January 24, 2014 | Updated: January 25, 2014 9:19pm
Between work and vacation travel, Rusty Ellett says he spent about three months on the road in 2013 and two months the year before. He recalls this as a series confined spaces: rental cars, airplane cabins, the back seats of taxicabs.
"These cramped aspects of traveling are all unavoidable except for the hotel experience," says Ellett, a surveyor with the American Bureau of Shipping who lives in Houston.
So at 25, Ellett already has definite preferences when it comes to accommodations. One of the most essential, he says, is an open, comfortable lobby where he can sit down and scroll through text messages, check social media and stretch out after a long day of traveling or working.
"These places increase the odds of seeing a familiar face," he says, "or to interact with a newly found friend, even if that friend is the chatty nightly bartender or a polite front-desk attendant."
The sensibilities of Ellett and other so-called millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, are very much on the minds of architects for the hospitality industry. WiFi, preferably free, is critical to this generation. Ellett appreciates USB outlets on bedside lamps and radios with speakers to connect, charge or play music on iPhones or iPods.
These younger travelers also are looking for hotels that adhere to eco-friendly business practices while offering distinctive experiences, from locally produced art on the walls to trendy food and higher quality beer on the menus.
"The baby boomers are more accepting of the traditional hotel model," Nancy Nodler, a principal in charge of hospitality for the Gensler architecture firm's Houston office, said last week during a roundtable discussion on design trends for the future.
"Millennials are looking for a more lifestyle, more boutique experience. The large-brand hotels are tagging on to what the boutiques are doing. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach anymore."
And, yes, that means making lobbies more than a place to wait.
In Houston, for example, the Gensler-designed Hotel Sorella opened in 2010 with an open lobby design and a "multipurpose" lounge.
Ana Mae and Aaron Holmes of Houston travel often in the U.S. and abroad, and they search hotel websites and read customer reviews on consumer sites. Ana Mae, 31, said they almost always choose boutique hotels over what she considers cookie-cutter brands.
She reiterated that technology also is key. Hotels must offer free WiFi, she said, with no limit to how many devices can be connected at one time.
"Some say tech-savvy, I think we are more tech-dependent," she said.
Designs for new hotels or renovations, both in Houston and nationwide, increasingly are aimed at tech-savvy, socially conscious millennials like Ellett and the Holmeses. Those that fail to impress, be warned. This generation is quick to blast a negative review on Yelp orTripAdvisor.com.
Baby boomers, generally considered those born between 1946 and 1964, still have money to spend and retirement years to enjoy; collectively, they account for 60 percent of the nation's wealth and 40 percent of its spending.
Millennials account for only 13 percent of business travel booking, according to an industry study by Deloitte Hospitality.
Yet Gensler has several hotel projects in the works in Houston with a focus on the needs of the new traveler demographics. These projects incorporate local culture, multipurpose social areas, updated technology and socially conscious practices, Nodler said.
Some slated to open in the next two years include the Hyatt Regency on Sage, The Woodlands Westin Waterway Way, the JW Marriott Downtown and the Rotary Hotel International.
They open at a time when Houston's hotel market is thriving.
Houston-based hotel consultant Randy McCaslin said growth in the oil and gas industry and at the Texas Medical Center has pushed Houston's hotel industry to pre-recession levels. In 2009, occupancy dipped to 55.3 percent, but by the end of last year it reached 68 percent.
That growth is expected to continue for the next several years, particularly in downtown, the Galleria area, the Energy Corridor and The Woodlands area.
"What we will see is the next wave of hotels coming into the market," he said. "The new supply will come in at a time the market is very strong."
When renovating and building, hotels should design with the younger demographic in mind or risk being left behind in five to 10 years, said Bob Rauch, a San Diego-based hotel operator who manages properties around North America.
"In the development of new hotels, there is clearly a focus on millennials," he said.
Rauch said the baby boomers' wants and needs have dominated the hotel industry for 30 years, but the millennials are quickly becoming more important. In addition to contemporary social spaces in the lobby, he said, trendy bistro-style restaurants with wines and brewpub-quality beers and a tapas menu also appeal to this set.
He said the majority of airlines, hotels and travel companies will stand to benefit from this sector as they enter into their peak earning, spending and travel years.
"Internet bloggers, culture buffs, LGBT and multigenerational travelers all looking for a unique, novel experience will command change within the market," Rauch said.