Ditch Airbnb: Seven new funky hotels you should stay in

When Airbnb launched in 2008, it saw a slew of open-minded travellers trading stays in traditional hotels for privately owned spare rooms, vacant lofts, backyard yurts and uninhabited holiday homes. Capturing imaginations and hearts and inspiring a sense of adventure and creativity, Airbnb grew from about 50,000 stays worldwide in the northern summer of 2010 to 17 million for the same period in 2015. Some pundits thought that might sound the hotel industry's demise.

Far from it. This new travelling mindset helped open up a whole new niche in an industry that was growing anyway. It's a segment targeted at the "ageless millennial". The "what", you ask? Well, in the olden days (before Baby Boomers and Gen Xers appropriated Airbnb) the most important consumer group was the millennials: those who came to young adulthood this century, were steeped in technology, travelling frequently, spending a lot on doing it and used online capabilities to do it.

But a large group of 40 to 60-somethings, as tech and trend-savvy as their kids and grandkids and with similar interests, priorities, spending habits – and social media accounts, are equally as important. The most valuable customer group now comprises both the born-millennials and these oldie adaptors, the "ageless millennials" – and businesses are shaping up to woo them. The (perhaps annoying) buzz terms aside, perhaps no other business sector is shaping up to woo these millennials of all ages as meaningfully as the hotel industry. It's done that by creating a huge array of unique and interesting hotels to meet millennial and ageless millennial needs and desires.

"We find that many of the characteristics associated with millennial travellers – the use of technology, seeking authenticity, value of experience – are being adopted across age ranges, not just among those born post-1980 (the age range that broadly defines a Millennial)", says spokesman Marisa Aranha, vice president of sales and marketing, for Shangri La's spinoff Hotel Jen brand.

"Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers are embracing technology, as they can see how it improves their lives," Aranha says.

But, as Aranha adds, this group is not just defined by tech. "Often the common perception of a millennial starts and ends with technology (or more specifically, smartphones and tablets), and this is an inaccurate portrayal. While our target market is very tech-savvy, and use technology to make their lives easier through things like researching where to visit and eat, ordering taxis, as well as share their travels through social media, they also demand more unique, meaningful experiences."

Not so long ago, the ultimate aspiration we attached to a hotel stay was separation from reality via luxury, fantasy and exclusivity. But now, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the modern world citizen's digital reliance, their way of staying upholds genuine experience, personal contact and emotional attachment as the keys to satisfaction.

"They are also seeking out new and different experiences in the cities and countries that they travel to," says Aranha. "Like millennials, they value fuss-free simplicity and easy efficiency – but not at the expense of quality. We find that travellers with the millennial mindset value quality and experience.

"They could travel economy class and spend hours on a cheap bus with local people, and happily spend hundreds of dollars on a well-designed and put together, locally made pair of shoes. So their spending on travel is dependent on the quality of the experience they have."

Advertisement

And of course, they want Instagram bragging rights. But don't worry; this is not a wholesale repositioning of the industry into hipster territory. It isn't the end of luxury as you know and love it. There will always be a place for bellboys, concierges and high thread-count white bed linen. Likewise, your cheap, cheery and uncomplicated budget hotel.

The big international hotel chains still offer all that, but they've also launched funky sub-brands to meet this need. They comprise properties with place sensitivity and individual responses incorporating colour schemes, branding and design elements that are new and fresh.

It's a movement also reflected in boutique collectives such as Design Hotels offering a one-stop online shop for individual hotels with high architectural standards and sharply crafted signature offerings that reflect their location; and even the more traditional boutique hotels such as those under the umbrella of Small Luxury Hotels of the World realigning their approach and highlighting their unique features that appeal to this sector.

End result? Now, regardless of your age, demographic or Instagram following, you are free to check in to some of the most imaginative, inspiring, creative and adventurous hotels in history, and here's our guide to them.

FUSS-FREE AND FABULOUS: HOTEL JEN

Launched in late 2014 with Hotel Jen Orchardgateway​, Singapore, the rebrand of the Shangri-La group's Traders hotels encapsulates everything good about the millennial movement. In a place like Singapore characterised by wow-factor world-famous attractions, Hotel Jen brings things down to a micro level, ensuring it is across the local and authentic, so staff can direct guests to farmers' markets, smaller bespoke events and tips on off-the-beaten-path sights and experiences that might meet their interests.

"We also provide fuss-free simplicity and easy efficiency – but not at the expense of quality, comfort, security or value," Aranha says. "Our guests tend to blend the boundaries between business and leisure and work non-traditional hours, expecting flexible services and amenities any time of the day or night. This is something we cater to through touch points such as fast, free Wi-Fi always, empty mini-bars that we allow the guests to stock themselves, coffee and sandwiches to go, and other small details.

"Everything from the aesthetic to the functional is designed to bring an easy efficiency to our guests' stay, while catering to the 'young at heart' traveller."

That means "casual, colourful and tastefully dressed staff", plus technological support, such as a touch screen TV Monscierge​ service and PressReader App, free WiFi and mobile charging stations.

