HOTELS ARE WHERE IT'S HAPPENING
By Joe Brancatelli
November 6, 2013 --After years of debate and delay, the FAA has finally lifted its restriction on the use of personal electronics devices (PED) under 10,000 feet. The irony of last week's decision, which requires airlines to certify that their aircraft are not threatened by electronic interference? The first three carriers to get FAA approval don't have in-flight WiFi (JetBlue Airways) or don't have WiFi that functions below 10,000 feet (Delta Air Lines and American Airlines).
This is what passes for "innovation" in the airline industry, which hasn't had genuinely new-to-the-skies products since JetBlue introduced free live television in 2000 and American Airlines pioneered in-flight WiFi in 2008. Airlines are much better at creating new fees than fostering new ideas.
Hotels, on the other hand, are constantly trying to change the game. The worthy new ideas—as well as gimmicks such as pumping scents in the lobby—never stop coming.
So while we wait for our seatbacks and tray tables to come to the upright position and listen to the flight attendants explain whether we can or can't use Kindles, laptops, tablets and smartphones on this specific flight on this particular airline at this exact moment, let's examine some of the progress that the hotel industry has made lately.
Lobbying for change The mainstream media still fawn over grandiose, ostentatious and ridiculously large hotel lobbies, but the present and future belongs to entryways that are much smaller and dramatically more transactional. Out are acres of empty space. In are coffee shops, busy bars and everything from cozy conversation areas to mini-business centers with computers, Internet access and video screens that monitor flights, weather and other breaking business-travel news bites.
The transition has been going on for years and is now nearly complete. So-called focused-service hotel chains routinely offer lobby-level grab-and-go convenience shops where you can pick up a salad, a sandwich or even full meals to heat in an in-room microwave oven. Traditional full-service hotels have added everything from intimate cocktail bars to dining spots where you can eat alone or graze with other road warriors at communal tables. It's all been a happy confluence: Travelers get the coffee-bar intimacy they crave and hotels get to convert empty space into revenue-generating retail.
The desk abides In remaking their lobbies, hotels also decided that travelers no longer wanted traditional front desks. They just forgot to talk to us about it. Most travelers still prefer a central location where we can go and check with a clerk about hotel matters or even the lay of the land in the outside world. So while many chains have indeed replaced large and imposing desks with pods or podiums that allow the hotel staff to come out and interact, more traditional arrangements have survived, too. Some chains that totally eliminated a front desk seem to be retreating and their once-roving first-contact staffs now also have a central area to work. "We probably pushed this one a little to far," one hotel general manager told me recently. "Guests really do prefer to see some sort of transactional area and the staff prefers working from a central point, too. And if your people are trained properly, the desk isn't a barrier against good guest-employee interaction."
The in-room space race Once hoteliers committed to the upfront cost of switching to flat-panel television sets from bulky old TVs, the transition went in a flash. The reason: Flat screens took up less space and allowed hotel designers to eliminate the immense armoires that surrounded old-style TVs. That meant more floor space for guests or, in newly built hotels, smaller rooms that didn't actually feel smaller. Besides, with so many fewer guests actually using the in-room TV, less space dedicated to a fading amenity made sense.
The other major change in guestroom design—the bathroom—hasn't been troublesome, either. Unless they are a super-luxury property, hotels continue to purge bathrooms of bathtubs. The death of the traditional "four-fixture" hotel bathroom—shower, tub, sink and toilet—couldn't come fast enough for most business travelers. Most prefer to shower and bigger, more elaborate stalls can be installed when bathtubs are jettisoned. Besides, many travelers who prefer to bathe won't do it in a hotel anyway because they are wary about the cleanliness of a guestroom tub. The one sticking point continues to be family travelers, who want tubs for the kiddies. But "families have figured it out," one hotel manager recently explained. "If they want a room with a tub, they call ahead and make sure we reserve one for them."
Tempest in a coffee pot If there is genuine controversy in the ever-changing world of lodging, it centers on one of the most basic items in a guestroom: the coffeemaker. Small, drip-style machines are giving way to single-serve brewers. The latest chain to switch: Hilton Garden Inn, which has made Keurig single-cup brewing machines the brand standard.
In-room coffeemakers have been a bone of contention for years. One chain, Extended Stay America, even channeled Twisted Sister for a commercial spoofing the industry's habit of stashing coffeemakers in bathrooms. Drip coffeemakers are also problematic for hotels since they can be used to cook meth. But some road warriors, accustomed to carrying their own preferred type of coffee, aren't fans of single-serve machines. Despite the variety of flavors on offer, single-service devices can't be customized for exactly the blend and grind some travelers crave.
"No matter what I do with coffee in the room, I'm wrong," an executive of a major hotel chain told me recently. "If I pull them, people complain. If I go drip, the single-serve people complain. If I go single-serve, bring-your-own travelers complain. I get more complaints about coffeemakers than beds."
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.