Do We Need a Better Milk Carton?

In this relentless pursuit of seeking “other” or attempting to differentiate one hotel arrival experience from another, are we in danger of creating another design clique, that of homogony?

Isn’t it just packaging, a milk carton reinvented but still with 2% milk inside? I mean, how many “market kitchens” can there be? How unique can communal connectivity tables be? As designers responsible for answering these and many more questions, our charge is to dream up “other,” to differentiate one hotel from another, introduce – or omit elements, to inspire change. We repeatedly rise to this challenge with passion, excitement and creative solutions. The day it no longer excites and inspires curiosity and adventure will be the day I have to put down my pen...

How do we design not only for what we know now, but what is likely to be the impact in the future?

One of the biggest buzz words of the industry today is the “millennial.” Who is the millennial? How do we design and cater to the millennial? Or should we? How does the millennial differ from the guest of yesterday? All of these questions are being asked as brands, owners and investors are looking to the ever-changing customer base. The Pew Research Center states the Millennial was born after 1980 and the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. Simply put, this group, the largest living generation, is shaping the latest trends in the industry.

This group is more than a fancy new word. This generation is one that came of age with the growth of the internet and cell phones. This generation is one of the most confident and ready for change. They are world travelers and educated more than the generations of the past. They are also one of the most indebted generations ever due to the skyrocketing costs of education.

How do you pull the connected guest away from the phone long enough to register that they are in a new place? Or do we as designers need to create a “selfie” background just to gain a few likes on Instagram? The search for instant gratification is pushing the hotel design industry to rethink the time tested approach to the entire hotel, not just the signage or a fancy new app. Beginning with the connection to the guest, one must look at the ever-present cell phone. Connecting through the phone begins to draw the attention of this new generation. Some brands are looking to push the large bold graphic with the intent of being the “loudest” thing around and pull the attention of the guest. Is this the right approach or will we suddenly find ourselves in an environment where everyone is pushing to be bigger and brighter than the next, a world-wide Times Square?

The real goal is to break that digital connection and create a real emotional connection, pulling the customer outside of their life in solitude on their phone and engaging them in an emotional environment. We, as designers, need to design the lobby to allow for a space where the guest can lower the phone and enjoy the surroundings while doing so on a budget. Bringing in the local aesthetic is crucial to the lobby and public space design; it is often the first place a guest will experience while staying away from home. Having the connection to the local vernacular will foster a bond with the guest to venture out beyond the 4 walls and a bathroom to go experience life in real time, not through someone else via a 1:1 square photo.

Fostering a positive emotional connection to the hotel will pull the guest back time after time. There once was a time when you traveled, you stayed in a variety of hotels that spoke to the region you are currently in. A hotel in the desert should feel like it belongs in desert, same with a coastal hotel, it should belong and own the distinct local influence.

The rise in popularity of Airbnb, boutique hostels and rent-by-owner websites has put pressure on hotels to reinvent themselves to capture the Millennial and Gen-z market. This demographic is seeking a unique, instagrammable experience, while staying within a tight budget and adhering to socially and environmentally responsible parameters.  A jaw-dropping chandelier or water feature might impress many visitors; but for the new demographic, rental bikes in the lobby and a coffee shop with the local cold drip are more highly valued amenities.

Look at the day-to-day work environment these travelers prefer: offices without permanent desks, large communal lounge spaces, and kitchens to gather in for an impromptu meeting are now the new norm, a total redefinition from their parents’ generation. Many of the most desired workplaces are intentionally quirky, featuring graphic feature walls, concrete floors, and exposed duct-work.  While in the past, a worker may have strived for a corner office, they now prefer open-plan seating, with bonuses like yoga space or campus walking trails.  The amount of square footage given to reception will also surely start to shrink as more and more self-service kiosk check-ins become the norm. This demographic moves quickly and wants information instantly, often not wanting or needing to bother with face-to-face transactional experiences.

See more “Instagram Moments” by DiLeonardo

In the coming years, successful hotels will redefine the idea of luxury as being more about a unique, customized experience and less about whom one knows or how much one is willing to pay. With that in mind, the most successful hotels will understand the desires of the Millennial and Gen-Z demographic and adhere to a competitive price point, all while creating a sense of place that excites both visitors and locals alike.