Baby boomers love them but do millennial guests care about heritage hotels?
Raffles Hotel Singapore
The clink of bone china around a three-tier silver cake stand; the crunch of wheels on a white gravel driveway; the formal welcome from a uniformed doorman; the sepia-tinted photos of days gone by. For boomers, heritage hotels maintain their historical charm. But can they remain relevant in the Instagram age?
The world’s 1.8 billion millennials make up a massive market – and the more privileged of them love to travel. Seventy-nine percent of Singapore’s millennials prioritise travel above any other expense; Australian millennials spend more than AUD $11bn (USD $8.7bn: GBP 6.7bn) overseas every year; more than two-thirds of China’s outbound travellers are millennials. Yet, between disrupters like Airbnb and the millennial fondness for independent hotels over brands, it’s a challenging audience for heritage hotels to reach.
The charm of a story
“I think there is an increased appetite for stories behind places, ‘What is the story of this building, or this community, or this neighbourhood?’” said Simon Westcott, publisher of LUXE City Guides. “For hotels like the Satri House in Luang Prabang, a lovely 1920s villa that’s been very tastefully restored, I think there’s a younger market there: the sense of the story, the mix of old and new in the restoration piece and the smaller scale of the boutique.”
Bino Chua, a millennial wealth manager born in the Philippines but based in Singapore, has been passionate about travel and discovering new cultures since he was a child – a passion he now exercises by blogging at iwandered.net and staying in outstanding hotels. When travelling, Chua tends to choose between a mix of boutique hotels, heritage hotels and luxury chains, basing his decisions primarily on aesthetics and location. He has enjoyed iconic Asian hotels including Raffles Hotel Singapore (1887), the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang (which dates back to 1885) and the Manila Hotel (1912), not to mention more recent conversions of landmark properties like Singapore’s Fullerton Hotel.
For Chua, heritage hotels tap into a generational fascination with elements that are retro, offering details such as metal keys or old-fashioned TVs alongside impeccable service. “At Raffles Hotel in Singapore, they provide butler service,” he said. “When I want to, say, iron my clothes, in another hotel I’d have to iron them myself or avail myself of their services. In Raffles, if you need something ironed, you call for your butler, who will come to your room and do your ironing for you – and all of that is free of charge and included in your stay.”
More pragmatically, Chua notes that heritage hotels typically boast unbeatably central locations. In many, he says, rooms are larger than in more modern hotels, so the room price per square metre is as good if not better than in other, less emotionally resonant top-end hotels.
Social media plays a significant role in the decision-making process for many millennials – one UK survey found that Instagram-worthiness was the single most important element in deciding on a travel destination, with over 40 per cent of respondents making it their top priority. Shanghainese-American entrepreneur Stephany Zoo is a passionate Instagrammer (@curiouszoo) and a dedicated sharer on Chinese social media titan WeChat.
“As a millennial, one of the most important things is how Instagrammable or how WeChattable the inside of the hotel is. If I look at the photos, and I think, that will look really good on my social media, that’s something I’m going to prioritise. All of my friends do this, and it drives my partner crazy,” she said. “He cares about his pictures as well, but I definitely care more.”
On a trip to Seville with her partner, Zoo contemplated splurging $1,000 for a night in the landmark Hotel Alfonso XIII (established in 1928) but ended up visiting for high tea and banking her pictures then. “If I’m going to a place that I know has a lot of history, I’ll go and seek out something that’s more historical,” she said. “There’s an island called Gulangyu off Xiamen, with really interesting heritage hotels – so quaint and gorgeous. I went with a local friend, and we made a point of looking at all the hotels with the most interesting backgrounds and staying at those.”
For Jeannette Ho, a brand executive at Raffles, which has three heritage hotels in Asia, it’s not just history but authentic experiences that are central to any hotel which wants to attract millennials. Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (1932) used to be a summer palace for the King of Cambodia, and its Elephant Bar takes its name from the second-floor veranda from which the royal family used to board elephants to ride to Angkor Wat. “A lot of millennials are very charmed by the bar, as well as experiences like a sunrise breakfast with history and story-telling,” she said. “Even if they do have to get up at 4 am.”
Despite the appeal of historical elements to millennials, a generation that can summon up everything from a date to a full meal with a few swipes of a touchscreen need faster connections to services, Ho said. “We are beginning the restoration of Raffles in Singapore, and, while it might have been truly charming 25 years ago to have a button that you press and you wait for the butler to come to your room, millennials won’t be patient enough,” she explained. “Millennials want the butler on their phone: ‘I’m coming to the hotel, please prepare this item for me.’”
“Our millennials want discreet delivery and a sense of home, to which communication is key,” added Thomas Christiansen, General Manager of Raffles Hotel Le Royal (1929). “The ability to tailor their time in Phnom Penh and the surrounding area via our concierge team provides them with efficiency, personality and value.”
Yet, while heritage hotels are tweaking their offer to appeal to a younger audience, millennials such as Zoo remain more likely to visit for high tea, cocktails or dinner – all with a side helping of Instagram – than to splash out on an actual room. “I guess there’s this perception that heritage hotels tend to cater to an older crowd,” Chua said. “I think for millennials there’s one factor that would attract them, and that’s the historical feel that you can’t get anywhere else.”
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