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Designing for the Generations: Panelists debate industry’s shift toward Millennials


 A group of leading design professionals shared                            
 their thoughts on the hotel industry’s focus on adjusting to the needs and desires of the Millennial market during the Hotel Business Design Executive Roundtable: “Designing for the Generations.”

A panel of 10 designers and industry experts weighed in on this topic at Delano Las Vegas on May 13, just before the start of HD Expo 2015. Four companies—Hansgrohe, Simmons Hospitality, Valley Forge Fabrics, Inc. and iWorks US, Inc.—sponsored the roundtable, which was moderated by Christina Trauthwein, editor, Hotel Business Design.

In 2015, the Millennial generation, ages 18-36, is projected to number 75.3 million, surpassing the estimated 74.9 million Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation, based on U.S. Census Bureau forecasts. With Millennials expected to make up 50% of the workforce by 2020, according to a study by PwC, the lodging industry is attempting to define a new era of hospitality design to best meet their technological, social and living needs. 

A number of panelists agreed that the industry should emphasize the psychographic shifts among today’s travelers, as opposed to focusing on just one demographic. “We’re all Millennials at heart,” said Marlin Wilson, CEO, Intrinsic Hospitality, who indicated that he embraces mobile technology and the instant gratification associated with social media platforms. “My Facebook slogan is: ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.’”

Others expressed concern over the industry altering its offerings to meet the needs of Millennials, while failing to address the consumer power of the Baby Boomers and Generations X and Y. “Why this? Why so much attention about this generation,” said Darrell Long, design director/partner, HBA. “We’re having more conversations about trying to change something that we’ve been doing for years. This whole idea of instant gratification should promote a different way of thinking, not because of the Millennial, but because of how the technology came about.”

From deconstructing bathrooms and removing closet doors to eliminating horizontal work surfaces, some brands are looking to create “the guestroom of the future,” which caters specifically to Millennials. Some panelists argued that the recent design trends fail to take into consideration privacy, functionality and flexibility. “I think the industry is overreacting,” said Russ Louderback, EVP, design & construction for White Lodging. “As the Millennials age, they are going to want the same things as Baby Boomers.”

Participants aimed to identify the influencers of generational hospitality design. Vito Lotta, senior director of design for Hilton Worldwide, directed the conversation to boutique hotelier Ian Schrager. When The Paramount Hotel reopened in New York City more than two decades ago, the property introduced Schrager’s vision of a communal lobby space, where guests would socialize, work and relax—a popular trend among guests today. 

 “As a design industry, we are attempting to guide owners and brands to consider how guests would want to live in hotels in their own way,” said Lotta. “At Hilton Worldwide, we approach design with the understanding that guest preferences vary more on psychographics than demographics, in so that being a Millennial is a mindset shared across age groups.” 

 Panelists concurred that the personality, values, attitudes, interests and lifestyles of today’s guests are similar regardless of age. More and more, guests are looking for an authentic sense of place when they check in to a property that best reflects its surrounding location. They also would prefer to partake in a communal social experience as opposed to staying in their guestroom, and then capture experiences on their mobile devices to share via social media. 

“In the past, no matter where guests checked in, they had the confidence that the guestroom would appear exactly the same for that brand everywhere else,” Lotta said. “Now, the same traveler prefers a hotel that offers local relevance. Brands no longer strive for uniformity to build guest confidence and loyalty. Hilton Worldwide’s full-service and luxury lifestyle brands continue to evolve and encourage design that is unique to each property.”

He added, “The hotel industry continues to alter its design direction based on the changing needs and demands of today’s travelers. However, this preference for local relevance and a unique experience is not limited to Millennials. The parents of the Millennials now commonly share this mindset and typically travel with more purchasing power.” 

In addition to Hilton Worldwide’s luxury portfolio, other luxury brands have focused on the needs of all demographics. “We’re not marketing to one age group; our brand is meant for all generations,” said Michele Sweeting, SVP, capital planning & procurement, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. “For our brand, it’s about the guest experience—whether it’s Millennials or another generation. People want what they want, when they want, and that’s what helps define our service offering.”  

Responding to properties focusing on capturing the Millennial market, roundtable members agreed that all demographics have the same level of expectations toward hospitality design. The discussed “guestroom of the future” entails a number of embellishments but neglects to take into consideration some of the basic design elements. “It’s design just for design sake,” said Dan Kwan, managing director/NY, Wilson Associates. “It all boils down to context and guest comfort.”

He added, “The new group of travelers, which includes Baby Boomers, want to experience the context of a location within spaces and not a uniform environment. A hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, would have a different design compared to a property in [Manhattan’s] West Village.” 

Kwan, along with several designers, underscored the importance of branded properties capturing the essence of their surrounding location and culture into the design. “I think brands will cease to exist physically,” said Kwan. “Brands will only exist as a thought, service or spirit. Properties will become reflective of their surrounding cultures and neighborhoods. Whether these properties would include an open bath is driven by the local culture rather than what we think they want.”  

Originally from Sweden, Therese Virserius, owner of Virserius Studio, an interior architecture and design firm with offices in New York and Paris, shared her observations of cultural differences between European and North American brands as they address cross-generational appeal. “Europeans prefer individual experiences; they’re not seeking to replicate an experience they had in Thailand in Paris,” she said. “They want to experience cultural heritage while also feeling safe and comfortable.”   

While Millennials have grown with mobile devices and social media, older generations also expect the same technological elements from their hotel stay. Lorraine Francis, regional director of hospitality interiors for Gensler, pointed to the citizenM brand’s approach to affordable luxury, technology and style for today’s mobile traveler. The Amsterdam-based brand’s efficient check-in, free WiFi, communal public areas with modular seating options and micro-suite style guestrooms appeal to tech-savvy Baby Boomers, Francis observed. “We’re all trying to create a youthful-minded hotel spirit,” she added.  

Jeffrey Degen, principal, Degen & Degen, praised hotel brands that have embraced change and diversified design. “I’m intrigued by the brands that have evolved,” Degen said. “Madonna evolved her brand with different products and challenged her audience over the years. The strongest brands are the ones that evolved, such as the Courtyard by Marriott brand.”

Addressing the needs of multiple generations, Libby Sims Patrick, CEO, Sims Patrick Studio, also emphasized the need for flexibility and efficiency. Guestrooms with smaller footprints, high-quality finishes and efficient functionality, she noted, provide greater efficiency and improve the guest experience. “The customer experience brings value to the property, which, in turn, brings the ROI back to the owner,” she said. “Value equals customer experience plus design divided by the cost of the project and room price.” 

In determining the needs of the aging Baby Boomer generation, panelists tackled the evolution of universal design for lodging properties. Several designers focused on the importance of finding a balance between form and function from stylish grab bars in the shower enclosure to touch-activation technology in the guestroom. “We’re not designing just for Millennials,” said Degen. “We’re designing—and that hasn’t changed. The question becomes how we stay relevant as designers.”