Working Hard, or Hardly Working
To soothe the villains known as Friction and Complexity, which are voracious in their tendency to devour success, companies need to implement simple, intuitive, and engaging brand-led experiences.
Jared Fink, Group Director, Experience
This article originally appeared in Campaign.
Silk pillowcases embroidered with the guest’s initials. Marble bathtubs overflowing with lavender-scented suds. Overstuffed, bulky sofas bundled in a “vintage” pattern that leans more old folks than opulent. These are some of the hallmarks—and hiccups—of heritage hotels.
Of the 25 global industries ranked in the ninth edition of the World’s Simplest Brands study, hotels ranked 20th, a 12-point drop from the previous edition. Of course, there is one obvious culprit for why hotels checked out of the most recent study. Hotels sanitized rooms, reduced housekeeping visits, and eliminated the beloved breakfast buffet. But they couldn’t rid the perception that COVID-19 was throwing in-room bonanzas that made The Who’s notorious bashes look so tame that they might’ve been mistaken for The Wiggles.
But there is another reason that the opinion towards once-desirable hotels has plummeted. No longer the pinnacle of posh, heritage hotels are, like the unripe cubes of honeydew at said breakfast buffet, unwanted. Despite their best storytelling and marketing efforts, many aren’t seen as trendy and experience-centric; rather, they’re seen as somewhere your great-grandfather stays when he’s at the annual coin-collecting convention. The room is more reminiscent of that one in which Roger and Don stayed than a space in which crypto whales cash out for NFT art that they’ll display in their metaverse hotels—of which, of course, they are the owner.
Although a hotel might be considered heritage, it can’t rest on its laurels. It doesn’t matter that you have a century-old brandy lounge with butter-leather chaises. What does matter is that the brand is capturing new customers and evolving with them into the future, all while staying true to their identity.
Many of these brands have strong legacies—legacies of which brands outside the category would be jealous, envying their trust, prestige, and storied past that should be easy to translate to today. But too much reveling in the past has challenged the hospitality industry more than an angry customer who insists on a room with a terrace.
Life isn’t the same, not even close. Work isn’t work, and the travel that comes with it has gone the way of school and entertainment: to the screen. Nomads have become a real thing—but the 21st-century version brags more and has less depth. People can get entire houses—10 times the space of a hotel room with ten times the amenities—for the cost of a single suite.
And budget hotels aren’t so budget anymore. Powerhouse mid-market brands we used to know and love have cut the amenities and squeezed more boxes in the sky. And what happened to getting meals after 8 p.m.? Nowadays, you’re lucky to get rock-hard Hot Pockets and a flat Coke in a weird closet next to a half-asleep staff member. Premium and luxury brands of yesteryear aren’t servicing new audience needs and expectations. Consumers aren’t fooled by marble details and nonfunctioning Wi-Fi.
If the hospitality brands want to beat out the home travelers and boutique hotel brands, they need to adopt their own housekeeping policy about four-day-old bath towels: change it up. These solutions answer the popular question, “So, what do I do when my brand is working hard, but my product isn’t?”
Check in chic
What if a hotel felt less like a hotel and more like a home? What if hotel brands’ unique versions of transient, temporary living were updated regularly and not modeled after legacy dorm rooms with cheesy décor and boards as beds? What if hotel art didn’t look like it was rejected from last month’s Paint & Sip at the neighboring bar? Unfortunately, we all know what I’m talking about—that “oil painting” of a nondescript landscape.
The future of lodging aligns with today’s modern expectations of connected, comfortable, elevated home living. A hotel stay should be a brand-led experience to which you look for inspiration for your own home, rather than merely a place in which you sleep—saving your eyes from hotel art: visual Muzak. Eclectic design and art from community makers don’t need to be reserved for boutique hotels. Brands should elevate their venues regularly, adapting to digital needs and modern design trends, which make the stay truly delightful.
What if hotels actually knew what guests were looking for and could connect them with the right partners to help the experience? And, no, I’m not talking about your garden-variety concierge. I’m talking about hotels providing a simplified, brand-led experience that brings the best of local products or service partners together in a single place to get the most out of a stay. For instance, what if room service partnered with an award-winning local restaurant, making the food Michelin-star-worthy, rather than Michelin-tire-textured?
By partnering with local establishments, hotels can create a unique value for guests. Soon, hotel-goers will associate your offering with their favorite local touches. For instance, referencing our hotel art example above, recruit local artists to put their work on the walls. That brings attention to local creatives and makes your hotel a curator of taste, promoting the newest breakout stars. But beware: integrating partners can either make or brand that brand relationship. Choose your partners wisely. You want a partnership to elevate both of you, rather than bring you down a few notches. So that’s a “No” to recruiting regional Paint & Sip enthusiasts.
Make success a destination, not a journey
What if hotels became a destination within the destination? What if hotels had best-in-town dining, comfortable working space—even a table in the room would do. (By the way, whatever happened to those?) What if, beyond the bar, hotels were magical and entertaining in the greater community? What if hotels were desirable venues for events other than micro team-building events, small weddings, or odd family reunions?
I imagine lively lobbies that function as both cultural district and food market. Each week, the lobby could host pop-up restaurants in which trendy chefs cook up specialties—and cook up buzz about the revamped hotel. And if you’re wishing to unleash your inner Ina Garten, you can pick up produce from the local area, bringing it back to your room to maestro yourself with an in-room cooking class. Should you want a feast for the ears rather than the eyes, feature live music in an amphitheater-like space with club-grade sound and comfortable seating—gone are those squeaky folding chairs. These cultural shifts feel authentic rather than commercial, community-driven rather than cold. These experiences connect customers to their passions and unexpected interests, instead of week-old tuna wraps.
Trend-setting design, perfect partners, and cultural habitats take the hotel industry from complex to captivating. And that evolution is as transformative as that first time you stayed in a hotel that delivered unlimited breakfast to your bedside—enabling you to feast on breakfast potatoes in your bathrobe.
To learn how the airline industry can order simple, intuitive, and engaging brand-led experiences as easy as late-night French fries, read more.