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Opinion and Insight

A Hotel for the Ages, 3 years ago

Brand Union's Paul McKittrick on the US hotel industry's need to adapt for the ageing baby boomers

A Hotel for the Ages

“I am Eloise. I am six.” These are words that introduced the world to the little girl who lived at New York’s Plaza Hotel. She would be sixty-five today if she wasn’t a timeless classic. But is the Plaza – or any hotel brand for that matter – ready step up to meet the needs of those who first read her storybooks back in the mid-fifties?

We’ve all been schooled in the statistics – baby boomers, the demographic that needed new suburbs, schools and universities to accommodate them, is ageing in unprecedented numbers. Their growing presence hasn’t gone unnoticed.


Universal design with ageless benefits.

In order to better serve this generation, some companies are beginning to cater to their needs. For example, supermarket chains in Germany have incorporated universal design principles, modifying signage, lighting and shelf-height in their stores to make shopping easier for those getting up there in years.

Car brands are jumping on this trend as well – Ford has designed a ‘third-age’ suit that engineers wear, which enables them to evaluate the ease and functionality of their cars. Toyota has incorporated brighter displays, a reinforced palm rest near the driver-side door and self-parking as practical nods to the changing demographic.

These advances benefit everyone and, equally as important, ostracise no one. The growing boomer population is no doubt a prime target for hotel brands that can understand and adapt to their needs to meet them on their own terms.


A common vernacular in babel of brands.

Thirty some years ago, legendary New York nightclub owners Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell opened Morgans, the ‘first boutique hotel’. It had a contemporary style, sophisticated feel and a chic restaurant that attracted guests and locals in-the-know, setting a standard for a new generation of hotels.

As hoteliers, they had a keen sense of their audience and their brand. Gone were the grandeur and formality that once signalled luxury and service. Take a look at the dark-wooded, muted-toned lobby of a W, the pods in the lobby of a Marriott Courtyard, an XYZ bar in the lobby of an Aloft Hotel or the Fasano in Rio and you can see how influential their sensibility has become.

Boutique, niche or brand extension, the hotel industry is a brand proliferation machine. There’s overlap and nuanced differences, legacy names and hidden parents. All clamour for clientele. Some brands like Armani, Bulgari and Lagerfeld seek the crème de la crème to fill their beds, while large holding companies are carving out new offerings such as Moxy, Andaz, Edition and Even to woo millennials by emphasising technology, fitness, health, design and inviting public spaces. 


Lots of differences but little deference to the 75 million.

No one chain seems to be focusing on the great white whale of an ageing demographic. While they may be again out of the prime business travel market, many boomers have the time, resources and desire to travel. And most likely, thanks to active lifestyles and better healthcare, these 75 million Americans will enjoy years of it.

According to Forbes, boomers spend $157 billion on trips every year. Which hotel brand can greet them on arrival? Which hotel will design rooms and lobbies that have the hallmarks of contemporary style with subtle concessions to the woes of ageing? High bathtubs and low beds, toilets close to the floor, hidden light switches, dark hallways and rooms so sleek that there is no room for a chair can easily prove difficult to people of any generation, but especially to those in their seventh decade and beyond.


No need to shout, they’ll hear you.

Companies in some industries are quietly making the changes that appeal to all and are appreciated by the growing boomer market. Sherwin-Williams has improved the lighting, added seating and served refreshments in many of its paint stores to give customers reprieve. Arm & Hammer has increased the font size on many of its consumer products, while Emerald Nuts has redesigned its packaging to make products easier to hold and open. They don’t draw attention to these changes, but they understand that happy consumers are repeat consumers.

And in truth, that’s what makes these slight changes true innovations. It’s not that they acquiesce to our ageing population, but that they understand the power of creating an experience that can transcend generations. A brand may target an under-30 crowd, but there is little to be lost by incorporating an experience that respects the needs of seniors in quiet understated ways.

At the end of a long day of travel, the ability to shower, sit and relax with ease might just be more appealing than any AARP discount. Certainly, there is an opportunity here for at least one hotel brand to prove they are capable of accommodating great-grandfather Mick Jagger’s generation satisfactorily.

Paul McKittrick is a Creative Director at Brand Union