Tourism & hospitality

Hitting new heights

There was a time when the airport hotel was a straightforward concept: a property focused on short stay business guests looking for nothing more than the basics. But over the last few years, a number of operators have sought to draw travellers through selling points beyond mere convenience. What should a 21st century airport hotel look to achieve? Abi Millar asks David Marr, SVP and global head of full service brands at Hilton, CitizenM CMO Robin Chadha, and Yotel CEO Hubert Viriot.  

From the standpoint of the average traveller, there can be few phrases more depressing than ‘airport hotel’. Typically not somewhere you’d stay through choice – but rather a last resort if you have a flight delay or early departure – airport hotels are equipped for travellers who are looking to be somewhere else.

Perhaps relatedly, many hotels in this segment are utilitarian at best. Offering nothing more than the basics, with uninspiring design and amenities, they have historically been more about convenience than creativity. Think cursory menus, uncomfortable beds and rooms overlooking a car park.

Luckily, this stereotype is starting to seem out of date. With passenger numbers growing all the time, many operators are eyeing the opportunities and attempting to reboot the segment.

As David Marr, SVP and global head of full service brands at Hilton, explains, guests’ expectations are rising.

“For many years, travelers overlooked and underestimated the quality of airport hotels, perceiving them only as a last-ditch option for delayed flights or extended layovers,” he says. “As Hilton continues to introduce airport hotels to some of the world’s top travel hubs, we are seeing that those who were unlikely to stay at an airport hotel a few years back are now excited by the prospect.”

Beyond convenience

With more than 390 airport hotels across the world (the highest of any hotel company), Hilton is inarguably one of the leaders in this space. In 1959, it opened the world’s first airport hotel in San Francisco, followed by the second in New Orleans just two weeks later.

Nearly 60 years on, it boasts a number of award-winning examples. Hilton Frankfurt Airport stands on 92 pillars above the train station, earning its reputation as ‘the tallest lying skyscraper in the world’, while Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is housed in a 43-metre tall atrium with an expansive glass roof.

“Hilton continues to innovate in the hotel category by opening airport hotels that not only serve business travelers with outstanding business and meeting facilities, but also appeal to leisure guests with elevated design and sophisticated amenities,” says Marr.

He adds that we are witnessing the development of ‘airport cities’, in which airports are no longer simply transit hubs but shopping, leisure and business destinations. Hotels play a key role in this transformation.

“Our airport hotels are transforming more and more into sophisticated destinations,” he says. “More modern and design-driven than ever, these hotels now offer resort-style amenities – ranging from upscale dining options to high-end spas and even great art.”

The big question, then, is whether airport hotels are becoming a go-to space in their own right – somewhere travellers might actively choose to book if they have a few nights in a city, rather than somewhere they stay through necessity.

Robin Chadha, chief marketing officer at CitizenM, thinks that depends mostly on location.

“Schiphol’s a good example – you’re ten minutes from the city so there’s no reason why you can’t stay at the airport hotel as a destination and then wander into the city,” he says. “Some other airports are a little more challenging. Take Heathrow for example – it’s quite far out especially with the traffic, so I wouldn’t stay there if I had meetings at London.”

Designed for travellers

With two airport hotels, one at Amsterdam Schiphol and the other at Paris Charles de Gaulle, CitizenM has been established in this space for a decade. Two years ago, its Schiphol hotel underwent a renovation, expanding from 230 to 355 keys and adding meeting rooms. As Chadha explains, the expansion has made no difference to occupancy levels, which stand at around 95% all year round.

“Our airport hotels are made for the traveller who wants the best of class but doesn’t want to spend €500,” he says. “A lot of people are transferring or have an early morning flight, or they’re just working in the airport. They want to have the freedom and efficiencies they’d have at home, within a fun friendly lifestyle environment.”

