Aloft Hotels sees them, as well as Millennials, as the perfect target to build lifelong loyalty. Here’s how they are achieving that goal.
By Caryn Eve Murray
March 05, 2013
The generation is celebrated for its youth, momentum, propensity for bold statements and for always going new places. That’s how Starwood describes Aloft, a relatively new generation of its hotels being welcomed into the hospitality world. A baby born in June 2008, Aloft Hotels could well be called the Millennials of the marketplace. This upstart is defined by loft-like interiors, dynamic public spaces for socializing without a loss of privacy, a bar scene showcasing up-and-coming music talent and guest rooms offering easy hookup to personal media.
So it comes as no surprise that Aloft Hotels are, in fact, something of an architectural counterpart to the very generation of guests they target: travelers born sometime in the early 1980s and beyond, now ripening into successful and peripatetic young adulthood. These Millennial Generation guests are gaining recognition as an enviable catch for anyone, and Aloft in particular.
“When Starwood thought of launching Aloft it was looking at the changing trends in the marketplace and understanding how travelers are traveling differently – the different demographics as well as the psychographics,” said Paige Francis, vice president of global brand management for Aloft. “The next generation of travelers would be the Millennials and those that share that mindset as well.”
In other words, said Francis, the brand recognizes that youthful thinking isn’t just found in the very young. “Who is actually coming to our door?” she said. “As you know, this appeals to a larger variety of the population, depending on their mindset. The self-driven early adopter, tech-savvy social person isn’t just limited to an actual age segment.”
Indeed, as Millennials come of age, suitcases in hand, they become a force the greater industry cannot ignore. Even the most traditional bed-and-breakfast segment has had to come to grips with the question of whether to shake the dust off its doilies, and strip its floral wallpaper, judiciously, to attract them.
“It’s not that baby boomers are exiting, they are still going to travel,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive officer of the Luxury Institute, a ratings and research company that focuses on high-end branding. “But the emerging Gen X and Gen Y, the Millennials, are traveling too. Their world is so interconnected, they learn about new destinations and want to go sooner than we ever did as baby boomers…Global travel today is second nature, especially to these American consumers.”
And unlike the backpack-toting, hostel-focused youngsters of their predecessor generations, said Pedraza, “they are not into roughing it. They want to experience luxury and at least a minimum level of quality in the premises and amenities. They are not willing to compromise on that and they shouldn’t. The world has much higher standards now for travel and hospitality and a lot of options.”
The rapid expansion of Aloft bears this out. Some 63 hotels have been launched so far, with another five to open this month, said Francis. “Clearly this is a product that has been answering a need,” she said. That is as true in the U.S. as it is overseas, where Aloft is making advances into China, India, Malaysia, Latin America and Thailand.
“Generation Y is poised to become the largest consumer buying group,” Francis said. “They are a very quickly growing group defining the present and will continue to define our future.”
But inns and bed-and-breakfast establishments, which grew popular by serving up tidy slices of the past, have been rethinking their Millennial strategies too. In the spirit of last year’s concurrent presidential campaign season, innkeepers launched “Doily Decision 2012,” a tongue-in-cheek social media debate that tackled the importance of adherence to old-time traditions in the face of a youthful, text- and WiFi-driven world of travel.
“A lot of B&Bs have transcended the doily,” said Jay Karens, chief executive officers of the Professional Association of Innkeepers. But, he said, appealing to the Millennials is not just about tossing out the old – or keeping it – or necessarily being gadget-friendly.
“That’s a fallacy,” he said, referring to the notion that if you capture cutting-edge tech, you capture the Millennials’ hearts and wallets too.
“Where B&Bs are hitting the sweet spot is a more contemporary experience.” He said B&Bs appeal to Millennials now by offering an antidote to what he called “the typical corporate experience.” That often means a slightly more modern environment and a strong desire to build relationships, one-on-one.
The most successful hoteliers build their Millennial business on relationships, not transactions, said Pedraza. “For follow-ups, they don’t just send a generic email, they make a phone call. They suggest something for next year’s vacation. This is authentic human interaction as opposed to commercial gobbledygook speech.”
Millennials are being courted along the whole spectrum of inn styles, he said. “They run from the old-fashioned Victorian to the super modern and super elegant with everything in between,” Pedraza said. “There are plenty of innkeepers on that bell curve, offering the modern sophisticated experience. It might be a 200-year-old home but they have updated their interiors so it looks more like Pottery Barn than Laura Ashley.”
In Vermont’s Mad River Valley, Janice Hurley Hollis opted to mix allegiance to tradition with an advance into the bold and new. Hollis, operations manager of The Round Barn in Waitsfield, Vt., took stock of the 12-room inventory at the 19th century property and charted a varied course.
“Our travelers are changing,” she said “and we were thinking of what we can do at the property to make sure we attract all kinds of guests. We looked at our rooms and asked, ‘are there one or two rooms we could change the style in so we could have broader appeal?’ In our property we have a lot of traditional rooms done in the style you would expect. We went in one of the rooms, the Wait Room, and we did it over as a more modern style that doesn’t have wallpaper. We painted it a nice relaxing bluish tone with chocolate browns. It is not as busy as some of our other rooms.”
Much of the accommodations do, however, remain intact. “There are people who want to come and feel like they are staying in an older farmhouse and they want the wallpaper and that feeling,” she said. “We would never change the whole style of the property.”
Still, with the Wait Room as the inn’s first of a handful of Millennial-driven changes, the Round Barn also ramped up its digital welcome mat, updating its website and strengthening its Facebook presence. Online marketing means bold and beautiful imagery, she said. “We use lots of visuals,” she said. “And we stick to the three rules of marketing: People don’t read, people don’t read, people don’t read.”
She believes the inn and B&B segment is the market’s most Millennial-friendly because of its easy flexibility. “You always have to be conscious of who is the next traveler, and how do we maintain the balance of appealing to our current guests while appealing to our future guests. Finding something that appeals to everyone. B&Bs can do that. You are not coming to a hotel where the whole hotel appeals to one type of traveler.”
But whether the property is an inn, a major hotel or even a cruise line or tour, the ingredients for appeal are the same. “You need to have a bold customer culture, something that differentiates you and the way you deliver your experience,” said Pedraza. “The way people greet you, check you in…the people you interact with have to create a fabulous human experience.”
In the end, he said, it comes down to living up to the Millennials’ own expectations. “They think: ‘You have collected data on me, you know my needs and my desires and you had better deliver them, or I will consider your kind a dinosaur in the digital age.’….So don’t neglect the Millennials, they are the future.”