need to evolve. This includes moving on from living in caves, having an average life expectancy in our early 20’s and being chased by prehistoric dinosaurs.
Where I live, in Thailand, tourism was changed forever by a book in 1975 from Lonely Planet named Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. It became the DIY handbook for generations of a global nomad’s in the years that followed. As the once mysterious regions of Asia, from Bali, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar methodically opened and developed, more editions followed as did greater numbers of travelers.
Tropical islands moved through tourism cycles from backpackers, to group tours, onto the advent of pish-posh luxury pool villas and splintering into even more niches. The East slowly edged towards the West and the veil was lifted to the roaring sound, high above the jet engines of low-cost airline carriers. As AirAsia aptly coined in its slogan ‘now everyone can travel’. They did. They came, they saw and still more came. Until now.
Today Lonely Planet has been nearly downsized out of existence. Books? Who needs books when you have a smartphone and TripAdvisor? It’s not unlike the downfall of Tower Records to Amazon and then into the age of downloads. In some cases, companies evolved or reinvented, but in most the doomed voyage has taken down employees just like the sinking of the Titanic and the iceberg of Covid-19, laying just beneath the surface, lurking until the nightmare became real.
In many ways, I’m a romantic, and the older I get can wax poetically about the past. Though if I take time and look at what is being retold, I realize our memories are half-truths only, with much of what really happened, filtered out and left behind, forgotten, deep inside the life bin. While it’s not to the extent of fake news, let’s just say the lines are gray.
Truthfully looking back at the human era of Lonely Planet travel, despite its hipster overtone was the fact that you could be deep within one of Asia’s emerging country-scapes, carrying a dog-eared copy of your worn-down guidebook, walk into some local hole-in-the-wall eatery and come face to face with yourself. Scattered at other tables were other versions of the nomadic persona, each clutching the telltale tome with near-religious fervor. Bottom line is we traveled where someone wanted us to go, or discovered what we were destined to in the pages of our instruction manual.
So, my question to Luddites everywhere, is TripAdvisor any different? To be succinct, it is, because of the technology that wraps around the world, that is has made the world even smaller. We no longer use just a single guidebook but the voices in our head, are written words by humans, many, many humans. Yes, some are ignorant, stupid, and annoying but yet, there is the human touch in all that we do, express. We’ve traded our single hard copy guidebook for a smartphone. That is the only real change.
As for travel agents, DMC’s and the rest, my only form of condolence can best be summed up as ‘thank you for your service’. You got us this far up the river but now we have to get out of the boat and walk alone. Yes, in the classic film Apocalypse Now the captain said, never get out of the boat, but damn it’s time to sink or swim. Humanity adjusts in time to changing
Beat bard poet Willie Shakespeare once penned the line “now is the winter of our discontent”, but for Thailand all you need to do is cut and paste summer into winter which then segues on to explain the current state of the national angst.
In 2020 Thai’s have not only lost their Songkran, but for the boys and girls of summer, manifested as a rising tide of outbound global travelers, they have been denied title roles in the wide world of Instagram gratification. No chic pics of France, Switzerland, Japan or Australia. Nada, sorry the door to the outside has been closed.
Fear. That’s it. Or more accurately FOMO (fear of missing out) has become a domestic plague of epic proportion. And here is what is interesting for the hotel and travel industry in Thailand is that Thai’s are once again learning to fall in love with their own country. Of course, in this case, the ‘love factor’ has been supercharged by the IG -Instagram mission of post til you drop.
Here in Phuket, speaking to OTA’s one of the most important learnings is the behavior changes of travelers in a Covid-19 world and how preferences are shifting. According to one of the larger booking providers, the top three locations searched for accommodation are Patong, Phuket Town and Koh Yao Yai. Certainly, no surprise with Patong, but the inclusion of the latter two clearly points to the relevance of domestic demand.
Start trolling Instagram or Facebook and look at images of these locations and you find food, panoramic bucket list photo opportunities and photogenic design hotels. Talking to hotels in picture perfect Phang Nga Bay, occupancy is relatively strong, though in no uncertain circumstance is the customer base the same. The disruption is here, and it might be just rolling in on a Rimowa, and weighed down by costume changes and digital accessories including tripods, mini drones and multiple devices.