While the Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle hotels aren’t noticeably different from CitizenM’s other properties (all are targeted at business travelers) they do have a few features designed expressly for airline passengers. For instance, the canteen is open 24 hours a day and offers food options to suit all time zones. If so desired, you can to have a beer for breakfast or a pain au chocolat at midnight.

On top of that, CitizenM’s self check-in and self check-out system – revolutionary when first implemented – allows passengers to continue the frictionless experience they have come to expect at airports.

“I bet 99% of all airport hotels still have a standard check-in desk, which is so strange because with airlines you don’t even go to a check-in kiosk, you just check in on your phone,” says Chadha. “After you’ve done everything you can to go through this journey as quickly as possible, why should you have to wait in line at the airport hotel?”

Unlike Marr, he feels that the airport hotel sector has not evolved as much as one might hope. He cites a recent bad experience at an airport hotel, which he likens to ‘walking into the 1980s’.

“We arrived there and there was a long line to check in, but there was a separate area with a red carpet and ropes for people who’d got the loyalty card of the brand,” he says. “It was a bit dated, the design was uninspiring, and the people who worked there looked like they’d rather be at the beach. This is the reason we started citizenM – the industry has been sleeping for a long time and they’ve lost the most important thing, which is seeing what the guest actually wants.”

A novel experience of luxury

Of course, what the guest wants will differ from hotel to hotel. To take Amsterdam Schiphol as an example, we might well find business executives staying at the Hilton or Sheraton, younger business travellers at the CitizenM, and those with an early morning flight at the Mercure Hotel Schiphol Terminal.

For guests at the YOTELAIR (located past security and passport control), their needs are likely to be even more specific. Since YOTELAIR properties are situated within airport terminals, they make no attempt to emulate city properties. In fact, a YOTELAIR room would barely make sense out of context.

The rooms, called cabins, can be booked for a minimum of four hours (perfect for guests with a layover). With SmartBeds that convert from a couch, monsoon showers and super-fast WiFi, they are notable for making clever use of minimal space, much like an aircraft cabin.

“One of our founders, Simon Woodroffe was on a long haul first class flight and saw how it was possible through clever design to achieve not only a luxury feel in a compact space, but to have everything you need at your fingertips, whether you wanted to work or rest,” says Hubert Viriot, CEO of YOTEL. “The YOTEL team enlisted the help of specialist aircraft cabin designers Priestman Goode to design and build a prototype room in keeping with the airline theme. Our first airport hotels opened in Gatwick and Heathrow in 2007, followed by Amsterdam Schiphol in 2008.”

These properties, then, are less interested in emulating city hotels, and more interested in working creatively within the constraints of an airport. Viriot says they appeal both to business and leisure travelers, and adds that today’s travelers are typically excited to undertake novel experiences.

Currently, the company has two new airport hotels in the works: one at Istanbul New Airport (opening Q4 2018) and one at Singapore Changi Airport (Q2 2019). The Istanbul property will be one of the biggest airport hotels in the world, with 451 rooms and both airside and landside access.

“YOTELAIR’s hospitality offering is still unique in the sense that we are in the terminal and bookable by the hour – there are not many hotels, especially in the markets we operate in, that offer similar experiences,” says Viriot. “Saying that over the past decade, hotels have noticed that what the modern traveller sees as luxury is quite different than what it was 20 years ago. YOTEL was designed to meet these needs from inception.”

Back to basics

As air travel continues to grow, we are sure to see a corresponding growth in the airport hotel segment, with operators going to great lengths to find their niche. However, as Chadha points out, any good airport hotel needs to come from the starting point of the stressed out, time-poor guest.

“The first thing all airport hotels should look at is how can we make this experience stress-free and fluid,” he says. “Airports are already stressful places and everyone has a different story when they arrive – some have been delayed, some have lost their luggage, it’s very rare to have a really perfect journey. Hotels need to ask themselves how they can alleviate any additional stress.”

This article appears in the Autumn 2018 edition of Hotel Management International 

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