Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Deskless Hotel Rooms? San Francisco's Hotel Nikko Remains Committed to this Unpopular Design Strategy

Having lived in Memphis, Tennessee for some time, one of the business lessons that you hear a lot about is the story of Kemmons Wilson. If you haven't heard the story or aren't familiar with Wilson, he founded Holiday Inn. Here's a little bit of background for you, from the Kemmons Wilson Company site:
The idea of Holiday Inns was born from a frustrated father on a family vacation. In 1951, Dorothy finally persuaded Kemmons to take a break so they packed up the children, all five of them, and head to Washington, D.C. to visit the national landmarks.

By the time they reached their destination, Kemmons had formulated an idea, borne from the discomforts he had encountered as he and his family trekked across the land. Outraged at being charged extra for each child at every roadside lodging where the family stayed, not to mention the cramped, uncomfortable accommodations, Kemmons decided to reinvent the lodging industry. His idea was to build 400 motels across the country, each within a day’s drive of the next. Kemmons measured every nook and cranny of every room where the family stayed.

By the time he returned to Memphis he had the ideal dimensions for efficiency and comfort in a motel room. His formula was so accurate that it remains the standard for many hotel rooms built today.

With the traveling family in mind, he developed other features that would become industry standards:
  •     Standardized room size (12ft x 26ft with bathroom)
  •     Swimming Pool
  •     Free in-room Television
  •     Telephones
  •     Ice Machines
  •     Restaurant
  •     No charge for children under age 12 who stayed with their parents
While it's not listed here, I have to imagine that if Kemmons Wilson were traveling today, one more thing that he would expect in a hotel room would be a desk.

The Hotel Nikko San Francisco Goes Deskless
Last year the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco underwent a significant remodel. It was so substantial, that they actually closed the hotel down for three or four months. As someone who regularly stayed at the Hotel Nikko during events in the city, I was somewhat excited to experience the hotel, post-remodel. I finally got my opportunity to stay there during the Semicon West conference in July of last year. Sadly, I wasn't particularly thrilled with the results of the remodel and I first wrote about it in this post, Design, Remodel, Alienate? The Hotel Nikko in San Francisco. Here's part of what I wrote:
For some reason that is still entirely unclear to me, the people designing the Nikko remodel eliminated the desk from the room. I noticed it immediately, as the first thing that I began to do when I arrived was to begin setting up my workspace -- or at least, that's what I intended to do. At that point, I went back down to the front desk to request a different room, one with a desk. The staff at the front desk were very courteous, but informed me that none of the rooms -- except for the smallest ones -- had desks now. Apparently, it was not an unusual complaint; they told me that they'd heard the issue from others, and that they would share it with management. So off I went back to my deskless hotel room, questioning the design decision, what my colleagues would thing of the deskless room, and whether the Hotel Nikko would continue to be my preferred hotel in San Francisco.
As you can see from this quote, I was baffled by the the removal of the desk. As a design decision, it didn't make any sense to me. It was only as I was preparing to write this post, when I began to question my own experience -- that I've never stayed at a hotel that didn't have a desk -- that I searched (and found) other evidence of this deskless design approach. 

When I searched "hotel rooms without desks." I come across a broader chunk of information about the practice. As it turns out, the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco isn't the first hotel to explore this direction, but they may be clinging to a failed design direction.

The first result, Hotel Industry Trends Include Rooms Without Desks, details several interesting aspects of this trend.

1. Strategy: according to the article, "The shift away from dedicated work spaces is part of a bid to win over millennials, which consultants believe prefer to work in more casual, flexible spaces." In some respects, this really seems like a stupid rationalization to me. If you want to work in your bed, the existence of a desk doesn't prevent that. What's more, if you look at the new credenza at the Hotel Nikko, it's not like they traded desk space for some alternatively useful space.

2. The trend may be bigger than you might think: According to the article published in March, 2016, Marriott had announced in December 2015 that it would start a chainwide redesign that would remove the desks. Klimpton Hotels, the group that owns a number of boutique hotels throughout San Francisco had redesigned their rooms with only sofas and coffee tables, And Hilton's Tru brand had laptop trays instead of desks.

