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the hotel of the future is coming
Click on the above question marks to explore the hotel of the future. Credit: Illustration by Patric Sandri.

Imagine this: You check into a hotel without speaking to a flesh-and-bones human, without using your phone, without doing anything beyond walking up to your room and getting your eyeballs scanned for entry. You click a button and are suddenly in the rain forest, toucans croaking in the distance as a nearby waterfall releases a relaxing mist with humidity you're able to adjust through your augmented reality command center. Or maybe you're more of a space enthusiast, and you prefer the weightlessness of the intergalactic. You walk into a hotel that rockets off the earth into space, where you're able to conduct your business dealings via hologram as you orbit the moon.

With the hotel of the future, anything and everything is on the table as brands look to differentiate themselves in the $164 billion U.S. lodging industry. And that market is getting ever more crowded as new players from outside the industry create their own hotels. Equinox, the high-end gym chain, is debuting a much-heralded hotel brand with a focus on fitness next year. Detroit watch-and-bicycle retailer Shinola plans to open a 130-room hotel in Detroit later this year.

"There's a lot more choice out there," says Stacy Shoemaker Rauen, editor-in-chief and associate publisher of Hospitality Design. "How do you stand out, what are you giving that's different from the hotel across the street?" As the hospitality market continues its steady climb—occupancy in the U.S. hotel industry increased 0.9 percent to 65.9 percent last year, according to travel industry analyst STR—brands are choosing today to experiment with what might be possible tomorrow.

"The hotel business globally continues to be quite robust—it's been steadily improving since the trough of the '08-'09 crash," says Stephen Jennings, U.S. hospitality sector leader and principal at Deloitte Consulting, noting that hotel brands are focusing on "interesting, unique and compelling experiences" as they recognize "it's going to be really useful for them to evolve their service model."

However, the challenge for brands is putting their money into the right amenities. While Airbnb is gaining ground in the hospitality market (see "Overbooked") and is able to invest in its own technological advances, hotels don't have the same flexibility because they're dealing with a host of other costs.

A robot arm in the lobby of Manhattan's Yotel hotel stores guests' luggage.

"[Airbnb] can put so much money into the user interface because they're not running a gigantic global reservation system with property management and cybersecurity," says Jennings.

While some novelties are further into the future than others, all hotel brands are investing into innovation units to keep up with travelers' technology expectations. Late last year, Hilton announced it was opening its first Innovation Gallery, an incubator and showcase for new technologies located near its McLean, Virginia, headquarters. Marriott Hotels started its own innovation lab in Maryland two years ago. The project serves as a "live beta" investigation into new amenities, like personal greeters and an immersive kitchen, possible in future properties depending on consumer feedback.

"It's quite typical to have a chief innovation officer—most of the major teams will have someone," says Jennings. "It becomes 'How do I make this experience better … to make sure those innovations enhance the brand experience and provide a return?' "

Already, many futuristic features are in play. Several hotel brands promote "keyless entry" by allowing consumers to check into rooms via an app. Manhattan's Yotel hotel in Midtown touts its luggage-toting robot, Yobot, while last year the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas debuted a cheeky chatbot concierge, Rose, who promises to keep all of a guest's naughty secrets.

With the wellness tourism industry expected to reach $563 billion by 2020, according to the Global Wellness Institute, experts expect many hotels to focus on wellness as a key point of innovation, working to upgrade the sleeping and fitness aspects of a hotel room—as well as the bathroom. Brands are looking at everything, from dream tonics to improve your slumber to feces analysis to find out what's missing from your diet. Delos Living, a real estate company that injects aspects of health into its construction projects, both inside and out, recently partnered with hotel brands on a Stay Well program. After consulting with doctors and scientists, Delos included features to refine air, light and water to upgrade a hotel stay, and visitors can pay more to upgrade their rooms with the program.

Chains will enhance the business travel experience so road warriors who travel weeks out of every month don't feel like they're sleeping in a vanilla conference room. There's also a focus on environmental sustainability—architecture and design firm Snøhetta recently unveiled a look at Svart, an "energy-positive hotel" opening in Norway in 2021.

"Travel's hard, it messes you up and you get out of your own cycle," says Hospitality Design's Shoemaker Rauen. "Hotels that can try to help people when they travel by being a guide and elevating that experience are the ones that will stand out."

Web production by Chen Wu.