Guests in a hotel lobby

"It's About Adapting": How the Hospitality Industry Has Changed for Good

Things will never return to "normal"—but that's not so bad

We’re dedicating our December features to examining the biggest travel trends of 2021. Read on for our collection of stories that take a look at the shifts driving the future of travel, including the rise of new budget airlines, major overhauls of airline loyalty programs, the growing popularity of “adult study abroad” programs, and a look ahead at the top travel and outdoor gear trends of 2022. 

During most of 2020 and into 2021, travelers left behind the realm of traditional hotels and turned to alternative accommodations like Airbnb or Vacasa for security and privacy. Now, although many elements of travel remain in flux, the hotel industry is preparing for its big comeback. Some may say that comeback has already begun: as 2022 approaches, many properties are recording pre-pandemic levels of bookings driven by a return of leisure travelers and international visitors.

But travelers returning to hotels will have to adjust more than just their comfort levels at their next check-in. Considering the industry developments that have materialized in the last year and a half alone, many aspects of the hotel experience may have seen permanent change.

"The way people will connect and travel going forward is not about a return to 'normal,'" said Julius Robinson, chief sales and marketing officer at Marriott International. "It's about adapting ... based on new concepts and trends that have emerged."

Those pandemic-era trends don't appear to be going away anytime soon.

When hotels first started to reopen for business, contactless service quickly became standard across the industry. Hotel brands, hesitantly dipping their toes into something new but still wanting to stay competitive, found new ways to one-up each other, with Dream Hollywood in Los Angeles even playfully "hiring" Alfred the Robot butler for room deliveries.

The way people will connect and travel going forward is not about a return to 'normal.' It’s about adapting.

Travelers can expect to see these contactless and low-contact services continue to be prioritized during their stay, said Kevin Osterhaus, president of Graduate Hotels. He notes that the services "ultimately encourage digital interaction through QR codes, texting with our front desk, and the Graduate app.”

Graduate Hotels is just one of many brands that pivoted to a heavy reliance on their app over the past year and a half. Popularity for hospitality apps has soared, with check-in and on-site requests offered contactless as necessary in hotels worldwide. “Our mobile app allows guests to check-in remotely, chat with the hotel to have special requests fulfilled, use their phone as their room key ... and even order food with mobile dining,” Robinson said of the Marriott Hotels app.

But requesting extra towels on an app doesn’t necessarily mean people want to be less social. "In 2022, I predict travelers will be more amenable to coming down to the lobby bar for a cocktail, as opposed to pre-pandemic years, to socialize in a convivial environment,” said Sam Jagger, general manager of Santa Monica's Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, who foresees travelers welcoming the social aspects of hotel public spaces after long months of prioritizing solitude. "Bustling bar experiences ... offer a greater sense of community and intimacy that many are in search of."

When the Fairmont removed in-room minibars during the pandemic, Jagger said guest feedback convinced management to remove them for good. Why? The guests shared their preference for in-person interaction over drinking from a minibar alone in their room.

The desire to get out, get active, and spend time in public spaces rings true for a variety of different travelers. Those who have permanently transitioned to working from home but may want to hit a pool or spa to relax and revitalize can continue to take advantage of day passes, which the industry began to prioritize as domestic vacations close to home became more popular. Companies like ResortPass have led the charge, operating in partnership with hotels to offer visitors the chance to explore without spending the night.

And with "bleisure" travelers continuing to extend trips while taking their work with them, services catering to remote workers are here to stay. Hilton will continue to offer their Confirmed Connecting Rooms by Hilton service as well as WorkSpaces by Hilton, while smaller boutique hotels like downtown LA’s Hotel Figueroa are continuing to host “Werk Perk” programs for those who grew tired of the four walls of their apartments.

Now more than ever, the hospitality industry is aiming to meet travelers where they're at, whether that means increasing outdoor spaces, crafting bespoke accommodations for pets, or revamping dining experiences. "The pandemic may have changed travel, but even more important is recognizing that the pandemic changed people," said Amy Martin Ziegenfuss, senior vice president of global brand marketing at Hilton. "It changed the way people live day-to-day, their priorities, and their passion points."

While the future is always uncertain, one thing is sure: these pandemic changes are here to stay.