With millennials and Gen Xers now dominating business travel, hoteliers are working to keep both their facilities and services current with a rapidly shifting guest demographic.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—The business travel market is weathering a period of intense change, driven in large part by the onset of millennials as a dominant customer base. And sources said it’s not the volume of business travel that’s changing so remarkably, but rather the wants and needs of those guests.
With baby boomers nearing retirement, hoteliers are shifting their attention toward satisfying millennial business travelers, who represent both the present and future. The issue though, at least for hoteliers, is that those millennial customers are looking for a significantly different experience than business travelers did even 10 years ago.
“The biggest news over the last two or three years has been the millennial travelers. They’ve largely impacted the hotel industry in many aspects of operations: management, technology, everything,” said Nitin Shah, president of Imperial Investments Group. “Their taste in a hotel is completely different than what baby boomers used to like in terms of the color scheme, the furniture in the room and the amenities provided at the hotel.”
Desks, be damned
For starters, the longstanding focus on the desk in guestrooms at business travel-centric hotels has given way to placing a premium on flexible workspace options instead. Hoteliers are implementing mobile workstations that can be wheeled around the room as needed while offering as many outlets as possible, so guests can plug in and work wherever.
“We’re designing a model room right now to bridge that gap of the desk conversation,” said Andrew Leber, SVP at CHMWarnick. “We’re putting in a very high-end, very stylized sort of rolling side table. It’s a cool piece that can change heights and be rolled around the room. So if you want to sit on the chaise, or couch, or task chair or side chair and you want to put your laptop or iPad there next to your meal, the option’s there. If you want to bring it over to your bedside so you can set up your quasi-office in the bed, it works for that function as well.”
Many millennial business travelers, however, don’t even work in their rooms much. Sources said a preference toward shared or communal areas is gaining ground among younger business travelers especially, who often prefer to work alone, but while also in the company of others. That means it’s up to hoteliers to make sure they’re creating that environment in their public spaces.
Sources said that millennials want larger lobby spaces, congregation areas and places to plug in. Spaces with electrical outlets tend to lend themselves to higher congregation.
It’s not just outlets that make the space, though. In addition to fast, free Wi-Fi—which is becoming an expectation throughout hotels—popular public hotel work/lounge areas often feature large tables suited for sharing and a selection of upscale, yet convenient food and beverage choices.
“We took the Starbucks concept to the hotel lobby,” Shah said. “Remember Starbucks—where everyone was once sitting and doing their homework while having coffee on the sofa—those millennials are like, ‘Why can’t I do that in the hotel?’ They’re literally bringing the Starbucks feeling to hotel lobbies, because they think, ‘Why should it be any different?’”
Redefining the guestroom
When this new-generation business traveler does return to the guestroom, he or she isn’t looking to find four drably painted walls or outdated-looking furnishings. Instead, bold color choices and using different colors on various walls is becoming the norm, as well as furniture with a fresh, hip aesthetic.
“We’re used to going in a hotel and seeing beige in the room, and very subdued carpet,” Shah said. “Now, one wall is gray; there’s one wall that’s brown, or aqua blue, or green, or orange; and the furniture is a two-tone color with a gray-brown finish. In the past it was oak, cherry, mahogany colors; those are gone.”
Bathrooms are changing, too, with white interiors gaining popularity among guests concerned with cleanliness, and bathtub/shower combos going the way of the buffalo. Experts said millennial customers aren’t looking to soak in the tub, and stand-up showers are now taking over as the de facto bathroom furnishing.
“People want to be comfortable when they travel, and that means, ‘I don’t want to sit in a tub, and I don’t want to fall in the tub while trying to take a shower,’” said Anna Blount, director of market research and insights for MMGY Global. “People like different things now. It’s raising a level of expectation.”
Of course, technology remains near and dear to the heart of the millennial business traveler, and that’s also shaping many broad design and amenity trends, especially the push for mobile check-in, streaming-capable in-room entertainment systems and smartphone-enabled door locks, to name a few. Simply put, wherever technology is presently offering conveniences to business travelers, in turn those guests will be expecting to encounter those technologies at hotels.
“People are looking to being able to check in remotely, or extend check-out, and not have to deal with people unless they want to,” Blount said. “That’s why at some hotels, you can use your smartphone as your key to your room. People want their time back. Whatever makes them comfortable and gives them more of their time back on the road, they’re going to appreciate.”
The new ‘boomers’
The most telling statistic pertaining to the changes afoot in the business travel segment—as well as the broader hotel industry—is the rise of millennials as the dominant population group, according to experts.
Population estimates released in April by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate millennials—defined as those ages 18 to 34 in 2015—now number 75.4 million, surpassing the 74.9 million baby boomers (ages 51 to 69) who previously sat at the top. Generation X (ages 35 to 50 in 2015) is projected to pass the boomers in population by 2028. This reality is forcing brands to plan accordingly, even if it means placing less emphasis on the preferences of older guests.
“I don’t think anyone’s paying a lot of attention to baby boomers because they’ll be gone in a few years, and brands are getting ready for the next generation,” said Nitin Shah, president of Imperial Investments Group. “Franchisors have basically decided that we need to get ready for the next 20 years, and not worry about the last five.
“If baby boomers are not used to opening the door with their iPhone, then they’ll go to the front desk and get a key. It’s like in the family, when you go home and your kid is telling you what to do. It’s the same thing here.”
Thanks to immigration, which is adding more numbers to its group than any other, the millennial population is projected to peak in 2036 at 81.1 million. After that point, the oldest millennial will be at least 56 years old, so mortality is projected to outweigh net gains through immigration. By 2050, there will be a projected 79.2 million millennials.