“Authenticity” has grown into one of the most overused (and misused) words in the hotel industry. But what does it actually mean?
A couple of months ago during The Lodging Conference, my boss Jeff Higley delivered something of a hot take about one of the most overused hotel industry buzzwords, “experiential.”
Speaking during a daily recap video (which we do regularly at HNN during the largest industry conferences), Jeff lambasted the laziness of evoking the term as if the experience of a hotel stay didn’t matter until recently.
“All of a sudden, the light has gone on and, oh, we have to take advantage of these experiences,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that Kemmons Wilson was thinking about an experience when he launched a Holiday Inn in 1952 as he was trying to fill those interstate interchanges with hotels. I’m pretty sure the founder of Knights Inn was seeking an experience when they adapted all those prefab buildings in the 1970s.”
I couldn’t agree more with that, and I’m not just here to rehash those already well-made points. But I do want to point out there’s at least one other term that seems to be getting the same lazy misuse on a regular basis.
It’s not a new idea that a brand or any business should carry an air of “authenticity,” but if you are a regular observer of panels and other discussions at industry events, it’d be easy to believe it is.
I get the underlying message people are trying to convey. We live in an area of remarkable transparency and more highly-educated consumers. People don’t want to buy into a stay or an “experience” with a hotel that seems completely cookie cutter. If someone is road tripping across the U.S., they don’t want every stay to be in an identical room, just as much as they don’t want every meal to be the same Big Mac.
So, “authenticity” seems to have reached a point of heightened importance, but it’s not like we had some sudden cultural awakening. People have always wanted things to be as unique and true to the moment as possible.
I would posit that consumers approach the desire for authenticity as something of a balancing act with their desire for “trust,” and perhaps the level of trust garnered by brands over the years had lulled the industry into accidentally deemphasizing authenticity.
Just to explain my thinking a little more on this: The goal of almost all leisure travel is to have an experience that is so positive and unique it will create happy memories that the traveler will hold on to for the rest of their lives and can share with friends and family. It’s almost a form of currency.
In order to achieve that, people need to do things that are somewhat unexpected or outside of their comfort zones. But there is a risk inherent in that.
When a person is doing something knew, they don’t know what could possibly go wrong, and many are worried about the worst. This is where the trust and comfort of hotel brands enters.
For a long time, a person could roll the dice on a place that seems different or unique, not knowing if it’s what they actually want. They might wonder if some unknown property is safe or clean or infested with bed bugs, which are all legitimate concerns. But a branded property is a known commodity. It is safe, albeit uninteresting.
In a vacuum of information, it’s easy to go for that known quantity in an effort to avoid calamity. And that’s how it was for decades.
But no one lives in an information vacuum anymore. Even the most off-the-wall properties are now vetted hundreds of times over by fellow travelers who can remotely give their stamp of approval. This opens up the traveler to a myriad of new experiences at a suddenly acceptable level of risk, and therefore raises the stakes for other more traditional hotels.
So maybe this distilled is the actual takeaway when we hear someone say that hotels need “authenticity.” Your hotel can’t just be a safe haven anymore. It has to be an “experience” that guests can’t get anywhere else, even at another property within the same brand.
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