"We also engage with and nurture local businesses and entrepreneurs, providing the space for them to showcase their products, and sourcing locally as often as we can," she says. See hoteljen.com.

DEVICE AS NICE: RADISSON RED

"Radisson RED is Carlson Rezidor's new lifestyle select brand inspired by the ageless millennial mindset," says Wolfgang Neumann, the Rezidor Hotel Group's chief executive, "It boasts a forward-thinking design and offers a new guest experience fuelled by personal interaction and personal choice. It is a true recognition of the increasingly important role that technology plays in facilitating the best of everyday life – home or away."

Full of local art with design a huge statement , the properties feature BYOD technology, allowing guests to do things such as order a drink at the bar via their own device. Adaptable "event and games spaces" replace function rooms and with "picnic tables" and "multi-functional furniture" in rooms, the vibe is to make your own stay. You can even check in online.

The first Radisson RED recently opened in Brussels, with a second due later this year in Minneapolis and others in Glasgow and Cape Town to follow. See radissonred.com.

NO HANG-UPS: MOXY HOTELS

Moxy Hotels, Marriott International's millennial-focused brand, debuted in September 2014 with Moxy Milan. This boutique hotel concept is budget-driven, but not as you know budget. You get a small room but it's gorgeous and no expense has been spared on the most important things in it: the bed and the big TV.

But after research discovered most guests never use their wardrobes, hanging space was minimised. In-room coffee and tea was ditched in favour of fresh-brewed stuff downstairs where there are social spaces, games, work stations, meeting rooms, sofas and a full-service bar. Check-in is self-service.

Moxy also boasts top-class Wi-Fi and a great touch is being able to use your smart phone as your room key. A Moxy opened in Tempe, Arizona in April and there are others underway in New York City, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, New Orleans and Chicago, Munich, Frankfurt and Berlin, Copenhagen and London over the next two years. See moxy-hotels.marriott.com.

WHEN HOOD IS GOOD: RENAISSANCE

Another Marriott brand, Renaissance is having its own renaissance and it is design and local experience-driven rather than budget-driven and tech savvy. Each luxury hotel in the Renaissance stable, consisting of more than 160 hotels located in some of the "most dynamic and inspiring neighbourhoods around the world," is themed to match its neighbourhood.

For instance, the brand-new Montreal property, has graffiti-style art throughout by important local talent, in homage to the downtown art district, and will host installations and surprise DJ sessions in the lobby.

The hotel has complimentary in-house "Navigators" (Wait, didn't that guy used to be a concierge?) – in-the-know locals who provide recommendations to suit your personal shopping, food and wine or experience wants.

See renaissance-hotels.marriott.com.

SHARE AND SHARE ALIKE: ALOFT

Starwood Hotels' (soon to be part of Marriott) Aloft Hotels will debut in Australia in 2017 with properties in Adelaide and Perth. They're another response to the "what millennials want" question, Aloft's answer being clean, contemporary architecture and high ceilings in guest rooms

Common areas promise to be "vibrant social scenes" that are "always alive with activity" spawned of "innovative programming centring on music, art and design, along with always-evolving technology updates". (Sounds exhausting – just as well your bed's upstairs.)

Its big advantage in this millennial market is its tech-forward philosophy which includes RoomCast, technology that allows guests to stream media from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and other channels, directly onto their room TV without having to download an app or sign into their accounts, all at no extra cost and on the available free Wi-Fi. See starwoodhotels.com/alofthotels.

HOTEL INDIGO

If funky sub-brands are anything to go by, then the Intercontinental Hotel Group was onto this trend earlier than some. With nearly 70 hotels around the world and with 64 more in the pipeline, including in Australia, under the Hotel Indigo banner, IHG has been busy wooing millennials since the early 2000s.

While not as shouty about its cred as some, the vibe is distinctly "neighbourhood". Each hotel is as individual as its surroundings and is also a reflection of them, with local flavours on the menus as well as local art and photography on the walls. House guests and the hotel's neighbours hang out in its bars with staff ready  to advise on what to see and do in the neighbourhood.

The latest is Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong, a mish-mash of nostalgic textures and colours that are pure Singapore (think: a besser brick wall opposite a carved teak panel. Housed in the former Joo Chiat police station, in cool, colourful Katong where you still find a concentration of historic buildings, the hotel worked with the original bones, but also achieved serious eco and tech credentials. And the rooftop pool is just glamorous fun. See hotelindigo.com.

TREND IS NIGH: CAPRI BY FRASER

Fraser Hospitality's funky business hotel brand launched in Brisbane's CBD, with a design by award-winning Ministry of Design, featuring living vertical gardens, art installations, and a restaurant with a menu designed by "Paleo Pete" Evans.

Rooms include ergonomic desks that convert to make up tables, accompanied by Herman Miller work chairs. The inhouse Spin & Play laundrette is furnished with foosball or Xbox Kinect. There's iPad check-in on offer and complimentary high speed wireless throughout, USB ports in bedroom walls and heat technology touch lamps. Book-patterned wallpaper in the lobby pays homage to the building's history as a former bookstore.

See Brisbane.capribyfraser.com.