3. The Real Driver may be cost: To quote the post, "Eliminating things such as desks and closets can save tens of thousands of dollars in each room’s construction costs." They also note this example, "Hilton’s Tru will cost just $84,000 per room to build, compared to its Hampton Inn brand, which comes in at $110,000 per room." It makes you wonder how much they'd save if they scrapped the whole indoor plumbing thing.

If you're like me, you read this and you start making a mental note of hotels you'll never stay at. As it turns out, there are a lot of other people like me -- and more to this story. Because by the time that this story was written, the whole deskless design approach already had already generated a pretty significant backlash.

The Backlash Against Deskless Hotel Rooms
In this post (from December 2015), Hotels Tried To Eliminate the Traditional In-Room Desk But Created a Backlash, you can learn more about the backlash to Marriott from their deskless initiative. The piece details some rather extensive backlash on the Flyertak site, including this list of Marriott properties without desks (hotels to avoid).

There's also a section in this piece about Holiday Inn Express, their experiments with deskless rooms, and their decision to drop that experiment. What's interesting is comparing the design experiments done by Marriott versus those done by Holiday Inn Express.

Here's what Marriott did...
As part of its transformation, the company conducted a variety of research efforts across generations, Carroll says, noting that its specific target customer is primarily the business traveler. The research included a full mockup room where consumers could walk through the model room to see the look, feel and functionality of it.
Marriott gleaned information suggesting that customer behavior in the room is much more “untethered,” thanks to things like Wi-Fi and mobile devices.
And here's what Holiday Inn did...
Holiday Inn Express’ research consisted of two model rooms — one with a desk, and one without. As guests walked through the rooms the experiment revealed that there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the room that didn’t have the desk.
What I think is noteworthy in that term "untethered" is an applied value, something being ascribed from the outside to the test subjects. What's more, it's implied that that "untethered" aspect is in some way positive. However, suppose we change the subject of this from hotel room to food and use the same terms. Untethered food might be exciting and an interesting bite, but the opposite of that might be "comfort food", something that seems "anchored" and "homey". Now which sounds like the place that you'd want to make your home-away-from-home?

But Wait, There's More
If all of this history surrounding the controversy over deskless hotel rooms is wearing you down, consider this one last bit from September, 2016 in the Chicago Tribune, The desk is back: Marriott is redesigning hotel rooms. That's right, by September 2016, Marriott had reversed course from it's deskless direction.

I suspect that the online "list" of Marriott hotels that don't desks probably drove the change more than the actual guests complaining about the lack of desks.

The Hotel Nikko San Francisco Remains Committed to Deskless Rooms
Which brings me to the call-to-action portion of this post. After complaining to the front desk staff at the Hotel Nikko about the lack of desks during my first stay last July, then publishing blog posts and tweets addressing the issue, I never received any response -- or recognition of my concerns. I stayed there again in January for another conference, and again raised concerns. Finally, after reaching out on TripAdvisor, I was able to connect with a representative of the Hotel Nikko and share my concerns regarding the lack of desks.

Apparently, after they had some internal discussions, I was informed that they were not planning to add desks to the rooms.

With that, I might have been left to search for an appropriate go-to hotel in San Francisco on my own had I not just learned that other hotel chains in San Francisco may not have desks in their rooms -- particularly if you buy into this deluded logic that it's a better way to reach "millenials". So rather than simply looking on my own, I'm reaching out to the various companies that coordinate hotels for the events that we attend and asking them to provide this information. While I may have no clout -- I'm just a customer after all -- perhaps these companies that manage hotel rooms will have a bit more leverage.

So, if you're involved in events, I urge you to ask the company to work with the hotels that they're contracting with, determine whether there is a desk in the room, and to provide that information to you before you book.

Additionally, I'm hoping to build my own list of deskless hotels in San Francisco. If I do, I'll be happy to share that with you. This deskless issue has really annoyed me. I don't see letting go any time soon.

In closing, while Kemmons Wilson may not have identified the desk as a hotel room requirement when he was founding Holiday Inn, it's nice to know that the team at today's Holiday Inn Express recognize it's importance -- even if it did require them to do some A/B testing to get there.

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