11 Ways Your Hotel Is Changing (for the Better)

We demand design. We seek Instagrammable moments. We expect memorable restaurants. And hotels are taking notice.

Hotels are changing, and you can probably thank Airbnb. That push to “stay like a local” hasn’t been lost on hotel designers, and certainly not younger travelers, who began their travels in an age where you could choose between a hotel room or renting someone’s home.

The sharing economy has created tension in the hotel space, and hotels are responding by revamping their properties, throwing out the templates and creating bespoke experiences that match that push to present “authenticity, not consistency” according to Andrew Fay, president and COO of Chicago-based hotel design firm The Gettys Group.

Deborah Golding, founder of The Hotel Design Group in Orlando, Florida, and former head of design for the Kessler Collection of hotels, sums it up this way: “People are looking for more of an experience.” For Molly Swyers, chief brand officer at boutique hotel group 21c Museum Hotels, it’s about creating memories and keeping the element of fascination in travel: “We want them to discover things for themselves in our properties; we cater to that element of surprise.”

Here’s what to expect when you travel next: 

#1) The check-in experience is changing, and everything is automating.

Today, at the most technology-forward properties, it’s all about self-service. You can check in with your phone, perhaps even call up a robot butler to deliver an extra shampoo bottle, or even use a robot bag-check to store your luggage. That automation push is changing the lobby check-in area. Forget the monumental wall of hotel front staff behind computers, those same people are just as likely to walk up to you and check you in with an iPad—that is, if you don’t check yourself in at a kiosk. Instead, hoteliers are reinventing those spaces with a lifestyle twist. At a new property Golding is working on in Charleston, the front desk is going to look like a big table, not like a bunch of computer stations. “They’ll be checking in on tablet or laptop, or via phone. It even has a small bar behind it with refreshments and cocktails for guests.”

21c Museum Hotels Lexington

#2) Luxury is everywhere, even at hotels that aren’t the luxury brands.

There’s one thing we consistently heard: Authenticity is the new measurement of luxury. Even in mid-price properties, expect to find luxurious fabrics and custom finishes dotted here and there, even if the property doesn’t have a tuxedoed greeter or an on-call butler. “We are designing for senses; designing for touch and smell, working with sound and light in these places,” Fay said. For a recent project in Texas, his firm worked to create a custom potpourri for the hotel, with the potpourri using flowers native to that region.

Preserved mosaics in The Joule hotel Dallas

#3) The hotel is an art gallery.

Forget the stock art that hotels once cheaply filled rooms, lobbies and elevator bays. Today, hotels are filling their rooms with artwork, sculptures and even interactive pieces. It’s no better illustrated than with the rise of 21c Museum Hotels. Head to one of this company’s properties and you’ll feel like you’re staying the night in a cross between MoMA and an artists’ studio. The company’s newest hotel in Oklahoma City features some 215 custom pieces of art displayed in the public spaces, and the contemporary art installations at the group's properties change every 6-9 months. 21c’s Swyers describes it this way: “It truly does feel like you’re stepping into an art museum that happens to have rooms upstairs.”

Art gallery at 21c Museum Hotel Durham

#4) Hotels are embracing the Instagrammable moment.

Travelers are documenting their journeys with status updates and Instagram posts, and hotels are delivering the art and backgrounds just made for these moments, whether that’s a massive golden couch (group selfie, please!) or bespoke art tucked in everywhere. Fay said his company designs properties with those moments in mind. Back at 21c Museum Hotels, the entire space seems to cater to that experience, especially with bold permanent art installations which are designed into the hotel from the beginning, often with the artist having to work hand-in-hand with the curators, architects and engineers.

Renaissance Blackstone hotel in Chicago

#5) Cookie-cutter limited service hotels are even getting into design.

