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Hotels of the future

What will the hotel experience be like in the future? A Jetsons-style vision of space station motels, perhaps? Or rustic eco-inns, focused on local provisions and simple, ‘human’ service?

Hotels of the future
Hotels are fast incorporating some decidedly space-age ammenities, but will technology trump a human welcome? Image: Getty.

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With Virgin Galactic recently announcing it’s been cleared for take-off by the US Federal Aviation Administration, it seems like it’s all eyes to the skies when it comes to the future of travel. As Sir Richard Branson’s company pushes ahead with plans to launch suborbital flights out of its Spaceport America in New Mexico, the travel industry is buzzing with talk of interplanetary cruises and space station hotels.

Our own minister for universities and science, David Willetts, joined the buzz recently by revealing a group of space, defence, business and transport experts had been formed to find a suitable base for a UK spaceport. It’s hoped this will be operational in five years, in time to take advantage of this new era in space tourism — and to ensure the US doesn’t monopolise the market.

But with seats on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space flights being booked up fast, the age of space tourism is already upon us. Or at least — with Virgin’s passengers buying into a narrowly tailored astronaut experience — the ‘getting there’ part is. They still lack somewhere to sleep, however. Currently, the only place to stay outside of our planet is the International Space Station (not a Virgin stop-off) and yet if Branson’s statements on The Jonathan Ross Show in March were anything to go by, it may not be long before Virgin has branded a corner of the cosmos. The poster child for futuristic travel offered up a bold vision of space tourism, saying to Ross: “If we can get enough people wanting to fly [to space] we can start building Virgin hotels in space, we can start doing trips to Mars, we can colonise Mars, we can start pulling asteroids back to Earth to see what minerals they contain.”

Stephen Attenborough, commercial director for Virgin Galactic, is a little more circumspect: “The next step will involve orbital flight — first for satellite launch and then for people,” he explains. “Orbital human habitation structures are already being space-tested in sub-scale prototype form and will eventually become the space hotels and/or space science labs of the future, enabling people to take several days or more in space in zero gravity with breathtaking views. As the world’s first spaceline, we may own or operate those hotels as well, of course, as providing the flights there and back.”

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, hotels are fast incorporating some decidedly space-age technology. From Tokyo to New York, so-called ‘total tech’ hotels are popping up, featuring everything from robot porters to in-room body-heat sensors, oxygen dispensers and retinal-scan locks. It makes iPod docking stations and bedside room controls seem positively Jurassic.

A catalyst of such advances in hotel design and technology is the Radical Innovation in Hospitality award. “Back in 2007, when the competition debuted, we were already reviewing entries that addressed major cultural shifts such as social media, sustainability, and new urbanism,” says founder, John Hardy. “This year, we’re seeing a lot more ideas in under-utilised or outmoded spaces in urban areas, from abandoned buildings to rethinking spaces in between and on top of buildings that are not typically maximised.”

This year’s winners included Evelyn Hartojo and Evelyn Choy, from the University of Melbourne, for their Sky Lofts proposal to transform Sydney’s abandoned monorail into pedestrian- and bike-friendly boardwalks with prefab accommodation and cafes. Other finalists’ concepts included a Green Air Hotel in China, with ‘lungs’ (gardens) acting as air filters to replacing harmful toxins in the air — both inside and out — with oxygen; and Hotel 2020, furnished with interactive 3D-printed interiors that guests can alter to suit their mood.

Previous winners have included Nomad, a movable hotel that can be transported by train to the city of your choice, and Pop-Up Hotel NY, a scheme to transform temporarily empty offices into hospitality spaces.

But innovative ideas are one thing; practical application quite another. “Underwater hotels? Ice hotels? These things are gimmicks and have a limited lifespan,” says Gordon Campbell Gray, founder and chairman of CampbellGray Hotels. “For all the futuristic predictions of what will happen to hotels, I tend to think people will still want a human welcome.