For hotels in Phuket, the new norm is that summer will soon enough turn to winter. Reality is biting hard, but for now, THE MARKET is now, and for the foreseeable future, domestic travelers. Sadly, the Bangkok crowd’s perception of Phuket remains somewhat negative, with the perception of a wildly expensive destination, unaccommodating service and transportation and ultimately many Thai’s express that they feel unwelcome in Phuket to the extent of nearly feeling they are a stranger in their own country.
What the island now has, is the opportunity to learn and start to change its attitude towards domestic visitors. Over the past few months the mounting noise in social media is rising about expats feeling unwelcome in Thailand, or irate about dual prices. But, the very same can be said about how Phuket deals with local visitors. Seems everyone in Covid-19 is feeling unwelcome.
Trying to wrap this into a takeaway, I can probably say that despite a highly challenged hotel sector, is that some businesses are finding a way through the valley of the shadow of death (note Biblical reference to say it’s really bad out there). Adjusting customer bases, understanding Thai hotel guests on how and why they travel or what attracts them and at the end of the day, taking the opportunity to reinvent Thainess in Phuket is needed now and into the future. You may return to IG now.
One of my favorite comments during a recent virtual design event I co-organized was from a hipster bar concept consultant who recalled a trend-seeking client, sporting an epic brief that included finding a bartender with tattoos. The more tattoos the better.
Ironic? Yes. I do get the ink thing, but I also can vividly visualize the sheer number of tattoos on display at any Walmart, which makes its visceral inclusion in a brainstorming, cutting-edge innovation exercise appears both silly and superficial. Is this now the new barometer of what’s hot, bothered and an object of desire for a boutique hotel – a tattoo?
Over the past decade I have become more and more disturbed over how the hospitality industry has shifted its emphasis from people to the sheer idol worship of products. This journey down a dark noir landscape has turned into an obsession, with the simple example being the tattoo, and its whimsical objectification or representation of a creative mindset. Yes, it’s only ink and skin deep, but my mind eases back to trying to figure out, where did we go wrong? Very, very wrong.
My entire current existence, with a dark constant companion at my side (no doubt sporting a Grim Reaper tat), has nagging thoughts that often turn to the looming big sleep becomes completely unglued over a quick calculation over how many days or cumulative months of my life I’ve lost in hotel design meetings. Sadly, so much of the time spent recreating or essentially tweaking the same four walls of a guest room, time and time again. Bottom line, if there is such a thing is that hotel products and not people are the contemporary God’s whom we worship in blind and stupefying repetition.
When I was in my early teen rebellious years, I had a total fixation with rebel icon Che Guevara. The imagery of the mad, sad doomed guerilla was as potent as was his standing as a counterculture hero. But, what really got me over the line was not his inspirational lifestyle of revolution, but was his ever-present beret. The pre-hipster absolutely sucked me in as an unlikely student of anarchy. So, I went out and bought one.
To get to the point though, then as in now I had a massive head, looked totally ridiculous and still am not a person who should wear a hat under any circumstance. Or for that matter, a beret. In the end, the purity of Che’s message was completely missed over my misguided fix on the beret. I have never worn one nor should be allowed to, ever. For those readers who don’t know who Che is, his image along with the beret is a common sight on trucks and bus mud flaps throughout Thailand. My mistake was looking at the product and not the person.
Today, the tragically hip, design-oriented, fashionista-fueled fervor of boutique hotels is dominated by a maniacal view of materialism. Human capital has been relegated down to the dark, dank basement where in the movie Pulp Fiction they kept the gimp. Let’s not even go there. Tech has not helped either as it has created cult-like worship circles that echo total emptiness. Sorry, no one home.
At the end of the day, we have come to value a tat, more than understanding that as an industry that is challenged, desperate and changing as never before that people need to be put front and center in brand or idea development. Cut the noise, tear down the four walls and realize if boutique hotels are to a force of change and disrupt, that it’s people and not products that will lead those stranded in a vanilla desert of blandness back to the promised land. And one thing for sure, is those truly hip and cool individuals won’t be wearing a beret. Ever.
