Why hotels are here to stay

Alternative accommodation is the rage today. The category includes anything from a shared or private room in an apartment to a mansion on daily rent, with a whole host of options in the middle. Some of them can be fabulous experiences, some not so much. The variability in experiences is both an attraction and off-putting, but it helps in maintaining anticipation in the mind of the traveler.

For context, I’ve stayed in my fair share of hotels and alternative accommodation — service apartments, B&Bs, Airbnbs, Hostels, etc. In India, Europe and in the US. I’ve also been a AirBnb host so briefly saw the world from the other side as well.

Hotels have been known to provide standardized accommodation that maintains your privacy and your potential desire for seclusion. You are able to move in and out without anyone fussing over you, without you having to conjure up ways to get keys to the place and drop them on your way out. Without having to locate the obscure property on offline maps. Largely having a smooth experience and not needing a tour of the place to know where what is. In a hotel, if you’ve traveled more than once, you just know. They also have the best views and the best food since they were designed to provide you with a great experience — not travel hundreds or thousands of miles only to be disappointed. This of course assumes that it’s only a standard hotel. The better hotels have facilities that are almost always unmatched by most alternative accommodation — every detail has been rigorously thought through. It has a place for everything, and everything in it’s place. And that can be calming.

But, in their conscious effort to stay invisible, yet available, they’ve missed this growing wave of human personalization. A person to occasionally give you unsolicited advice, to crack a joke, make small talk. Some hotels do claim to do this, but they often make it seem like their “job” to do so. I don’t know if it’s their crisp uniforms or the way they speak, but it appears artificial, a conversation lacking in spontaneity.

There’s the added issue that humans today (as probably always) are inherently class conscious. We gleefully lap up advice and suggestions from ‘hosts’ because we’ve already selected their property based on a fit with our social standing. How often do we give the same credence to a bellhop’s suggestions? Those assumptions — that his suggestions are somehow inferior, that the bellhop is only doing a job or giving a “commercial” suggestion, oftentimes comes from our bias against people not of our social standing. If the hotel owner came and gave you the same suggestion, it would sound ‘authentic’. It’s just the way the world works. On whether it’s a good or bad thing or if and how it should be changed is a topic for another day.

So, when AirBnb and it’s ilk came along, they had a classic disruptive model — a poor offering provided at a low cost initially, now challenging the most luxurious properties for market share. Hotels now have their task cut out — they need to infuse authenticity and spontaneity, while still maintaining their virtues of quietly being everywhere, when needed.

As with most difficult problems, the solution is not obvious. Chain hotels do need to maintain consistency, since that’s what several of their regular customers desire and expect. Plus, scaling spontaneity is not easy. The most effective model probably goes back to recruiting the best and then giving them the freedom to manage the property entirely on their own, within certain guidelines (not rules).

Standardize infrastructure, personalize human interaction.

But hiring the best is easier said than done. Building a successfully humanized organization takes immense effort. The lead in creating this ecosystem must ironically come from the same leading chains, which have contributed more than their fair share of a sanitized, artificial experience at some hotels. Now they must go back to release, even create, personal flair. The models of hotel management must change.

Having lived in the Maldives and spent time at several resorts, I’ve observed (and have been coached to observe) the distinct stamp that some General Managers have on the properties they manage, in good ways and bad. If the leader has flexibility in dealing with her guests, that invariably percolates through the system where each employee takes more initiative and more ownership. That leads to natural spontaneity. Where a traveler is not just a name on a screen, but a guest to a place that you truly host.

That model needs to be scaled. It maintains the anticipation — a charm to each property. It goes beyond the name on the door, beyond the facilities provided at the property. It definitely goes beyond the maximization of daily revenues. It goes back to the vision of why people should want to come back. Why they must come back. Regimented and soulless properties will die. I envision a time not too far away where hotel managers are rated publicly, not just properties. We too have something in the works along these lines.

As long as there is a growing breed of such hotel managers (and there are), picking between a hotel and alternative accommodation will remain an interesting choice.

– Varun Gupta

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