Dogs in the hotel lobby are so last year; what’s next is to take one home. Hotel guests once preferred predictability — same deep-red Marriott carpet, same standard lobby restaurant — but now they want homey. This summer vacation, there’s no telling what a hotel might do to create a home-away-from-home feeling, only better. Look for slippers, hair dryers from blowout salon chain Drybar, yoga mats and scent diffusers. Downstairs, front desks have been traded in for “hosted arrival” and “curators” who recommend a great nearby restaurant — and their favorite dish.
Much has changed since Randy Hassen grew up traveling to hotels with his parents to running them as president of Tampa, Fla.-based McKibbon Hospitality. “The big word wasconsistency,” he says. “The guest did not want any surprises.” Many travelers now want to feel like locals, a trend driven by the rise of home-sharing websites such as Airbnb and VRBO. Goodbye pool and buffet. Hello local craft beer and single-origin coffee pourovers.
McKibbon is developing four new properties from Asheville to Charlotte, part of a statewide hotel boom with more than 17,430 rooms either in construction or planning stages. That’s the equivalent of 11.5% of total supply. Charlotte alone will see 3,700 rooms come online this year, according to Marcus & Millichap, a national commercial real-estate brokerage. But Asheville is ground zero in the war to woo overnight guests. The mountain city’s Airbnb hosts reported 404,000 stays and took in $13.1 million last year, or a quarter of the state’s $51 million total, according to the San Francisco-based company. While that’s a fraction of North Carolina’s $3.5 billion hotel industry, Airbnb’s soaring growth — revenue more than doubled last year and profits are projected to reach $3.5 billion by 2020 — has hotel proprietors rethinking hospitality.
Guests who check in to Aloft Asheville can linger in the lobby to play pool or strum a guitar in the musician’s corner, but many visitors never make it past the doggie pen. “Picture our front desk,” says General Manager David McCartney. “Our doggie play pen is right beside it. People come off the elevator, park their suitcase, but the minute they see the dog, they’re completely disarmed and so comfortable, they almost forget to check in.” Since the McKibbon-owned hotel started fostering dogs 2½ years ago, Charlie’s Angels Animal Rescue has placed more than 80 pets with families across the country.
Among traditional hotels making the most dramatic change could be Charlotte’s Marriott City Center, owned by the Bethesda, Md.-based industry giant. Guests can skip check-in altogether using their mobile phones for keyless entry. Talib McDowell, the chain’s first director of guest experience, picked out the retro decorations at Coco and the Director, a coffee shop so hip most downtown office workers probably think it isn’t related to the hotel. Anyone can write their name on the chalkboard wall to reserve the conference table in Coco’s co-working space or grab a place on comfy cushions scattered across amphitheater-style seating. Cozy doesn’t come cheap: Renovations to the downtown hotel totaled $40 million.
It may be the price to win the battle with lodging industry innovations and hold on to customers who value hotel traditions of stringent health and safety standards, rewards clubs and reliable amenities for business travelers. So far, hotels are doing fine. Room rates set records last year, according to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, with revenue per room gaining 7.2% for an average of $64.47. More than 35 million room nights were sold in 2016.
But it’s clear that homesharing is having an impact and stands to eat into corporate travel, too, with the introduction of Airbnb for Business in 2015 and the ability for travelers to redeem rewards points for stays. It might involve more than rewards clubs and reliable high-speed internet. In Asheville, Aloft manager McCartney says travelers like to tell a story when they get home. “I want them to go home and brag about something cool they found in Asheville,” he says.
The question is: Can hotels do cool?