How Hotels Can Challenge Airbnb for Millennials' Hearts

Three Ways Hotels Can Create Modern Experiences, and It's Not Just with Robot Bellhops

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Millennials travel differently than previous generations -- both for leisure and for business -- and hotels have been slow to adapt their offerings in ways that appeal to millennials. Teresa Lee, an analyst -- and self-described millennial -- at hospitality researcher HVS took at swipe at the industry in a 2014 report by asking this simple question about the industry's attempts to modernize: "Is this 2009?"

It's no surprise.Hotels are trying to appeal to the under-35 set, but they're going at it in the wrong way. While brands like Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt have begun embracing technology, modernization isn't solely about technology. It's not just about allowing guests to check in via phones, equipping staff with tablets, or inventing robot butlers. It's not even about having a great ad campaign.

It's about rethinking the experiences. Millennials aren't simply a "technology" generation that salivates over technology for its own sake. When millennials talk about Airbnb, do they talk about the booking process? No, they talk about the unique accommodations. When they talk about Uber, do they talk about the app experience? No, they talk about how great it is to not have to physically call or wave down a cab. Both brands rely on technology, sure, but technology is not the story. Technology is simply the enabler of new experiences.

That's why it's not enough to simply throw technology at millennials' travel problems. Offering today's technology simply meets today's standards. For hotels to really connect with millennials, they must create truly modern experiences. Here are three ways:

1. Redefine customer service through modern means.

If Airbnb is the king of unique accommodations, then hotels have to become the king of customer service. Traditionally, that's meant investment in great staff. Today, that means investment in data and analysis. Millennials have uncovered an interesting tech-enabled paradox: Services feel more personal when people are removed from the equation.

Just think about the Uber experience or how Amazon is even better than your friends at giving product recommendations for things you'd like. Now, imagine a guest having a personal profile that's fine-tuned for their preferences. The more they stay at the hotel, the more the hotel adapts to them. Imagine having the previous night's episode of SportsCenter already saved to your TV before you've checked in, or room service knowing you'll have "the usual" for breakfast based on your previous orders.

2. Make the experiences worth sharing.

This is the Instagram and Snapchat generation. In many ways, millennials value what they can share even more than what they own. Unfortunately, there isn't much worth sharing about the average hotel. Accommodations are relatively standardized, and it's becoming harder for hoteliers to provide accommodations worth talking about without investing untold dollars in design or staff or both.

Luckily, hotels have the perfect assets -- foot traffic and a captive audience -- to create experiences worth capturing and sharing through social media. It's the perfect environment to use physical spaces in fun, creative ways. Think of Zappos' Baggage Claim Game, the Heated Adshelter by social welfare charity Caritas, the Big Sleepover by IKEA or -- my personal favorite -- Piano Stairs by Volkswagen. If hotels used their spaces in ways like these, there'd be more buzz about what goes on within their walls.

3. Make the hotel the star, not the room.

Some boutique brands, like citizenM and The Pod Hotel, are playing with the idea of stripping down rooms to their bare essentials, leaving just enough space for storing luggage, sleeping and little else.

By saving space with smaller rooms, hotels could explore new opportunities like assigning different themes to different sections of the hotel as a way of encouraging exploration, or providing classes where travelers could learn something new and fun during their stays. Brands could even open galleries where visitors could see what their hotels in other locations look like in order to drive future vacation bookings.

It may seem like hotels are fighting an uphill battle for relevancy in an Airbnb world. But even Airbnb has its limitations. In fact, the company recently hired veteran hospitality renegade Chip Conley to help establish hotel-level standards for Airbnb proprietors while maintaining the brand's core edge. It's understandable why Airbnb would go down this route. There are still some travelers who might be uncomfortable with the company's ad-hoc approach. Airbnb's ambitions to become more hotel-like only confirm that there is viability to the hotel concept.

This is why it is more imperative than ever for hotels to rethink the fundamental experiences they provide within their walls. Airbnb and other ad-hoc challengers are trying to close the service gap. It's now time for hotels to close the experience gap, since this is what millennials value above all else.

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