Luxury will reach new extremes, and hoteliers shouldn’t run hotels, say #FrameLive panellists

Of all the sectors to be impacted by the current pandemic, few are so existentially threatened as travel and hospitality. Safety measures such as social distancing and sheltering-in-place are entirely alien to this space, for which conviviality and community are core precepts. As a result, the United Nations World Travel Organisation is now forecasting a decline of up to 78 per cent in tourist arrivals in 2020, with a knock-on loss of €1.1 trillion in export revenue. Few, however, can conceive of a world in which a weekend away, a celebratory meal out, and even a foreign holiday, are no longer possible. To that end Frame’s director Robert Thiemann brought together a panel of designers who are well-versed in helping hospitality brands imagine what’s next to ask what sort of future the industry might have, and how we can get there.

Alon Baranowitz and Irene Kronenberg, founder of Baranowitz + Kronenberg, started by invoking Marco Ferreri’s film La Grande Boofe, which tells the story of three men who gorge themselves to death. The duo believe that this is an apt metaphor for how we behaved pre-pandemic – acting as if we’d forgotten any sense of having shared values. ‘Now it is time to recalculate travel,’ argued Baranowitz, ‘we’ve been treating ourselves, our communities, and our planet poorly and we need to stop and reflect.’ 

Highlighting just how dramatic an effect such a recalculation could have, Caroline Cundall, founder House of Caro, referenced an image of India Gate in New Delhi which showed the reduction in air pollution over the last few months. ‘There are places in northern India where they can now see the Himalayas for the first time in a generation,’ she said. For Cundall this proves how quickly we can improve the state of the planet if we take decisive action.

Away Spa in Amsterdam's W Hotel, by Baranowitz + Kronenberg. Read more here. Photos: Lutz Vorderwuelbecke

Thiemann agreed that the pandemic acts as an effective reset button for travel and hospitality brands, but questioned how they were they going to survive long enough to implement such changes.

Rob Wagemans, founder of Concrete Architectural Associates, relayed that many of his clients are starting to think about how to cater to local communities rather than the overseas visitor: ‘These businesses will become much more embedded in their immediate context – the consideration of how hotels can serve locals, beyond food and drink, will change hospitality going forward.’ Baranowitz agreed that ‘we need to go beyond hospitality’. He argued that hotels needed to start thinking of themselves as part of an ‘ecosystem that works with the community’ suggesting that ‘any space in a hotel could become a space for the city.’

On a practical note, Cundall thinks venues need to think carefully about signalling when implementing safety measures. She pointed to the example of a Bangkok restaurant that had diverged from the austere warning tape and plexiglass partitions of some competitors and instead used toy pandas to indicate where people shouldn’t sit. She also highlighted how smart operators are going beyond merely being more transparent about hygiene protocols, by inventing a kind of ‘visual theatre’ of cleaning that both reassures and engages guests.

Concerned that the industry was being too reactive in its response to the crisis, Wagemans advocates for a change in mindset. ‘I’m worried about how often people choose fear as their guiding principal. We need to stop focusing on what people cannot do, as so many guidelines now insist, and rather look for positive solutions.’ Part of this, he explained, is accepting that we now have to take on a greater level of risk when we travel – but that that should fundamentally change the ‘why’ of hospitality, rather than just the ‘how’.

All the panellists agreed that segmentation will look drastically different post-crisis. For Cundall, the necessary reduction in certain luxury touchpoints used to dress rooms, such as accessories and soft furnishings, means that the high and mid-scale offers ‘are going to start blending more as a concept.’ She said for something to be truly considered luxury in the future, it’s going to have to far exceed what we’re used to today in terms of quality. Wagemans and Irene Kronenberg both agreed on this point about luxury extremism, but also feel that, rather than evolving, the middle market will now disappear entirely, leaving only a two-tier system of affordable brands and the ultra-elite. ‘We’ve seen that happening in fashion and in the workplace, and now it’s time for hospitality to get rid of the middle of the road. This is the end of the home-away-from-home hotel where you get brown carpet in the bathroom,’ said Wagemans. Kronenberg pointed to what she saw as the ‘artificial democratization of lifestyle hotels’ over the last few years, which she suggested won’t be able to survive in the new normal’s harsher market conditions.

The discussion rounded off with an audience questions about how hospitality businesses might diversify their offer. This sparked a conversation about how hoteliers need to wake up to the opportunity their properties can present, if they’re viewed as platforms for a various uses beyond resting and dining. ‘They don’t  know what they’ve got in their hands,’ said Wagemans, pointing to Dutch brand Zoku – who are now allowing customers to rent rooms as private workspaces – as one of the few innovators who has meaningfully stretched its reach.

Baranowitz and Kronenberg agreed, but think it will require outside impetus to make such a shift work, with experts from alternative backgrounds such as retail, art and theatre better placed to act as ‘curators’ within these more hybrid business models. ‘Hoteliers will always be hoteliers, perhaps that’s why they shouldn’t now run hotels,’ said Baranowitz. ‘We should bring people from different industries in, and then we’ll really see what hotels can really do.'

Read more #FrameLive coverage here.

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