Up in the Air

Airport hotels aren’t generally recognized for good design. In the past, they’ve been viewed as a you-get-what-you-get last resort. However, today’s guests are demanding innovative, clean, and functional design in all hotels, including ones linked to major travel hubs. “We noticed, as a company, that there had been a democratization of design across many product categories,” says Paige Francis, vice president of global marketing for Aloft. “That was the notion of how Aloft came to be. It’s meant to be style at a steal. Just because you want to pay a mid-market rate doesn’t mean you don’t want good design.”

Starwood’s mid-market Aloft brand has found its share of success in the airport market. The brand currently has 11 airport locations in the United States and has helped to redefine the category for travelers. “Aloft was really born because Starwood saw an opportunity in the mid-segment, mid-category in terms of an opportunity to bring more of an experience and a better option from a design point of view,” Francis says. “Because it broke down the category, it further breaks down the expectation of what a typical hotel at the airport should be.”

In September, Aloft opened a property at San Francisco Airport, and it joins other popular locations including the Aloft Portland Airport Hotel at Cascade Station, Aloft Denver International Airport, and Aloft Chicago O’Hare. The brand places an emphasis on design that creates a social and engaging environment. Lobbies feature a circular, centrally located check-in desk; a branded W Xyz bar; and a connecting outdoor space called the Aloft backyard. These components create flow in the hotels’ public spaces and transform from day to night. All W Xyz bars host local music acts that set out to attract and entertain both guests and locals.

“We know that our travelers don’t just like to stay in their rooms,” says Francis. “They may want to be alone while they do some work or enjoy a drink, but they don’t necessarily want to be lonely. They want to get out of their hotel rooms and come down to the public areas.”


As the lines between business and leisure continue to blur, and as travelers seek out wallet-friendly accommodations, modern-day airport hotels are evolving to keep up with current demands. These hotels are throwing out the staid stereotypes of the past and focusing on positioning their properties as premier lodging destinations. By touting endless convenience, unique programming, and dynamic design, airport hotels are hoping to attract and retain a whole new generation of travelers.

Capitalizing on Convenience
Simon Wodroff was on a British Airways flight when he came up with the concept for Yotel, a small-space, affordable hotel chain with locations at some of Europe’s top airports. Wodroff, a U.K.-based entrepreneur, had been upgraded to the first-class sleeper cabin and was inspired by the compact, functional design of the space. Combining the aesthetics from the in-flight accommodations with a Japanese-inspired sense of simplicity, Wodroff drafted up a concept for a modern hotel chain and partnered with Gerard Greene to turn the idea into a reality.

Jo Berrington, marketing director for Yotel, explains that the company may have been inspired by air travel, but it always hoped to find success in both city center and airport locations. The airport hotels just happened to take off first.

“We built a prototype cabin that was very successful at 100 Percent Design, a design show in London,” she says. “There was a lot of interest from BAA [now Heathrow Airport Holdings], who owned all of the U.K.’s largest airports. They realized that because of the small-space solution, you could effectively put these hotels into spaces that don’t really get used.”

Yotel uses airport lingo to describe their guestrooms (cabins), staff (crew), and on-floor beverage areas (galleys). The cabins range from 75 square feet to 110 square feet but contain all the necessary amenities including separate workspaces, monsoon power shower rooms, and flat-screen televisions. The company has three airport locations in Europe— two in the U.K. at Gatwick and Heathrow and one in Amsterdam at Schiphol—and one center-city location in New York’s Times Square. And while the brand is hoping to grow its city footprint, it is also targeting major U.S. airport hubs in New York, Miami, and San Francisco.

Currently, all of Yotel’s airport locations are located inside terminals—an asset that the company considers a huge advantage. It gives guests a close-by option that doesn’t require shuttles or public transportation and makes it accessible for passengers with longer layovers.

“For the time-poor traveler nowadays, everything has got to be quick,” says Berrington. “People are under cost pressures and time pressures, and having to go outside of the airport to get the bus to go to find an airport hotel is a real bind in terms of time and money.”

