As travel, leisure and working trends change in the post-COVID era, hotels are forced to get smarter to hook a new kind of customer. Post-95ers are young, independent and they know what they want.
BY ZHENG Cuiying & SHEN Jiaojiao & ZHAO Yumeng
Since COVID-19 struck, people are traveling a lot less for business and pleasure. Hotel occupancy rates have fallen off a cliff. The old business models no longer serve, nor do the old customers. A new era calls for a new outlook.
Midnight snacks and midnight swims have replaced breakfast and afternoons by the pool. The new customers have often not come far, and may only stay for a couple of nights. They are young, and they are there to have fun. Fun, in many cases, means playing games.
Hotels specializing in eSports now number over 9,000, up from less than fifty, two years ago. One chain, iHOTEL has opened 32 outlets since 2018, with close to 50 percent of guests under 25.
“Players can knock themselves out at an eSports hotel over a weekend for less than 1,000 yuan (US$150). At a KTV or nightclub, they can easily spend two or three times that much. They sleep when they like, eat when they like, and play games when they like, with no nagging parents or partners spoiling the thrill,” said YUAN Yang, founder of iHOTEL.
As this so-called Generation Z - born after 1995 - grew, the internet was simply part of everyday life. They have been glued to smartphones. How they perceive a stay in a hotel and what they want from their stay are very different from the needs of their predecessors.
GenZ numbers about 150 million in China, and that’s a lot of buying power. Get their fickle attention is an essential precursor to getting their cash. The luxury hotel business is quite stable, but at the middle or lower end, there is fierce competition. GenZ have both money to spend and quite simple demands to be met.
ZHANG Qi is expected to be quite sociable in the job she began last year, but considers herself an introvert. “I have no wish to talk to strangers. Self-check-in and check-out, along with automated room service suits me fine.”
In many hotels, the whole process from even booking to check out is depersonalized, including room-service robots. Hotel robot producers Yunji Technology have trebled their clientele in the past year. Technology is a must for serving GenZ, and free Internet is nowhere near enough.
Alibaba’s AI-driven FlyZoo Hotels require a quarter of average hotels’ employees. Guests can check in, take the elevator, and enter the room by scanning their faces. They can control the lighting, TV, and music with TmallGenie, and get water and takeout by a robot.
“What I know about these kids is that they don’t like to depend on other people if they can avoid it,” said HEN Gang, founder of Tech ARK, an intelligent hotel company. Of the 3,000 hotels that the company has served, a third have applied to go fully smart. More than half have adopted offline voice control systems.
“Five years ago, when mid-range hotels came to the fore, they didn’t understand intelligence, but as competition is now raging, it’s smart to be smart,” said Chen.
However, the post-95ers demand intelligent service as a matter of course and are unwilling to pay extra for it. Something like a smart speaker is an everyday item to them and no reason to pay a higher bill. And they don’t like gimmicks.
“Hotel intelligence should go side-by-side with digitalization, with the user data providing personalized services, like minibar contents, room temperature and style of bedding,” Chen said. The hotel should even know if the guest sleeps with the light on or off.
“Unique designs are a magnet for me,” said Ma Yingying, born in 1998, and a student at Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne. Ma recalled a bathroom-themed boutique hotel she visited in Portugal. The staff wore bathrobes or pajamas. The reception was two bathtubs and a giant waterfall. Ma once traveled to Mt. Fuji in Japan, in order to have a hot spring in her room. Individuality plays a huge part in the choice.
“Diversification, personalization, and subdivision are the directions the industry is taking,” said Yuan.
The rise of eSports hotels, this year’s smash hit, has been fueled by the pandemic. In Chengdu, there were 10 in March, now there are over 200. Sanya itself is home to 12 eSports hotels, up from zero.
“Guests are eSports players and people on short business trips. They come for the super-fast internet.”
Other hotel operators are making some spectacular claims. Even Hotels, part of the InterContinental Group, has yoga mats and exercise balls in rooms. Marriott International plans to bring Moxy to China, made for Millennials. This born-in-Milan brand encompasses bedrooms packed with technology and bright color schemes.
Just before the National Day holiday, ZHotel opened for business in Beijing’s 798 art zone and has been fully booked since. Unlike traditional hotels, ZHotel has a public community zone connected with a restaurant, café, and bar with live arts and crafts activities going on all the time.
Market researcher Mend Xianglin believes GenZ is a mass of contradictions: “They are open and diverse, with high expectations. They pay great attention to the environment and their community, but live, and spend their leisure time, in solitude.”
“Society is more homogenous now, with young people coming from a wide variety of backgrounds. Turbulent world politics and economics have changed their sense of meaning. They make a lot of virtual social contact and spend much less time together in person. All young people’s brands need to recognize this new mix of isolation and sociability,” he added.
And their preferences are widely spread, equally enthusiastic about high-star hotels, homestays, or youth hostels. Previous generations resolutely preferred hotels. They are fascinated by the “real” life experience gained in homestays and youth hostels. A tendency that hotels have not missed.
Ma loves a hotel that she stayed in Montreal with a bar, café and library in the lobby. In the evening, she can hang out at the library and meet locals. A Dutch hotel throws parties at night and invites local people for a drink and a chat.
Hotels in China are catching on. ZHotels have basketball courts, immersive theaters, music events, and, of course, eSports. Manxin Hotels suggest that “the hotel is the destination” where the foyer is an open social platform with themed activities and a bistro with entertainment every night.
“The post-95ers not only demand a high level of material satisfaction but want to enjoy themselves. Beautiful surroundings and environmental protection are important to them in leisure and entertainment,” said Yuan.
GenZ makes up a fifth of China’s online population. They unlock their mobile phones and an average of 72.6 times a day and stare at their screens for five and a half hours, mostly sharing whatever experiences the rest of the day allows them.
A hotel can win over the post-95ers, simply by having a range of vending machines at the reception desk, or by extending breakfast time to 12 o’clock. Ma Yingying likes thoughtful service and attention to detail. Like at a hotel near the GRE test center in Ningbo, provides a doll for each guest bearing the greeting: 逢考必过 (good luck with your exam).
GenZ is balanced consumers, cost, and health-conscious. They want refrigerators and spacious desks. They expect convenient parking and laundry where they can wash their own clothes. Obsessed with both travel and work, they want to be able to do both at the same time. They care about the surroundings of the hotel, cost-effectiveness, wireless speeds, sound insulation, and most importantly, cleanliness.
“I don’t think the hotel industry is under any threat. We just need to be focused on giving our guests what we want. The post-95ers follow fashion, have their own viewpoints, and pursue a different lifestyle from those who came before. Some of them even stay in a hotel just to take photos of it. They do hotels’ publicity for them,” said Jin Tao, general manager of the Pullman Hotel in Jing’an District, Shanghai. “Hotels need only think about how to highlight their sales points to that demographic, and the guests will put it all online for them.”