“I checked into a hotel recently and there was the iPad waiting for a code and the room key you didn’t need to go to the front desk for — and yet everyone still seemed to be standing at the desk. A human welcome will often override available technology. Yet hotels have to offer it all — the ability to be connected, for example, without it dominating the room.

“We’re working on a sub-brand at the moment: Baby Gray, a sort of CampbellGray ‘lite’ that’s more technology-led, with fast, instant facilities, no room service. But at the luxury end of the market, it’s a fine line between streamlining things and keeping a human touch. Fingerprint access in place of receptionists? That’s been around for years but few people actually use it.”

Technical difficulties

Studies of self-service supermarkets in the UK seem to add weight to this argument, showing that automated checkouts at many stores take longer and lead to more, not fewer, customer complaints. Take a look at any of the hotels of the future news stories from recent years and you’ll see a Jetsons-esque vision of tourist accommodation that floats above ground, breathes under water and takes tourists into the stratosphere and beyond. But check on the progress of these so-called mould-breaking projects today and you’ll often find that — if they actually managed to get beyond the drawing board stage — they ended up hamstrung by funding or engineering problems.

The Poseidon Undersea Resort in Fiji, for instance, received much attention after its win at the first Radical Innovation awards in 2007. However, since then, this planned chain of seabed hotels has suffered technical and financial challenges that have led to the watery dream being delayed, seemingly indefinitely. Other high-profile hotel projects to emerge in recent years only to stumble out of the starting blocks include the Warapuru Eco-Resort Hotel, designed by Anouska Hempel, with a rainforest-clad roof and Bond-villain-hideout aesthetic. One of the many sustainable hotel projects slated to open in Itacaré, Brazil, in time for the 2016 Olympics, Warapuru is now more ‘eco’ than ‘resort’ — an abandoned monument to the power of nature to reclaim the planet.

If the impact technology will have on hotels is hard to predict, then perhaps we can project a better idea of the future hotel experience when it comes to service and style. With the success of Airbnb, House Swap and Couchsurfing — in essence ‘anti-hotels’ — it’s easy to imagine future travellers eschewing corporate hospitality in favour of independent, locally offered digs.

“I think we’re going to see new innovations in business models and technology combined with demographic forces that will disrupt the current brand-centric hospitality industry,” says Radical Innovation’s founder, John Hardy.

Whether it’s the 24-hour concierges or ‘lifestyle managers’ increasingly found in five-star hotels or the insider knowledge you get from staying in a local home, via Airbnb or a house swap, when it comes to service it seems we want human and local rather than automated and international.

“Younger customers are not as brand loyal nor are they as interested in the hospitality products that have developed over the past 20 years as the older generations were,” says Hardy. “I think Airbnb, Uber and others are just the beginning of what we’ll see in the future. How much of a disruption it becomes depends on how well the current hospitality industry adapts to the new influences.”

Hotel trends: rustic and rural - The Alpina Hotel Gstaad.

The Alpina Hotel Gstaad, one of the winners at the 2013 European Hotel Design Awards. Image: Eric Laignel.

So how fast will the hotel industry adapt — and how? “As hotels are facing more competition than ever before — from the newest crash pad down the road to hotels on the other side of the globe, they’re focusing on differentiating themselves through the ‘guest experience’ they offer,” says Inge Moore, principle at HBA. One of the company’s projects, The Alpina Gstaad, was among the winners at the 2013 European Hotel Design Awards; commended for its traditional Swiss craftsmanship, using centuries-old timber.

“The concept of creating a ‘home away from home’, which used to be the industry’s mantra, now seems very underwhelming,” explains Moore. “Today, we stay in a hotel for a heightened, curated experience. Initially, technology was a major driver in this change; now I think it’s a lot less so, since we all travel with our own personalised kit and just need somewhere comfortable to sit and pick up wi-fi. Authentic design is now the holy grail, along with focusing on the guest experience. This extends beyond the four walls of the building, as hotels become a portal to an aspirational lifestyle and to the history, geography, culture and communities of the location.”

