In Manhattan last week, the global hotel industry's owners and brands came together in the annual mating ritual known as the New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference.
"Authenticity" and "curation" continued to be words that buzzed.
But in South Beach last week, after listening to speakers at the "Ministry of Ideas" forum that preceded the lifestyle hotel conference LE Miami, I came away with the sense that guests today are feeling far less need for an intermediary to curate, package or otherwise provide access to "authentic" experiences.
The LE Miami format forced presenters to be concise: Each of 12 speakers had exactly 3 minutes, 45 seconds on stage to present "big ideas," and their slides advanced every 12 seconds automatically, whether they wanted them to or not. This ended up discombobulating some who fell out of rhythm with their visuals; they became as disoriented as a call-in guest who didn't turn down the volume on the radio and experienced sensory dislocation.
But if the medium is the message, it was a platform that produced thought-provoking sketches of new paradigms, spurring listeners to contemplate possibilities and connect the dots on their own.
Many of the new concepts favored spontaneity over curation. A hotel's role would evolve to enabling authentic experiences, often by redefining the traditional guest-host relationship.
Aldo Melpignano, whose family owns Borgo Egnazia in Puglia, Italy, said that public spaces at his hotel are shared communally by staff and guests, with joint pool parties and other opportunities to interact informally.
"We are pack animals, and should act like a community," Melpignano said. "Everyone says they want to live like a local. Service's most noble meaning is to care, and we care enough to bring our guests inside our community. There are no boundaries between staff and guests."
Parker Stanberry not only deconstructed hotels with his Oasis Collection; he didn't bother reconstructing them. He is betting that those attracted to the community immersion touted by Airbnb wouldn't mind if the homes they shared were also vetted, professionally cleaned, provided with boutique toiletries and, importantly, a means to enter the local community, such as providing passes to the local SoulCycle and other activities.
"The line between visiting somewhere and living there will disappear," he said.
Gilad Goren, founder of Travel+SocialGood, re-envisions hotels as community hubs. They will be bases to explore, and he imagines a loyalty system that racks up points not only by staying at the property but by visiting, independently, local businesses and other partners in the community.
Alternatively, Ron Shah of Bizly proposes that hoteliers bring the community into the hotel, but going far beyond the bars, restaurants and guest workstations that form today's lobby culture. Shah sees hotels as the offices of the future.
"The way we think about work has dramatically changed," he said, and he can think of no place he'd rather work than in a hotel. Citing the model of communal workplaces such as WeWork, he encouraged hoteliers to make local business people feel at home and part of their experience.
"You have the rooms, the service and the work spaces to make this a connected, on-demand experience," he said.
Perhaps the most radical idea came from an entrepreneur outside the industry. Following a break after the short-form presentations, a longer talk was given by Stefan Siegel, founder of Not Just a Label, which is to the fashion industry what Airbnb is to hospitality, enabling direct connections between independent designers and consumers.
He urged hoteliers to consider providing rooms for free to guests who fit a profile to cultivate a creative, experiential community within their walls, which could be monetized in nontraditional ways.
In a proof-of-concept test of sorts, he approached the flagship Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan before last holiday season and asked for rent-free prime retail space for a pop-up shop for his affiliated designers.
After months of discussions, the hotel agreed. In the end, the property traded three weeks of rent for what they ultimately calculated to be $6.9 million in publicity.
Similarly, a hotel that doesn't charge for rooms but is choosey about whom it invites to stay for free could collect valuable data while creating "authentic radicalism:" a dynamic and frequently refreshed community comprising the creative class.
The next day, I asked LE Miami founder Serge Dive what he made of all the presentations.
"The future of hotels is a theatrical experience, where guests witness the performance and are also one of the actors," he said. And in the process, the guest-actors become the person they want to be. It could make you feel rich or more caring about the environment or sexier. "It isn't about lodging," he said. "And more than ever, a hotel cannot be all things to all people."
Which brings us full circle to curation and authenticity. It strikes me that the hotel of the future will focus far less on packaging experiences than on creating an environment that nurtures authentic experiences. And to flesh out Dive's analogy, hospitality "theater" would ultimately rely far more on improvisation than on script.
For an industry that's currently heavily reliant on brand standards and consistent delivery, that will be a challenge.