There is no mistaking the sound of a flushing toilet. It’s not a sudden rainstorm, or the whoosh of a juiced up, flash mob of joggers on steroids passing by on the street. Arguably, it’s a dirty little low-pitched thunder from down under that somehow triggers the gag reflex. Remember Trainspotting? Welcome to the world of Covid-19 creative collaboration with Zoom as the madcap captain of a voyage to nowhere.
One of the truly troubling misguided themes of the pre-pandemic trends of co-working, co-living, co-thinking, work from home but innovate in groups ethos was that collaboration was indeed the way forward for innovation including hotels. This is bullshit. Pure and simple. I’m sorry to those who say ‘you can’t say that?’ Well guess again, I just did.
I’m perplexed looking at the boutique hotel and resort space for comparables to group-led brands, but let me think back to the creative ideas that spurred an industry. From Adrian Zecha’s Amanjunkies, Andre Balazs at Standard, Ace’s Alex Calderwood or Ian Schrager in his many incarnations. Single-minded individuals who carved out great ideas.
Certainly, in most cases a bratty, ego-centric designer or two were key to the tasty cocktail that erupted into volcanic magic but this was not a kumbaya moment or group hug. Leave those to the crew at Walmart, though that’s all history with social distancing and thank God for that.
My point here is that the creative process, Eureka moment or flash in the pan is a solo endeavor that Google Teams just can’t moderate or hold court over. It has to have some edge, decisiveness, and there is no room for pats on the back to those who simply attend with meaningless feedback and a total lack of imagination. (Note to those types, Food Panda is actively hiring and if you want a pat on the back for silly ideas I suggest getting those piping hot tamales to the condo in under five minutes or less).
In a nutshell, creating genius hotels is about dogma, you don’t just walk the dog, but you go hard and fast like those speeding greyhounds trying to obliterate the speeding lure in just one vicious bite. They don’t run in packs and exchange small talk. In essence, it’s time to understand that the call to action needs to be a definitive ‘screw the group’ process.
In my hotel development advisory work some of my first words to would be developers are to be just that – BE THE DEVELOPER. Daddy up, be dogmatic, single-minded, obsessing over details. Don’t expect your hotel chain brandman in a suit and tie or worse in the boutique space, those faux-creatives who go sockless into meetings to lead you to salvation. The latter are indeed the worst, as they will only take a project down ‘Derivative Avenue’ and are best stuffed into a massive sock drawer down with the would-be hipster crowd with fresh ink tattoo’s and a six-day beard.
The past four months of my life can be summed up as a creative nightmare, as doing group meetings on Zoom, Google, Webex or any other weapons of mass destruction (remember that term – Georgie Bush and Tony Blair are still looking for them, maybe try the sock drawer fellas) are utterly failed in attempted collaboration. Be it some schmuck in Brussels or Atlanta who keeps muttering ‘can you hear me now?’, to the computer illiterate who has never figured out how to share documents.
All this nuttiness occurs as ten other people on the call try to look interested, be polite or my personal favorite being the one who just says to hell with me, turns off the video, mutes the mike and gets stuck into nachos and a margarita. Nothing good does or can come of these virtual snooze fests we have to now endure.
Which now leads me, in a staggering sort of way to where we came in. This, of course is how our virtual creative process has led to a nearby bathroom where someone who is afraid they will miss a single word of wisdom from the collective think piece, heads off to the toilet and forgets to mute. That sums up the meeting, as any possible positive ideas from the two-hour collaboration are essentially down the toilet in one quick flush.
My advice, if you want to create a great boutique hotel, go lock yourself up in a room alone, ignore the help of others and avoid nilla, vanilla wash-out group’s prayer circles at all cost. Dogma, baby, dogma, it’s a walk best walked alone.
Hong Kong’s position as one of the leading worldwide host cities for luxury hotel brands has long been an envious one. The line-up that includes Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, Shangri-La, Rosewood and Langham is rapidly finding that the unique sense of corporate place has become a perilous balancing act.
Mind you, I sit on no political fence and readers need to understand this is a hotel analysis piece that transcends political agendas. But cutting to the point, the issue that these hotel groups will face sooner or later is a challenge of how to recast their future luxury brandscape as part of a greater mega-brand that is Mainland China.
