Lower-priced hotels have long been the realm of Muzak-filled lobbies outfitted with worse-for-wear furniture and industrial carpeting. But the genre has entered a new era. A wine bar?A sleek lounge area?Free Wi-Fi?Walk into the recently opened Hyatt Place in Columbia, South Carolina, and that’s just what you’ll find. Guests can order meals on a touch-screen terminal at any time of day; self-service kiosks greet travelers by name and spit out room keys. At only $140 a night, don’t expect to be pampered—this new kind of chain is about modern functionality.
Called “select service” by industry insiders, the hotel category is taking a democratized dose of style from upscale predecessors like W and Kimpton. And it’s altering the landscape for travelers both here and abroad, with brands that are a step up from bland budget hotels like Marriott SpringHill Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, and Courtyard by Marriott.
Europe jump-started the trend more than 10 years ago with U.K.’s City Inn; next came Germany-based 25 Hours and Spain’s Room Mate Hotels chain. This month, Citizen M debuts at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, with plans to expand across Europe.
The U.S. is following suit: of the 38 hotel chains that have launched in the past three years, 18 fall into this category, and all have plans to extend their scope here (many on the other side of the Atlantic as well). The major players are InterContinental’s Hotel Indigo, Hyatt Place, Starwood’s Aloft, and Nylo.
According to Bjorn Hanson, a hospitality-sector consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, these hotels are designed with a specific traveler in mind. The profile: tech-savvy professionals usually on the road for work. Notwithstanding their often off-the-beaten-track locations, the properties are attracting business guests willing to pay extra for design and services. But with room rates rising, leisure travelers are also looking for more-affordable options.
Behind the Design
Compared with others in the affordable market, these newer chains have a modern aesthetic. Most have disproportionately large lobbies with smaller adjoining rooms, to accommodate travelers’ desire for public areas with room to both work and socialize. By the end of 2008, the new Nylo brand is planning to open 12 locations across the U.S., all with a New York–loft look: 10-foot ceilings, exposed brick and ductwork, and an overlay of decorative elements that reflect the locale. At the chain’s first outpost, in Plano, Texas, pod chairs and glass “antler” chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and a “game room/library” is outfitted with pink cowhide rugs, Ultrasuede banquettes, and a stainless-steel bar.
Aloft’s hotels will also express their individual locations through the work of local artists (a talent search is now under way for the Lexington, Massachusetts, location set to open next month). Every property, says company brand leader Brian McGuinness, will have a water feature in the lobby, natural fabrics, and a strict landscaping program that mandates a certain number of mature trees.
What They Offer (and What They Don’t)
You generally won’t find luxury amenities like a porter to carry your bags, or a proper restaurant. But unlike budget brands, which serve only breakfast, guests at most of these hotels have access to food whenever they want (mostly self-service), free Wi-Fi, and plenty of public space. The amenities are a result of research done before construction—surveys commissioned by Hyatt Place, for example, show that 71 percent of respondents watch TV while they work at home, and 53 percent listen to music. Women in particular want a separate work area. In response, Hyatt’s new rooms have an oversize movable desk, an ergonomic chair, and a dock near the bed that connects laptops and DVD and MP3 players directly to the TV.
These hotel groups also say their target clientele is looking for greater independence and does not mind self-service check-in; at Hyatt Place, Aloft, and Nylo guests use electronic kiosks (though there’s always someone around to help). At Aloft, guests choose their rooms upon arrival; the kiosks have floorplans.
Another innovation can be seen at Nylo, which has created an entire floor of 47 anti-allergen rooms at its Plano location. They are kept contaminant-free with air purifiers, hypoallergenic linens, and a patented “Pure shield,” applied to surfaces in rooms to keep dust off.
The Rate Structure
As a result of all the amenities, prices at these hotels are creeping up. Though Nylo rooms were originally $120 a night, they’re now inching closer to $160, and the company is in the planning phase for a more affordable offshoot, XP by Nylo, promising the same 10-foot ceilings and wine bars, but at an average rate of $90 to $110 a night.
Meanwhile, some of the hotels’ most appealing elements help keep prices down. Industrial-chic materials like polished-concrete walls and exposed brick not only lend an urban feel, but also save energy by retaining heat and cold.
Nylo runs on 50 percent wind power, and has installed lights that shut off automatically when a guest leaves the room—a technique that European properties have used for years. According to Nylo president Mike Mueller, this measure, along with other conservation efforts, produces energy savings of roughly 25 to 30 percent for each room, enabling the hotel to provide free Wi-Fi, local calls, and parking.
Alison Kal, vice president of marketing for Hyatt Place, says that kiosks and multitasking employees (the same hosts that check you in can also make your cappuccino) save a substantial amount per year on staffing costs.
In the end, these properties can’t expect to be all things to all people. “Some guests are still going to wonder where the eggs and bacon are in the morning,” McGuinness says. On the other hand, travelers looking for affordability, convenience, and modern efficiency may find that these hotels fit the bill.