As work blends into play, hotel becomes social hub

June 20, 2011

Travellers like different things from their hotels.

Some adore the privacy of their deluxe room, away from the demands of family or roommates. In solipsistic comfort, awash with their choice of digital entertainment, they are fed, watered and tidied up after at the dial of a short extension. Others appreciate the more communitarian aspects of a home-away-from-home; the serendipitous conversation at the bar, competitive company in the gym, playmates in the pool, the bustle and hum of the lobby making laptop chores less lonely.

Many more of us probably enjoy a bit of both (I’ve always felt, for example, that business hotels should arrange some of their breakfast tables in a way to facilitate conversation).

Back in 2007, Holiday Inn conducted an extensive study of their customers and concluded that their frequent guests belonged to the communitarian category. Four years later, the physical manifestation of that insight has been unveiled. Their prototype property, Holiday Inn Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia is the first to open a 5,000 square foot Social Hub in its lobby.

Is this the answer to the changing needs and behaviours of business and leisure travellers, or a PR stunt? (I was once on an upmarket hotel group’s press junket in Asia where assembled journalists couldn’t hide their mirth after being sombrely informed by a branding executive that the entrance to the property was now to be termed a “transitional portal”, so I’m wary about such things…)

I put my question to Holiday Inn’s vice president global brand management, Verchele Wiggins.

“Our guests tend to be social customers, so they don’t want to be relegated to their room and would really prefer to come down and be a part of the environment.” According to Wiggins, Holiday Inn management weren’t surprised by their study’s findings; the bars at their properties have always erred on the well-utilised side.

But, and this is the interesting part, Holiday Inn sees the Hub as a parallel of how people live their lives at home; i.e. concentrating in one room where everything happens, where work and play blends. Or where, as Wiggins puts it, “Mum is cooking, dad is watching TV on the computer, the kids are playing.”

Their plan was simple, to take all the separate public spaces – front desk, restaurant, bar and business centre – and compress them into one holistic eating, drinking, working, e-gaming and relaxing area.

Hotels have an obvious incentive to keep guests within their monetised boundaries, and not going foraging around outside for food and entertainment. Business guests don’t on the whole feel very intrepid after a day of meetings, and so might savour such a facility. But would a businessperson, I wondered out loud, be happy sharing such a space with, say, young families?

“Holiday Inn is definitely an inclusive brand and we serve the midscale mainstream market, so you would expect many different types of travellers, but the way [the Hub] is laid out… I don’t think we’ll find any conflicts between those groups,” Wiggins told me.

Wiggins and I agreed that the Hub should especially suit the single traveller who may not want to be stuck in their room, but who are also averse to sitting in the bar and looking as if they’re scoping the place out.

It will be some time before the hotel chain is sure that the concept will work operationally, from both a guest and staff standpoint. Once they are, the company will go into hyperdrive, incorporating the hub into Holiday Inns everywhere, both new-builds and properties undergoing refurbishment.

A global roll-out will then occur. I wondered again whether the Social Hub is particularly suited to the über-social States, but perhaps won’t go down so well in the famously reserved UK? Worry not, I was informed; Quant data suggests the concept will work globally.

“We’ve been working with our counterparts in all regions around the world to talk about how this concept is augmented to meet all the local cultural needs,” adds Wiggins.

As a user-guide for others, I asked Wiggins how she would use the Social Hub:

“Say I arrive at night; I may run through the space, grab a bottle of water from the 24-7 market. Or I may cruise over to the bar and have a nightcap or an appetiser. The next morning, I’d grab a hot breakfast sandwich and a coffee, knowing that I’d come back to the hotel that night for dinner, have some drinks, watch TV at the bar and bring my computer down to debrief from the day. Free WiFi is standard, so I’d be able to keep connected without having to be on the BlackBerry.

“The next morning I’d try out the sit-down breakfast. There’s a chef station so I could get an omelette made to order and have a hot meal before I head back on my flight.”

Though Wiggins’ routine doesn’t sound much more social than taking your laptop into a Starbucks, this is, I think, the point. Being on your own in a non-intimidating social environment is much more pleasant than the solitary confinement of a guestroom. I think even the Brits would be ok with the Social Hub.

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