Perspectives on Hospitality: The Future of Leisure

“The most precious opportunity we’re afforded is time,” says Sergio Saenz, director of hospitality for HKS. And, he adds, the future of the leisure market hinges on anticipating travelers wants and needs – and what they do with that gift of time. Saenz’ design goal is to deliver a hospitality experience so thoroughly exceptional that the guest didn’t even realize they wanted it to begin with.

Saenz joined a veteran group of hospitality industry experts recently for Metropolis Magazine’s 2019 Think Tank series discussion on the future of leisure. Other panelists at the event, which was hosted by HKS Miami, included London-based Ben Martin, the lead for HKS Real Estate Consulting; Laura Hodges, vice president of product development for Royal Caribbean International; Emilio Perez, director of design, Marriott International and Carlos Rodriguez Jr., hospitality developer, co-founder and CEO of Driftwood Acquisitions.  Metropolis Magazine editorial director Samuel Medina moderated the panel.

The wide-ranging conversation covered sustainable travel, development and operations, bridging the demographic divide to appeal to a wide range of consumers, hybrid destinations and creating that ubiquitous Instagram-worthy guest experience. Read on for highlights.

Medina: Let’s talk about the environmental toll of travel and the integration of sustainability into leisure travel. Travelers today are more acutely aware of the environmental impact of leisure travel, which is travel by choice: there is a public consciousness in which people are quick to attach travel to carbon emitters, like airplanes, cruise ships and cars.

Martin: We have what I refer to as a “race to green,” and frankly, the hospitality industry is playing catch up. California and Australia are on fire, coral reefs are dying and there is devastating flooding in the U.K., Europe and India. Transportation in travel is experiencing innovation around hybrid cruise ships and electric planes employing solar panels, yet that’s still years away from reality at scale. We must consider the materials’ life-cycle and the environmental impacts of the batteries that are powering these innovations.”

Hodges: Consumers’ views on leisure travel have morphed. People increasingly feel that travel is a ‘right’ and not a ‘privilege,’ which has driven demand. Royal Caribbean’s research explains why people travel with us: to relax, reconnect and bond with family and friends. Those reasons consistently top traveler’s reasons to take a cruise, but so much choice is available today. So we need to give consumers reasons to choose us, and sustainable travel is a big deal.

It’s important to be responsible stewards of the oceans in which we travel, and Royal Caribbean exceeds international emissions standards – new regulations have been enacted and more are coming up in 2020, ‘22 and ‘24. We’ve invested in AEP (Advanced Emissions Purification) systems on our ships that scrub sulfur from the air. Our new vessels will introduce the company’s first liquefied natural gas (LNG) ships.

Rodriguez: From the developer’s perspective, we look behind the curtain – what is really driving energy efficiency and what is in the design and construction that creates the most value. And ultimately for us, it’s the ROI and the actual cost of implementation. We need to adapt and think about shifting to a model in which we’re holding assets longer if we’re interested in reaping the benefits of investing in marquee sustainable design features in our projects. When you’re not planning to hang on to that asset, it’s really the next buyer and the one after that will realize the payback. Convincing developers that the initial capital outlay in sustainability will retain its resale value is just as important as persuading us that building green is the right thing to do.

Perez: In 2018 we committed to making the shift from individual, plastic toiletry bottles to wall-mounted dispensers for body wash, shampoo and conditioner in our North American managed-by-Marriott properties. It’s strategically driven – this may sound straight forward but is actually a massive operational and supply chain undertaking that takes time. There are multiple dimensions and points of decision encompassing design, implementation, return-on-investment considerations as well as strategic marketing and messaging.

Medina: There is keen focus on the Millennial traveler driving change in the industry – research shows that about 70 percent of Instagram posts are travel-related. Yet leisure travel spending is driven by Baby Boomers who are 50-70 years old now. How do you bridge the divide to create experiences that appeal to a broad range of demographics? Millennials are on track to become the most well-traveled generation because their parents and grandparents have been taking them along.

Hodges: Our research tells us that Boomers feel more youthful now than they did when they were younger. That’s important – they’re saying they don’t want to give up on having an experience, and they represent the wealthiest generational cohort. They want to spend on thrilling adventures, and that blends well with the Millennial generation; so I’d say there are more similarities than differences. And now that Millennials are beginning to become parents, and one of the main differences is Millennials say that they’re not giving up their own lives for their children. We cater to multigenerational families, so it’s about providing options and flexibility. We have nurseries and kids’ programming on board our cruise ships that free-up parents to relax and enjoy themselves.

Saenz: It’s interesting that our industry feels Millennials are a challenge because they want choices. Who here doesn’t want more choice? Or instant gratification – getting what they want, when they want it. Who doesn’t want that? Instead of these ideas being considered evocative, we should embrace them.  

Martin: The world is so full of disruption right now, and the one thing we can plan for is demographics: what is the size, shape and profile of a population. From a micro perspective, it may feel a bit head scratchy. But from a macro perspective, we can look to demographics to help project numbers on whether a destination or development will succeed.

Saenz: Regardless of the generation, we are all storytellers. As designers, we’re helping curate an experience for others to tell the story. Take the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Everyone talks about having a drink in the infinity edge rooftop pool and taking a selfie – it’s the best kind of marketing you can have.

Hodges: It’s why the right food and beverage offerings are so important in the Instagram era – Millennials photograph their F&B and share it before they’ve taken a bite. Living up to the preconceived ideas and experiences that today’s savvy travelers see and share on Instagram is critical.

Medina: Just as consumers are more active and wanting to do more, we’re seeing a theme of activation in travel. The spaces travelers inhabit, the interiors and architecture, must reflect that, and it’s resulting in more hybrid destinations. One example is a hospitality-hospital hybrid, which is intriguing from a leisure perspective – a guest-patient seeking a cosmetic surgical procedure in luxury accommodations in a discrete, private setting.

Martin: We’re seeing wellness infused into all building types. The quality of the air we breathe, healthy building materials and finishes, biophilia, you name it. So how far do you extend this notion of wellness beyond a Botox injection – to needles and scalpels? HKS is in a unique position to respond because we have deep experience designing both hotels and hospitals. When these two groups of designers get together, they talk about the guest experience and the patient journey, the sense of arrival – but also the practical nature of the hotel’s back of house and stacking patient rooms for staffing efficiencies. Mashing these building types together is a fascinating process where both form and function really are critical. These are destinations in which people don’t want anyone to know why they are really there, but no doubt they’ll come back looking refreshed and relaxed.