I think we can pretty squarely say that rapid pace of change in Hong Kong is accelerating the integration of a bigger agenda and the incredibly unique positioning of Hong Kong’s brands abroad are going to shift from being home alone to one of going into a pace car’s slipstream in the lead up to a Formula One race.
Hotels are not the only ones who will have to contend with the change. From Cathay Pacific to HSBC our perception of Hong Kong is on the move and in reality no one knows where it will land. There are those who say Hong Kong’s reputation and legacy can carry on for decades as it’s too big to fail, while others would opt in that in the decade ahead it will be relegated as just another tertiary city within a bigger picture. I’d imagine the reality falls between the two.
But for the luxury hotel brands, there is no firm roadmap ahead given the Mainland’s limited overseas success with their own top-end hospitality brands. The question now for the Big 5 Hong Kong owned, based or controlled groups given the current business and political climate is what impact will transpire with their unique identities?
Some may say that the hotels either be forced to somehow manage the process and retain the current status quo, though the long-term reality is if they will continue to use Hong Kong as their flagship properties, that they will become in time Mainland Chinese brands. I’m not saying this is bad or good, but with certainty we can say it’s different.
What is a disconnect is that even Chinese travelers abroad look to foreign icons like Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and others as preferred luxury cocoons. The entire idea of global hotel chains who created China specific brands has not gone as expected. The Mainland thirst to experience new and different things is at the cornerstone of their adventures abroad.
It’s not unthinkable that some of these brands may shift their homes or others may align move deeply into the Mainland as part of a bigger vision but 2020 is in essence the sounding of a drum that decisions must come sooner than later. Covid-19 will delay this but the pace of political change and potential volatility between the East and the West are creating a perfect storm that even a luxury Hermes umbrella might have a hard time keeping the driving rain off of them when walking near Victoria Harbour. Expect this year to be the trigger of brand angst for the Big 5 and where they land, no one really knows.
It’s Monday morning and my thought process has somehow hit the wall. Not literally mind you, but the thought of wearing a helmet and assuming the psyche of a crash test dummy just makes it all worse. My head has been literally spinning around in circles not unlike that classic case of devil possession in the Hollywood thriller ‘The Exorcist.’
My inner demons in this case are hotel interiors and the sad sorry state of the blah blah, same sameness of them all. As my days grow shorter with age and the big sleep comes up on the horizon, I can’t tell you how many days, weeks or perhaps even cumulative years I’ve compiled in design or operational meeting over guest rooms.
It is too mind numbing for words, but let’s have a go anyway. From legends in their own mind developers’ whose famous last words are ‘let’s think out of the box’, onto the Instagram cowboys (and girls) who flood your WhatsApp message box with images of very nice but totally irrelevant pictures of cutting edge boutique hotels from Albania to Timbuktu. Bury my heart in Pinterest
We’ve put bathtubs in living rooms, removed bathrooms, built in and then minimalized, but the end of the day, all these years later it’s just like Hotel Lego and there are still just four bloody walls and a bed, two or three (family rooms for the latter). All those aspirational thoughts go up in smoke and disruption is left to smarter industries like tech.
What I don’t get about hotels is the finality of interiors. Sure five, seven or ten years down the track you get a second or third chance, it’s a bit like marriage. But just like marriage those days, weeks and months leading up to change can be utter hell (note to self, ensure wife does not read this, though readers note this is in fact my third wife).
The dilemma of the process is that it’s pure inertia, and a total archaic stonewalling of the human need to be adaptive, moody, or want different experiences in the span of the time we spend in our hotel room. Why can’t hotels be like retail, where there are often four walls but the areas can evolve by the time of day, season, occasion or preferences? For all its worth hotels today are not similar to the caves humans dwelled in at the dawn of time. Nothing moves or changes. There are dinosaurs outside though, both now and then.
This theory of mine goes straight on down the line of hotel interiors from the madness of the two-class system of front and back of house (remember when Trump said Mexico was going to pay for the Wall?), to lobbies, outlets, and all the rest of these sadly inflexible spaces with their potential unfulfilled. It’s tragic and I have a hard time believing the hotel trade is so incredibly mindless to not change this backward thinking.
