What is ‘entry’ level?

Over the past 12 months or so, an emerging trend has come to light, the focus of which has been Generation Y, the new(est) entrants to the “corporate” world. In the last installment of “The Modernist Manifesto,” my colleague Michael Kitchen discussed the near impossibility of gaining much loyalist traction in the hotel space when it comes to targeting this demographic group.

Despite being on the cusp between Generations X and Y, I like to consider myself more of a Y than an X — I have found it difficult, at times, to grasp some of the things Gen-Yers get behind, both conceptually and philosophically. I believe this is where the difficulty arises in trying to understand what the next wave of travelers will really be looking for — how much do you “get” about what they want when you don’t really understand who they are?

As big-box hotel brand/management companies continue to grow their portfolios, their reservation systems and loyalty programs become even more important in driving individual booking costs down while capturing potential customers for the foreseeable future. As each demographic segment of traveler becomes more entrenched with specific brands, the “easiest” option for these companies, as of late, has been to create “new” brands to attract the new(est) travel demographic.

In the last 15-plus years, the lifestyle segment has been the fastest growing entrant to the market — in my opinion — despite the total overall growth of the select-service model. The timing of the lifestyle segment’s growth was perfectly coordinated with exceptional movements in the capital markets and combined with incredible surges in global wealth. Unfortunately, this also led to the overuse of the term “boutique” in describing otherwise independently positioned hotels with a distinct design (or at times without) and a clear sense of place — you always had a feeling you were in a unique space. I do not think the “boutique” hotel will ever get a standard definition, and it is unclear how the term “entry level” will be defined in the future.

I, for one, work for a luxury lifestyle management company, with a full-service brand that is in the process of global growth under this flag, but that does not mean we have not pondered the idea of what is coming next.

Typically, we consider entry level anything to be that of early, unseasoned, remedial or otherwise less important, and located at or near the bottom rung of the totem pole. However, the discussions in the deal circles that I have been privy to have been more in line with how to create the next great hotel experience in a way that has not yet been done before. The innovation wheels are spinning furiously from corporate offices to design studios and technology firms, and what is more important is that these conversations and ideation sessions are happening beyond the walls of IDEO, arguably the most innovative company on the planet and creator of more things we use in our daily lives than you want to know.

As we begin 2013, we should not be asking ourselves, “How do we cater to the new demographic of travelers?” Because those Gen-Yers have grown up traveling, with touchscreen devices attached to their hands and the world at their fingertips, we should be challenging ourselves to create an experience that will resonate with a different type of traveler, someone looking for something more from their typical experience while on the road, or, in the case of new mobile applications that allow an easier way to find a “stay-cation” destination, in their own city/town/village for a quick getaway from the norm of daily life.

An “entry-level” brand, like the concept “boutique” hotel, in my book won’t hold much weight, and is likely to be overused to the same degree over the next two to three years by executives trying to figure out what Generation Y wants in a hotel stay. Let’s think outside of the box and create something they strive to be a part of. Isn’t that what Bill Kimpton and Ian Schrager did 30-plus years ago when setting the stage for the lifestyle segment’s bold emergence with Generation X? What will be the leading segment for Generation Y? We probably have about seven or eight years until we really know what took …