When we’re trying to predict the future, we often imagine something that’s radically different. But the most important part of hospitality won’t change.David Sax
David Sax is the author of The Future is Analog, and he and I spoke recently about what his research on the future could mean for hospitality. Below are selected excerpts from our conversation.
A counter-intuitive observation
“Back in 2006, I first noticed the growth in non-digital goods and ideas that everybody had consigned to death. All of a sudden people were buying records and film cameras and paper journals.
“I wanted to see why that was, so I spent time researching this and published The Revenge of Analog in 2016. Since then, this trend has continued even though people dismissed it as a fad.”
The pandemic showed us what “the future” could look like
“When the Covid pandemic arrived, all of a sudden many people had to immerse themselves in digital everything in order to survive within the confines of their own homes for months or more at a time.
“That made us confront the benefits but also the limits of technology. It forced us to assess the values of analog spaces and interpersonal interactions that used to be the default way we lived our lives.”
What we get wrong about predicting the future
“When we’re trying to predict the future, we often try to imagine something that’s radically different from what we already have.
“We assume because of pop culture and sci-fi that the future will look radically different. That we’re all going to be wearing silver jumpsuits and traveling in flying cars. We seem to forget that a lot was supposed to change by now, but our lives are fundamentally the same.
“A hotel now versus 100 years ago are fundamentally the same thing. There are certain aspects that technology has changed, but a hotel is a place where you get to sleep, and 95% of it is no different than if you went to a hotel in the 19th century.
“When we try to predict the future we focus on technology or gadgets or things we can build because those are the easiest things to reimagine. But the most important part of anything in hospitality is the human interactions.”
More human is becoming more desirable
“Technology does change some of the ways we interact. It gives us more ways to interact. We can email places or call them or text or chat with them on social media. But when you get down to the fundamental core of hospitality, the value is the human interaction – with the exception of very transactional stuff.
“The more human, the higher the value. It’s the lowest-margin businesses like pod hotels or budget airlines that are the most automated and the least human of hospitality experiences.
“What we want from hospitality is a feeling of being welcomed by someone who knows our needs as humans. That isn’t going to change. Technology doesn’t take that desire away. In fact, it elevates it.”
When you get that analog interaction in a world that’s increasingly digitally mediated, you feel better.
Empathy is the first ingredient of hospitality
“The first ingredient of hospitality is empathy, and that’s not something that you can transfer digitally.
“Empathy is not something that you can code into an AI chatbot. It’s not something that you can put on a website. Empathy is a person-to-person interaction. It happens at its fullest and in its highest resolution between people in the same space.
“When you go to a hotel, you might be coming off a long flight, you might have been delayed, there might have been bad weather. Maybe you’re traveling for work or with your family or young children. You’re going to be stressed and you’re going to be tired. Empathy anticipates all of that.”
“The future of hospitality looks a lot like the past”
“We know what a comfortable hotel room looks and feels like. We know what a great meal at a restaurant tastes and feels like. Design might change, tastes might change, colors might change, and flavors might change. Technology might change, but other than a reliable wifi connection and maybe the ability to have Netflix on the TV that syncs with your account and enough up-to-date charging ports next to your bed, the fundamental difference is not that new.
“I think where people get it wrong is thinking everything needs to look like a Tesla. That every part of hospitality needs to be fully automated.
“When it comes to supply chain management, when it comes to medical technology, we want the latest and greatest. But in hospitality what do we want? We want comfort. We want a certain level of quiet and sophistication.”
Preparing for innovation
If the future of hospitality looks a lot like the past, then how do we prepare for innovation? How can we come up with creative, fresh ways to surprise and delight our guests?
David suggests a number of things.
Build for humans
“I think one is to keep in mind that you are building for humans. You’re not building for robots.”
This sounds obvious, but is foundational to building environments and experiences that offer guest-centered hospitality.
“Humans have bodies, and I think we often forget this,” David said. “We forget and act as if humans are just virtual avatars or numbers on a spreadsheet.”
“Interior designers and industrial designers are very good at building with people’s bodies in mind. The more you can engage people and their different senses, the better.”
Ask: just because we can, should we?
“Use your own judgment, especially during the pandemic as a human, to ask just because a robot can make a hamburger or make a cup of coffee, does this serve me? Will this serve our customers and employees in a way that actually makes them feel better and more connected?”
Remove barriers to connection
“Regardless of the price point, hospitality providers should focus on removing barriers between people to make them feel more connected.
“When someone feels that connection to the person opening the door at the hotel, to the person making their morning coffee, to the person who might be assembling their hamburger through a smile, a chat, and some sort of empathic connection, they’re going to build a positive association.
“They’ll come back and they’ll tell their friends about it.”
Apply technology to transactions
“There are certain areas where new technology makes hospitality better. The ability to click a link and enter credit card information is a very good thing. I want these things to be done as quickly and seamlessly as possible. I don’t want to fill out forms by hand or give my credit card number over the phone. Technology should be used here and save my information to save me time.”
Double down on humanity
This starts with working to become better conversationalists.
“There is training that people can do on how to talk with and engage guests in a natural and genuine way. You don’t want a forced mandate of conversation, but rather to forge real, meaningful connections.
“How can we teach people to engage with others as fellow humans? How can do we empower everyone from the person who’s cleaning the rooms or clearing the dishes to the managers and owners to care about the guests and engage with them in a way that’s true to their unique strengths and personality?
“Double down on these fundamentals because those are not only going away. They’re only going to become more important and valuable because of the new technologies that’ll come around to challenge them.”
Don’t focus on Gen Z
David encourages hospitality providers not to focus on what Gen Z (or any generation) wants because they are not a monolith.
“Gen Z is being blamed for all our ills at the current moment because someone sees a teenager on Snapchat and thinks that’s all they want out of the world.
“Every single person is a human being. They all want to feel welcome. They all want to feel cared for. They want to feel as though they have a place in the world and their place is valued.
“There’s a reason why book sales and record sales and all of these analog things are being driven by people who are in their twenties and their teens and even younger. They have as much of a desire for a real connection as anyone else. In fact, they don’t take it for granted because they’ve grown up with technology and it’s always been there.
“An entire generation of people is not one mass. They’re human beings and they’re all going to have different things, which is why many of these hospitality chains are catered to different demographics. We need the Ace Hotels, we need the Marriotts, we need the Motel 6s, we need the Four Seasons. This is why IHG has so many brands.”
Create more community gathering spaces
Hotels have an opportunity to be gathering spaces that enable connections.
“You see this at some of the best hotels, whether they are in a city or in the country. They’re gathering places for people. The more you gather people together, the more opportunity you have for that magic of human connection to happen.
“Hotels have always done this. They have nice rooms, but first and foremost they’ve been a place people gather. That’s how the magic happens. The opportunity for this today is no different today than it was 30, 40, or 200 years ago.”
Other industries have a lot to learn from hospitality about the future
“I think hospitality has a lot more to teach other industries than it has to learn from them,” David told me in closing.
It’s a good reminder to return to the fundamentals of hospitality as we plan for what the future can and should look like for ourselves and for our hotels.
Learn more about David Sax here and check out The Future is Analog.