Ron Swidler, chief innovation officer of The Gettys Group, discusses learnings from the latest iteration of the Hotel of Tomorrow Project.

As chief innovation officer of The Gettys Group – a Chicago-based, hospitality-focused design company behind projects for Marriott, Hilton and Peninsula – Ron Swidler identifies new approaches to creating hotel environments. Here he discusses learnings from the latest iteration of the recently revived Hotel of Tomorrow Project –which sees teams of experts from across the sector ideate and test innovations for the future of the industry – as well as staffless hospitality and luxury’s uncertain future. 

What have been the major innovations to come out of the pandemic? 

RON SWIDLER: We’ve seen a lot of innovation in the context of health and wellness; we used to expect a hospitality experience to be sanitary, but now we need to know it’s not deadly. We developed the Rand Tower Hotel in Minnesota with air quality sensors, which was far from a priority two years ago, when air quality was more about temperature and humidity. Meanwhile, in the F&B space, there’s been something of a sea change; hotels acting as ghost kitchens and partnering with delivery platforms, paper menus replaced with QR codes, and venues like 11 Central Park going meatless. The script has been flipped, and these changes aren’t going away any time soon.  

Have the requirements of hospitality design changed? 

There’s been a major movement in design flexibility. One of the big ideas pre-pandemic was the elimination of the guestroom desk, but this has swung straight back. Now we need guestrooms with proper seating and lighting so guests can take Zoom calls. We’ve also been required to look at infrastructure in a new way, and, in one project, facilitate a choice between attending a meeting in a ballroom or streaming it directly to the desk. I think the hospitality industry was caught out as being inflexible, but in the last year we’ve seen hotels converted to birthing centres and senior living facilities, which shows it can be done. There’s a need for public areas to be designed in a way that they can serve more than just one purpose, and whilst a lot of this has come about as a solution to the constraints of the pandemic, this is a great opportunity to rethink what is important in design. 

Beyond COVID, what other factors are driving innovation in the hospitality sphere?

Service models, convenience and rising labour costs are having a big impact. The latter is going to accelerate some of the automation we’ve been seeing. We’re already bypassing the front desk with automated check in, and we’ve already stopped heading there to collect the bill. If this continues, and there’s even less staffing and interaction required, then it’s going to lower the labour cost and inherently alter both design and experience. That’s not to minimize the importance of staff; people have always been at the heart of hospitality. But the integration of this technology is going to have a huge impact that goes right to the core of this industry. 

Above and cover: The Hotel of Tomorrow project sees teams of experts from hotel brands, owners, operators, consultants and suppliers collaborate, ideate and test innovations for the future of the industry. Images: Courtesy of The Hotel of Tomorrow

What do you think this relationship with technology will look like?

We haven’t yet reached the point where AI can effectively replicate the human presence in hospitality environments, but we can see the early elements of robotics. The optimistic view here is that technology functions as an enhancement or an alternative choice to human contact as opposed to an outright replacement. Ultimately, I think this needs to be guest approved, meaning that just because there is a technological solution doesn’t mean we have to use it. Designers should experiment with what would be valuable, but to make sure it’s meaningful and appreciated the desire for it needs to be better verified by the people who are actually going to use it. 

One of the ideas that came out of the Hotel of Tomorrow was to allow guests to use their phones to check how busy any part of the property was at any given time, be that how long they would have to wait for a table at the restaurant, or if there was a treadmill available in the gym. This is something with experiential value that could be achieved with anonymity. 

What obstacles will hospitality designers face in the next decade, and what innovations will be required to address them?

There are huge advances in new material technologies that will require integration and standardization within hotels. Another will be changing service models. The current model is built around the 24-hour cycle, but as a guest you often end up paying for amenities you might not use, even if maintaining them is still built into the rate. We don’t want to create a concept where your bill is constantly rising, but a reorientation of the consumption model – what we pay for, and how we pay for the things that mean the most to us – is going to create all kinds of design and architectural challenges. The emergence of new methods of fabrication, modular construction, steel manufacturing and 3D printing is all going to lead to brand new solutions. 

Do you think these kinds of developments will be limited to the luxury sector?

A lot of new innovations start at the luxury level because it’s expensive to integrate those new technologies and amenities elsewhere. But the adoption curve is shrinking, and we’re going to see some of these features brought into affordable products. When this happens, it will create a whole new question in how we define luxury: If that same service is on demand in an affordable hotel, can it still be considered luxurious? At that point, what makes a luxury experience worth the cost difference? You can say it’s service, quality of fit and finish, or the amount of space – but as more and more service delivery is automated, and more of these new materials are available at an affordable rate, it’s going to raise a very interesting set of questions.

What other insights emerged from the Hotel of Tomorrow project? 

One that generated a lot of interest was the XYZ bed, and the idea of sleep optimization. We’re seeing devices that can read pulse levels, and beds that can automatically adjust when you roll over, so technology is gradually finding its way into the sleep experience. During the pandemic, people’s understanding of their own sleeping patterns became more acute, and we’ve been now approached to make the first prototype of this bed, so this is something that will find its way into our lives in the not-so-distant future. Another was the idea of bringing the outside in and biophilic design, be that via air filtration, surround sounds and screens with natural projections or controlled LED lighting that simulates daylight conditions. These design innovations mean everything has to be designed to work outside as well as it does inside, bringing the calm of these environments into other spaces.