CHANGING ROOMS: THE MODEL OF THE MODERN HOTEL

HONEY, WE SHRANK THE ROOM

Wardrobe space is shrinking as most guests don't hang up their clothes during their stay. Desks are doubling as dining tables, and that's just the start. Where it goes from here depends on what travellers want.

WHEREFORE ART THOU

Guests want to stay in a room that reflects the hotel's location. At Hotel Jen Tanglin Singapore the wallpaper comes in four different designs (bicycle, orchid, goldfish and shophouse) representing familiar symbols of the city-state.

LOCAL HEROES

Long live the classic hotel club sandwich but guests don't just want the same burger and chips on room service and other menus that they could easily order back home anymore. Increasingly they want to be able to try authentic local dishes that reflect the hotel's location.

MAKING AN ENTRANCE

The lobby is changing, from the grand entrance way of the 20th century to a multi-use space. While first impressions are still important, hotel lobbies have become multi-use spaces for meeting, working, socialising, and relaxing – especially as hotel rooms are shrinking.

SPLASHING OUT

Where they might have been kept discretely tucked away and small to maximise living space, bathrooms are now they are the sensory centre of a stay, offering not-found-at-home luxury such as big bathtubs, waterfall showers, glass walls that connect to the room in general or which can be made private by blinds, and name products.

A HOTEL, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

First we had hotels. Then we had boutique hotels. And now we're entering the Age of the Smart Hotel. Hoteliers are hiring futurists, frantically courting technology gurus, and surveying their guests and potential guests on what they are looking for in the Hotel of Future.

So what should we expect to find when we check into a hotel in 2021? American futurist David Chestler (involved in hotel technology for 25 years and now senior executive with EVP Global Enterprise Sales and Business Development for SiteMinder) recently posted a story about what it might be like arriving at a hotel just five years from now.

First, Chestler explained, the passenger fresh off the plane will check exactly where their pre-ordered Uber is waiting. A few minutes later, having already checked into the hotel by smartphone, she or he will bypass the reception desk, heading straight to their assigned room, using their phone to open the door.

Then they'll download the hotel app, order room service and check their favourite TV channels which have been pre-programed into the smart TV. As the robot waiter arrives with the meal, the guest realises they need a skirt/shirt ironed for tomorrow's meeting. Don't reach for the iron – that's the job of another specialised robot.

None of this is science fiction, according to Chestler. "These are all features that are starting to appear in forward-thinking hotels around the world," he wrote.

For example, the Australian/Singaporean TFE Hotels group encompasses 70 hotels and service apartments in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Europe under well-known brands such as Vibe, Travelodge, Adina, Medina and Rendezvous as well as the boutique TFE Collection which in 2018 will see The Calile in Brisbane added to Canberra's historic Hotel Kurrajong.

Earlier this year, TFE Hotels hosted a workshop on the topic at the TEDx session at the Sydney Opera House. Sixty frequent travellers were asked to brainstorm what they want to see in the Hotel of the Future. Then the results were put to the TFE Hotel's guest database and 2000 people responded, ticking the three things they most wanted introduced in future hotels.

Of those identified as "digital junkies", based on their answers, there was remarkable unanimity. Some were no-brainers (and you really wonder why some hotel chains still don't get it). For example:

* 88 per cent of digital junkies (people who seek out tech services and experiences when choosing a hotel) wanted free and unlimited Wi-Fi for all their multiple devices.

* 34 per cent wanted Connect Kits allowing them to plug in all their devices in their rooms.

* 25 per cent wanted to see a virtual tour of their rooms before they booked.

Surely, they're things we all demand in the modern age? Other digital junkie requests were more specific. Fourteen per cent demanded "integrated systems with social connections and smart recommendations". (Yes, I had to ask what that was too.)

Apparently it's when the hotel of your choice "knows enough about you and integrates that in a digital way to make your stay better". Example? "Like when you get a text to let you know your room is ready. Or the mini bar is only stocked with the things you like. Or that you have the perfect pillows of your choice without having to ask," says TFE Hotels chief executive, Rachel Argaman.

That's all very good. So is auto check-in and check-out (requested by 47 per cent of the digital junkies). As long as those of us who like to say "Hello" and "Goodbye" to a real human being can still queue up.

But why would 27 per cent of digital junkies want a digital concierge rather than a human who has spent a lifetime knowing how to get to the palace/the river/the main museums/the best jewellery stores/or that strange club you vaguely remember from when you last visited the city at 18?

"Because you want someone online or on an app who can answer your questions at any time of day or night, and help you design an itinerary of things you particularly want to do," Argaman explains.

Other things on the digital junkies list are more mainstream: six per cent want to see better hotel entertainment areas for children (toys, videos, games); three per cent want to be able to upload their children's favourite movies on the TV as soon as they arrive.

But what's it with the 14 per cent who want to replace in-room mini-bars with "Grab and Go Snacks" and small meals? If you visit Travelodge Docklands, in Melbourne, you'll see the future in action. Yes, there are still human beings behind the desk, but check out that Grab and Go fridge on the left of the lobby – "with beer, wine, soft drink and snacks to buy on demand".

Steve Meacham

Comments