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The makings of a modern hotel

By Jill Becker, Special to CNN
updated 11:05 AM EST, Mon November 4, 2013
The lobbies at Four Points by Sheraton hotels, like this one in Miami Beach, have free WiFi.
The lobbies at Four Points by Sheraton hotels, like this one in Miami Beach, have free WiFi.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Business travelers require fast and free Internet on the road
  • Younger guests want social events featuring local brews
  • They also want hotels to be serious about going green

(CNN) -- If you spend any length of time at airports or hotels, you've no doubt noticed that there's a new breed of business traveler these days. They're younger, hipper and are sporting a messenger bag full of the latest technology.

"Previous generations of business travelers wore three-piece suits and aspired to climb the corporate ladder at their Fortune 500 firms," says Robert Habeeb, president and COO of First Hospitality Group, an Illinois-based hotel management and development group. "The young professionals we see today are much more entrepreneurial, often working for themselves or a tech start-up, and taking fashion cues from Mark Zuckerberg. And they are so well connected with smart phones and Wi-Fi that they can conduct work anytime, anywhere, leading to less of a separation between work and leisure."

This new generation of travelers, known collectively as either millennials or Gen Y and typically referring to anyone born after 1980, has already begun to outpace the baby boomer generation, and is expected to number 78 million by the year 2030. More significantly, at least when it comes to travel, is that they now represent the fastest growing segment in travel spending.

"This generation spends money," says Habeeb. "It seems somewhat contradictory given the economic environment they have come of age with, but they do." And hotels are taking notice, spending not only millions to revamp and reconfigure their current accommodations, but introducing new brands aimed specifically at today's non-traditional traveler.

"The needs and desires of today's business travelers are changing and hotel brands that don't know their customers intimately will quickly lose a share of the market," says Brian McGuinness, Starwood Hotels' senior VP of specialty select brands.

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So, who are these budding biz travelers and how is it affecting the look and feel of hotels across the globe? "The image of the classic road warrior holed up in his room working on a presentation and ordering room service is out of date," says McGuinness. Adds Habeeb: "Business travelers [of old] put in long hours in boardrooms and remote office space. They couldn't easily conduct work from the hotel, so they really never spent much time there. The only thing they needed from a hotel was a clean place to lay their head and take a shower. That is not today's millennial business traveler. Since they can and do conduct work from the hotel, millennials actually spend a lot more time there. So the hotel has to be the travel experience for them."

Here are five of the millennial generation's top characteristics and the steps hotels are taking to accommodate them:

They're goo-goo for gadgets. A 2012 survey conducted by Four Points by Sheraton found that today's business travelers typically carry three to four mobile devices. Which means they need to be connected, whether it's in the lobby, the restaurant, or in their room. Says McGuinness: "Fast Wi-Fi/Internet access on the road is a necessity not a perk these days." And they expect it to be free. To keep up with the reported 64 percent of hotel brands that already have free Wi-Fi, InterContinental Hotels Group, for one, recently announced that starting in 2014 all of its hotels will offer complimentary Wi-Fi to members of its Rewards Club loyalty program (which is free to join).

Millennials' addiction to technology has resulted in some physical changes at hotels as well. Courtyard, for example, recently began an initiative to revamp the design of the guestrooms at its almost 850 North American properties to include multiple power outlets throughout the room as well as a "tech drop" by the bed and desk for housing electronic devices. You'll also see at more and more hotels the addition of geek-friendly features like self-check-in kiosks and interactive tech walls, such as the one at the Hotel Abri in San Francisco, which guests can use to learn about area attractions and even buy tickets to Alcatraz.

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They're social animals. While many worried that with the onslaught of communication tools like e-mail and texting kids would grow up without the ability to connect face-to-face, it turns out that millennials are all about socializing and networking. Thus you'll find an increasing number of hotels engaging their guests with regularly scheduled events such as happy hours, wine tastings and pool parties. Taking networking a step further, when it opened last year, New York's TRYP By Windham Times Square South became the first U.S. hotel to partner with a social media app called LobbyFriend, which encourages hotel guests to connect and socialize with one another during their stays.

They like to be alone, together. "Younger travelers want public spaces with access to a bar, music and food, even if they're alone," Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson said at a gathering of GMs in June, while commenting on millennials' affinity for the concept of "isolated togetherness." Meaning that even if they're just going to be working on their laptops or making business calls on their smartphones, they want to do it in a public place. Hence, at hotels across the globe, the once boring lobby is being transformed into a lively social gathering place. Holiday Inn, for example, has launched a new design at its hotels called the Active Lobby Concept, which features everything from informal meeting spaces and communal workstations to a bar and 24/7 grab-and-go market.

They crave the cool factor. Millennials don't want cookie cutter; they want that extra something special. "Some millennials are pulling away from brand loyalty because they aren't looking for consistency at every hotel they visit; they want to share something cool and unique with their friends on Instagram and Twitter," says Habeeb. "We've found that millennial business travelers really take to our historic adaptive-reuse projects; those we have converted from historic buildings into modern-day hotels like the Hilton Garden Inn in Milwaukee, which features original bank vault doors from 1886 and a series of Life photographs throughout the hallways." Beyond the design, millennials are attracted to out-of-the-ordinary amenities such as designer beers in the minibar or books written by local authors on the nightstand.

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They bleed green. Another thing the hotel industry is doing to attract millennial travelers is appealing to their environmental sensibilities. Element, a Starwood brand securely aimed at this burgeoning segment of business and leisure travelers, is the first major brand to mandate that all of its properties pursue LEED certification. Their fitness centers even feature a stationary bike with a pedal-powered generator that lets riders charge their tablet or mobile phone while they work out. Another example is the shampoo pumps you'll find in the showers at Hilton's Home2 Suites, which are less wasteful than those miniature bottles. "There's convenient green and real green," concedes Marriott executive Brian King. "Baby boomers will do it if it's easy, whereas millennials are much more serious about it."

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