Sustainable stays

‘Experiential’ is the hotel trend de jour. And offering ‘local’ experiences with a certain international know-how seems to be the business model every hotel wants to emulate. “Individuals are no longer just looking for luxury amenities and convenience when they book a hotel,” says Claus Sendlinger, CEO and founder of Design Hotels. “Whether for business or for pleasure, travellers seek places that act as a gateway to the area and experiences that locals enjoy. ION Luxury Adventure Hotel, in Iceland, is an example of a property that ticks all of these boxes, offering activities that put guests right into the heart of the Icelandic countryside — fishing on Lake Thingvellir, rafting on the Hvítá River, snorkelling in the Silfra fissure.”

“Sustainability also needs to come into play when discussing the future of the hospitality industry,” says Claus. “ION used driftwood, lava and other natural/recycled materials in the renovation of the building, sourced from the surrounding area. Locally sourced ingredients are served in the restaurant, and the bar offers a huge variety of Icelandic beers from surrounding microbreweries, brewed using local water.”

The trend for remote, rural and rustic hotels grows apace. As technology makes our lives faster, busier and nosier, some travellers will seek refuge. The burgeoning crop of digital detox hotels, private island retreats and wilderness hotels that can only be accessed via a serious trek, or private plane or boat, is testament to this. And for a certain class of traveller, this very technology means they can spend longer away, working with offices and business partners remotely.

“The elephant in the room is what will happen to the cost of travel,” says Gordon Campbell Gray. “It will become really prohibitive for people to fly long-haul. It already is for many. But at the luxury end, everyone I know goes off to a medi spa or wellness retreat for a week or two a year — for example, Palace Merano in Italy, Rancho La Puerta in Mexico: these offer extraordinary experiences and are very expensive but at a certain level of travel, it’s a real trend.”

The other elephant in the room is, of course, environmental sustainability. One of the main reasons airfares and hotel rates are rocketing is our continuing reliance on diminishing fossil fuels. “In the midterm, travel — flying — will become more expensive,” says Richard Hammond, founder of Greentraveller.co.uk. “But once you’ve got a service, customers will continue to demand it and technology will support this demand. The dream for green travellers is to fly round-trip to Australia and be carbon neutral; for mass transportation to be green — and it will have to be.”

Hammond highlights the recent National Trust pilot project to power several of its properties in Wales with renewable energy, in an effort to cut unsustainable-fuel bills. The Trust currently spends £6m a year on energy, with that figure set to rise to as much as £12m by 2020 as fuel costs increase. “Right now, it’s mostly smaller, independent hotels that use local, renewable, energy, but soon large hotels are going to be sourcing energy through new means — solar, wind, hydro etc,” he says. “The age of powering big hotels by oil burners is going to disappear.

“Hotels will return very much to how they used to be — offering distinctive local experiences, decor and resources but underpinned by new technology. We’ll be harking back to why we used to travel — because it was different rather than a homogenised international hotel experience — but doing it with the very latest technology. For example, your smart card or phone will inform hotels what kind of preferences you have for food/bedding/excursions — customer knowledge will be vastly improved.”

The problem, it seems, often begets the solution. One heartening example of this is the emergence of the Alberghi Diffusi. Born in Italy, this ‘scattered hotels’ concept transforms abandoned rural hamlets into rustic retreats. These ancient ghost villages are revitalised with discreetly installed mod cons and repopulated by tourists, with jobs then created for locals — interiors are often by local artisans and food by local chefs. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, this might be a solution for the increasing number of rural villages in Spain and Portugal that are being abandoned as a result of the economic downturn. Perhaps, when it comes to the next generations of hotels, we must go back to get to the future.

Published in the September 2014 issue of National Gegoraphic Traveller (UK)