Before the Internet existed, the late communications theorist Marshall McLuhan said: “In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information; moving towards the technological extension of consciousness.”
It sounds like a prophecy, but back then even McLuhan couldn’t have imagined the world as it is today with instant connectivity, smart phones, Kindles, tablets that carry history, friends, music, images and at least a dozen apps, or that billions of people are almost continuously connected to each other through the greatest single repository of world knowledge – the Internet.
Technology has fundamentally changed the world, but it’s also the most significant thing that is changing what corporate travellers expect – nay, demand – from hotels. In years gone by, hotels were a “treat”; because they were always so much more luxurious and advanced than most homes, but nowadays people have so much technology around them that hotels are having to constantly innovate their product offering in order to meet and exceed the expectations of a far more sophisticated traveller.
Earlier this year Hotels.com released the results of an international survey of both GUESTS and STAFF about their expectations and perceptions of hotel amenities.
According to the survey, the single most important thing to an overwhelming majority of GUESTS is free, fast Wi-Fi. Not docking stations, surround sound, 200 TV channels or gaming consoles. In fact, nearly 40% of respondents said they make booking decisions based on free Wi-Fi.
This one non-negotiable expressed by the majority of respondents demonstrates the most profound change that technology has wrought on the world in recent years – the nonstop work day.
Before 24-hour connectivity corporate travellers would spend the day at work, then return to their hotels in the evening for entertainment. They wanted hotels to provide relaxing experiences such as a stylish bar to enjoy drinks, a first-rate restaurant with top quality food and a wide variety of in-room TV channels.
Nowadays, says the survey, most corporate travellers get back to their hotels in the evening and continue working be it in their rooms or in the public area lounges or bars. Hoteliers are therefore needing to focus on providing seamless fast connectivity throughout the hotel and relooking at their public areas as they become areas where travellers mix business with pleasure time.
The Hotels.com survey was done in highly developed countries, so what’s the situation in South Africa? Are South African corporate travellers, who comprise the overwhelming majority of hotel business, still more interested in a vibey bar than in connectivity?
“Absolutely not”, says the head of South Africa’s largest hotel group, Arthur Gillis, CEO of the Protea Hospitality Group. ”There’s been a greater shift in GUEST expectations in the past 5 years than at any other time in the past 3 decades.”
“Hotels are having to reinvent themselves and the experiences they present to their clientele. The change in GUEST behaviour brought about by portable 24-hour connectivity is so profound that it has completely rewritten the rules of service delivery,” says Gillis.
“PHG has some 130 hotels across sub-Saharan Africa and we service far more secondary economic nodes than other groups. One expects change to be slower in smaller towns than in cities, but that’s no longer true either because 95% of their business is corporate.”
“Nowadays no matter what the size or location of your hotel, you have to make fundamental changes to your CUSTOMER experience to retain and grow business by continuing to anticipate, meet and exceed your customer’s expectations.”
Gillis said the bulk of PHG’s GUEST feedback indicated an entirely new set of primary desires which changed the purpose of hotel rooms from spaces of relaxation and rest to work spaces that needed the right amenities.
“Most important to corporate travellers now are things like conveniently located plug points, a sufficient number of plugs to charge their various devices, appropriate lighting, laptop safes, comfortable work station chairs, pens that don’t die within 5 minutes and free bottled water,” he said.
“Of course the fundamentals such as comfortable beds, fresh rooms, spotless bathrooms, crisp linen, good pillows, climate control, enough hangers and brilliant breakfasts will always be important, but they’re no longer at the top of most GUESTS’ hierarchy of needs as these items are expected when booking a reputable brand.”
Gillis said GUEST “niggle factors” had also changed.
“If an executive has a choice of two hotels, he’s going for the one that provides efficient service and free Wi-Fi and doesn’t charge him exorbitant prices for the pleasure of having a glass of water when his only choice is imported bottled water or imported bottled water.
“It’s one of the reasons that we decided at the beginning of the year to start rolling out an on-site purified water bottling system utilising glass bottles that are sterilised and refilled, rather than charging for mineral water in plastic bottles that end up in landfills. In the hotels where the system is already in place, still bottled water is available free in conference venues, restaurants and rooms.
“GUESTS often tell us that something as small as having to pay slightly over the odds for bottled water is irritating enough to prevent them from returning to our hotels.”
Gillis said while the focus was now largely on making rooms comfortable, work-friendly spaces, there were other considerations for the modern traveller.
“More often than not older hotels undergoing refurbishment will rip out baths and replace them with roomy showers. Showers use less water and we are therefore contributing to our GUESTS’ wishes to be staying at hotels that actively work to reduce their carbon footprint. Our GUEST feedback overwhelmingly points to travellers preferring spacious showers – and having a full length mirror for dressing,” he said.
Hotel room interior decorating trends have also changed to work around the modern corporate traveller.
“The contemporary school of thought is that less is more. GUESTS tell us they prefer organised spaces with good quality essential pieces, rather than cluttered, fussy rooms where everything essential like the climate control panel is disguised by a piece of cunning decor.”
So what does this mean for hotel room design in future?
“More and more technology changes that we’re going to have to keep pace with if we want to retain and grow our core market,” Gillis said. “If we don’t create spaces that integrate seamlessly with what our GUESTS deem to be essential to their daily lives, they’re not going to walk through our doors.
“It’s that complex, and that simple.”