I look at my friends who work in tech, or retail and perhaps I’m blind but they don’t really seem that much smarter than I am, so who’d to blame, everyone and no one is maybe the best explanation.
But my entire rant here is not just a negative slant on the hotel trade, but it’s recognizing the upside and opportunity to disrupt a broken industry. Be it augmented or virtual reality, complexed multi-branded properties or a total shift away from the concept of four walls its time thing change and what better time than a crisis when disaster and opportunity are just a heartbeat away.
Hey, you, the one in black at the the back of the room, are listening?
From buffets, to welcome drinks, overly standardized offerings and no sense of space utilization, hotel restaurant and bar design remains a highly institutionalized vanilla-flavored train wreck. You can already tell how the story is going to play out, when you premise that hotel operators lump what should be brand opportunities into a sorry, sad basket called outlets.
I’m a hotelier by trade, but am man enough to know how we get things wrong and it’s time to change. Let’s start at the beginning of the disaster about to happen, as the hotel technical service group and others issue out an area program, brand standards and outlet concepts. The disconnect starts here as those doing the work will unlikely ever be involved in the actual operation, have little direct market knowledge nor have a financial stake in the hotel aside from being an employee of a greater entity. Bingo, the recipe for disaster starts here.
I often draw the comparison between freestanding restaurants and bars, who in many cases pay rent and as such look to invest in what their customers feel, see or pay for, versus non-revenue generating space. Essentially, they look at real estate yields, while hotels have their own behemoth metrics of RevPar, GOP, NOI etc. No apples to apples here and that’s a problem.
So, of course hotel owners end up developing massive cavernous back of house areas, kitchens, offices, bulk storage areas that drive up their investment under the doctrine of brand standards versus financial sense or returns. Go into a freestanding restaurant and see the chef in an off-meal period sitting at a table doing their paperwork or the manager doing the same. Hotel operators seemingly didn’t get the memo about hot desks and love the cocoon in the back of house which is as remote an outpost from customers as say, North Korea.
Go next into the hierarchy or bureaucracy of a food and beverage department versus again bars and restaurants. Direct accountability, massive infrastructure and again the focus on the bigger machine versus the customers. All of this is simply set up to fail and one of the key accelerating trends of Covid-19 is that hotel outlets will suffer from considerably lower numbers, and cannot hide under the larger hotel profit and loss statement. Their day of accountability has come.
Over the past few years on a number of hotel projects I have advised on I have recommend separating bar and restaurant designers from rooms and public areas. The entire concept of a certain look for a hotel across all the areas has gone the way of the Titanic. It has sunk to the bottom in no uncertain terms. The smartphone changed hotels forever from budget to luxury travels as everyone knows what’s outside on offer in every possible eating of drinking niche. You need specialists, best in class designers and concept, not a bland one size fits all approach.
Flexible space is another problem especially in resorts where breakfast can be full to the brim and the restaurant then mimics Zombieland the rest of the day and night. If you were paying rent for this space like a freestanding bar or restaurant you’d never even consider this model, so why is it hotel operators expect owners to deliver the massive white elephant of an all-day dining outlet that is a one-trick pony? Instead, these days I look to tell clients to deconstruct spaces, they can shift use for lunch or dinner and alternate uses. Learn from retail, where space planning can be so much more flexible.
Another missed opportunity is the lifecycle of hotel outlets that can only change every four or five years. In retail, you can change space by the time of day, season or special periods. There is space to be creative on a recurring basis and not just rely on a one time design that can and will grow boring and redundant. Again, hotels give little regard for the customer experience that offers so little imagination toward ambience, atmosphere or special occasions. Wonder why Uber Eat or FoodPanda now rule the space?
There are truly so many more examples of how hotels do little service for their owners or fail as restaurants and bars that my rant really has to wrap up or it will be as redundant as hotel outlets have become. In symbolic terms, the sheer silliness of hotels putting their brands on nametags into places of eating and drinking makes me think I’m at a McDonalds. Which, if I want cheap eats after some hard drinking is not bad thing, but if you want more, expect every little detail, every little space to matter more than it does now.
During this ongoing crisis and times to follow hotel eating and dining has to change or else it is as doomed as the Titanic. Now is the time to man the torpedos and change the thinking behind what’s important and what’s not.