Tales From the Road: The Future of Lodging
November 2015, London
The bottom line is that large hotel corporations are in a state of self-preservation. They’re like an animal threatened in the wild. They may be building more hotels because they are really needed, or they may actually be trying to continually innovate with new properties in order to stay relevant. The peer to peer trend will continue to give standalone hotels a run for their money for the foreseeable future.
My usual home (hotel) away from home in London had finally priced itself out of my reach. I just cannot justify the prices being charged by many hotels these days. Want wifi, laundry or a bottled water in your room? Your bill can grow quite large rather quickly. Hotel rates seem to have skyrocketed in the past 10 years, far ahead of any logical explanation due to inflation. I suppose high hotel rates are paying for all the new hotel construction. But do we need that many new hotels?
Still reeling from an Airbnb fail in New York City last summer, I decided to give it another go in London and what a pleasant surprise: a very normal, ordinary flat about 2 minutes’ walk from a major tube station with a fridge, microwave, electric tea kettle, toaster, TV with decent channels, iron, washing machine, fast internet and endless hot water. Even the bed was good. Ironically, while not large, it was bigger than any other hotel room I’ve had before in London.
Apart from the cost savings, there was a lot to love. I was living just like at home. I had my privacy and a screaming fast wifi connection all to myself. No need to wait for an elevator or suffer awkward eye contact with fellow travelers in the lift. No maids knocking at 8 am, then 9 am, then 10 am, then 11 am, wanting to clean. No attempts at upselling on breakfast-like product, frequent stay award programs, the chain credit card, etc. No waiting 10 minutes for the valet to bring my car around.
Having a fridge and microwave meant that I could walk to the nearby grocery store and stock up on a few necessities, including Double Gloucester cheese with Onion and Chive. Now I have a little snack in my fridge for late at night. Dirty clothes? Into the machine they go.
I still like hotels, and many of us prefer them. Yet finally understood why peer to peer rentals are so popular. I saved money on the room, laundry, food and drink and Internet service. And I had total privacy and peace. Sold.
The peer to peer lodging industry is not without its challenges. An opportunity exists to certify the Airbnb-style experience and guarantee a minimum level with regard to comfort, safety, hygiene and overall experience. Certification will need to come from an impartial party that is not one of the popular services like Airbnb. While many global certification standards are elusive, some are clear (albeit subjective) like the Michelin star rating system. While Michelin is technically a rating system, a certification of the overall experience is implied and chefs who earn Michelin stars do absolutely everything to keep them. Most lodging websites offer customer reviews and ratings. That said, an accurate Airbnb-style rating and even certification is a hard nut to crack.
I began to wonder who can actually afford the seemingly limitless ascent of hotel room rates? Very few of us are rock stars or drug dealers with bags of cash. And really, why are more hotels being built? It seems tremendously efficient to rent rooms that would otherwise be vacant, i.e. in flats or homes. When more unused rooms or flats are being rented, then fewer hotels are needed. That means less construction, environmental impact, noise, traffic and so on. I don’t buy the argument that hotel construction means jobs. Most would-be construction workers are employable in other work, with the right training.
I do appreciate hotels that are great at what they do. Hotels known for their history (London’s Milestone Hotel), food (Hong Kong’s Peninsula), a mountain lodge (like Oregon’s Timberline Lodge) or an overall resort experience (Baja California’s Rancho La Puerta) are definitely worth visiting. The difference there is that they are experiences, not just overnight lodging. And those are experiences worth paying for. When cookie-cutter chain hotels start grasping at stratospheric room rates (and I don’t care if there is a convention in town, allegedly raising the rates), it’s time to look elsewhere. Thankfully, many travelers are. Lodging is undergoing tremendous change that it needed and the market responded. Given my experience with most airlines recently, I look forward to the day when there is an Airbnb-style service for air travel.