Vince Vito, director of sales and marketing at the Grand Hyatt DFW, agrees that an in-terminal position provides a big benefit for booking business. The Grand Hyatt DFW is housed in the Dallas airport’s new international terminal, and Vito explains that the hotel’s easy-to-reach location helps increase meetings bookings. “Our customers are corporate business travelers,” he says. “Over the last couple of years, the trend in meetings has gone to smaller, shorter meetings, and our location lends itself perfectly to that. Everybody is watching costs, and transportation costs are far more controllable when you’re meeting at the airport.”

Hotels in or near terminals also have the opportunity to book double business because many properties make day rates available to travelers who want to relax, catch up on sleep, or use the hotel’s facilities between flights. This creates more turnover, which leads to an increase in revenue. “We do something like a 250 percent occupancy at Heathrow because we’re selling that cabin at least twice in a 24-hour period,” Berrington says. “The more transit traffic you have through the airport, the better it is for us.”

Many of today’s airport hotels focus on catering to crazy schedules and offer quick and easy check-in procedures. Yotel locations allow guests to use self-automated systems to check in at any time and pay by the hour, with a minimum stay of four hours. Other hotels, such as Four Points LAX, offer a 24-hour policy where guests can call ahead and let the hotel know when their flight will be arriving and when they would like a room to be ready. Whether the guest is checking in at 6 a.m. or 11 p.m., that guest is allowed to keep the room for a full 24-hour period.

“The thing about airport hotels is that people are generally in a bad mood when they arrive,” says Phil Baxter, general manager of Four Points LAX. “Travel is really stressful, for a rookie or a pro. The hours, the altitude—all that stuff wears on you. People arrive at airports at all different times, and providing them flexibility is something that is easy for us to do.”

Making it New

“When you really think about the industry in general, the quality of hotels today is infinitely better than it was 20 years ago. Every year, the bar never goes down,” Vito says. “Airport hotels always seemed to be the last ones that upgraded or got in line and modernized. Grand Hyatt DFW was built with a completely different mind-set. Right from the get-go, it was meant to be a luxury hotel.”

In December 2011, DFW International Airport and Hyatt Hotels Corporation completed a $13 million redesign of the hotel’s guestrooms and meeting spaces. The renovation touched on all soft and hard goods in guestrooms and updated technology to include bedside touch panels that control lights, window shades, and air conditioning. The hotel also added 1,300 pieces of new artwork and updated several of its food and beverage offerings. Vito says that hotels not keeping up with the current trends or making necessary renovations will fall behind and fail to attract design-conscious consumers.

Most hoteliers agree that guests today have bigger expectations and want more personalization out of their stays. And if those expectations aren’t met—even while staying at an airport hotel—guests aren’t likely to book another room in the future.

“It’s all about experience,” Baxter says. “Hotel guests have benchmark expectations that are generated from their experiences. You have to hit the basics. You have to give them the room they reserve, provide a quick and efficient check in, and have the room clean and well maintained. Once you get past that, then the fun starts. We want to move that expectation ranking up.”

For Baxter, creating a local experience for his guests was a priority. Four Points LAX, which is often referred to as the “beer hotel,” features a bar called T.H. Brewsters that offers rotating taps of craft beers, many that are locally sourced, and 100 different bottle selections at any given time.

“This is the largest submarket in Southern California,” Baxter says. “The beer programming stemmed from trying to create differentiation. I’m a firm believer that marketing is everything. Our bar and beer program create an identity for the hotel.”

Airport hotels that add local flavor and additional leisure amenities such as restaurants, pools, and spas will capture more customers who are seeking a full travel experience. These additions also provide hotels with an opportunity to grow revenue by creating passes or packages for non-hotel guests who might want to use the property’s facilities, such as the gym or spa, between flights.

“Airports are becoming kind of a destination in the middle of people’s transit,” Berrington says. “It’s about creating a service so that those airports can compete against other hubs effectively. That’s how you’re going to grow your business.”

This new crop of airport hotels is positioned competitively in the marketplace and hopes to attract travelers for more than just one-night, quick-hit stays. By upgrading amenities, improving design, and offering unique experiences, these properties give their guests first-class service rather than a bag of stale peanuts.

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