Limited service hotels are what you typically picture as mid-market chain type hotels. You could stay in one in the Chicago suburbs, and that brand hotel would look the same in the Bay Area. Today, those limited-service hotels are no longer satisfied to be cookie-cutter properties. “Limited-service hotels are finding people want more,” said Golding. “It’s not just about heads in bed in beds. People are much more in tune with arts and culture and expecting more from their stays. They expect more from a design standpoint and [they expect] an experiential staycation.”

Hard Rock Punta Cana hotel room

#6) Say goodbye to the big in-room desk.

Both Golding and Fay said they’re seeing less use of the in-room executive desk that takes up precious real estate. Instead travelers are taking their laptops and working in public spaces, not in their rooms. Fay said the “battleship desk” and its accompanying big, executive desk chair are “completely anathema to what is desired” by travelers. Golding says the rise of tablets and smartphones means there is “no need for a big desk slammed up against the wall.” Instead, you're finding more space dedicated to pampering: Think of it like a miniature spa in your room. Along with the steady disappearance of the executive desk, say goodbye to the old TV armoire. Newer, wider flat screen TVs don’t them. Golding added that she’s seeing some projects that remove the wooden clothes armoire or doors from closets to present a more open, welcoming and less-compartmentalized room. “When you’re in your hotel for just two nights, you don’t need that,” said Golding.

"Asleep in the Cyclone" hotel room at 21c Museum Hotels property in Louisville

#7) The urban experience is coming to you.

Yes, we know you'd love to spend the day exploring all the hip urban districts, but when that can't happen, hotels are figuring out ways to bring the urban outdoors to you. Sometimes that is the rooftop pool that overlooks the city, but sometimes it's in the style of graffiti and street art.

Public lobby spaces blends urban elements at Renaissance Blackstone hotel in Chicago

#8) More technology (everywhere).

Hotel technology once meant a wireless router on every floor or an Ethernet cable at your room’s desk. That’s changing. Technology is evolving and hotels are chasing the curve, whether that’s connecting your iPad to your TV or building high-tech rooms that work with your personal devices. “The technology platforms are enabling a seamless integration of guests’ personal devices into the environment,” said Fay. “They want to watch their own Netflix.” Oh, and the TVs are getting bigger, and Bluetooth is connecting your room, displacing the alarm clock stereo that also had an iPod plug.

RL Hotel lobby in Baltimore, Maryland

#9) Say goodbye to the massive lobby.

Acres of gleaming marble? Ceilings that extend to the sky? Those vestiges of hotel design that earmarked luxury properties 20 years ago are giving way to customized spaces. Instead, Fay and Golding said that developers, architects and designers are making use of that space with lobby and bar areas. “That [grand lobby] still works in Vegas and Macau, but [other] developers are wanting to get their square footage down. The days of those humongous lobbies for that first impression are disappearing.” Even in prestigious hotels sought after by the business travel crowd, you're likely to see smaller lobbies with more of a focus on gathering spaces for quick meetings.

Lobby workspace in Renaissance Chicago hotel

#10) The lobby is becoming your community workspace and hangout area.

The funny thing about those grand lobbies? They really didn’t get much use. Today, Fay says he’s often tasked with building furniture environments that are highly flexible. “We move things around to create workspaces [in the lobbies]. The traveler may want to be alone, but not lonely. They are working solo in lobby, but are feeling the contact, even if they have headphones on.” Fay added: “We’re building a lot more technology areas [communal and public workstations with computer plugs, USB  ports] whether that’s in the lounge, bar or the lobby.”

Andell Inn lobby

#11) The hotel bar or restaurant is actually a thing.

“In the 1980s, you wouldn’t think, ‘let’s go that hotel for dinner,’” said Fay. But that’s changing. “Hotel companies are delivering really interesting food and beverage experiences” with unique, local menu offerings that speak to the belief that “authenticity trumps consistency.” With public spaces that can be used even by non-guests and bars and restaurants that are worth reviewing, Fay says hotels are “getting a lot more local customers, not just the regular guests.”

Restaurant at The Joule

Geoff Kohl
About the author

Geoff Kohl previously served as the chief travel editor for Where and Read Geoff's full bio