Hotels go micro

A growing hotel model with tiny guestrooms, oversized communal areas and hi-tech features is designed to court young, independent travellers

NEW YORK • On a recent business trip to New York, Ms Kelly Buck went small for her hotel room - as in 100 sq ft.

Ms Buck, a non-profit marketing executive from Auburn, New York, sought a good deal and found one at the Pod 39, one of a growing number of so-called microhotels that are taking a smaller-is-better approach. And the price, about US$100 (S$135) a night, was right.

"I was going only for one night, understood the rooms would be small but functional, and that's exactly what they were," she said.

A sister hotel, the Pod 51, goes even smaller, with some rooms measuring 65 sq ft and offering a shared bathroom. It is a legacy of that building's days as a single- room occupancy hotel.

As hotels seek to blunt the appeal of Airbnb and court younger and more independent travellers, some, like Ms Buck, are choosing microhotels.

There's everything you want and nothing you don't. Most people never unpack.

MS TINA EDMUNDSON, global officer for luxury and lifestyle brands at Marriott International, on microhotels

These hotels blend elements from cruise ships and hostels and are characterised by compact guestrooms, an embrace of technology and an oversized communal lounge.

"Disruptions from short-term rentals are creating a whole new supply channel," said Mr Scott Berman, principal in the hospitality and leisure division at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The micro concept first gained traction in Europe with brands such as CitizenM and Yotel at airports and in urban centres. Now the model is expanding.

Yotel, which has a property in Manhattan, plans to open others in San Francisco, Boston, Miami and Brooklyn, as well as London, Geneva and Singapore.

Pod expects to open another hotel in Manhattan, as well as in Brooklyn and Washington.

It is not just speciality chains that are drawn to the concept. Lured by the profit potential of squeezing more rooms into the same amount of space, and possibly reducing the overall cost of construction, larger chains are planning microhotel projects.

Hilton Hotels & Resorts is introducing Tru, which will have an average room size of 225 sq ft, compared with the typical room size of about 350 sq ft at Hampton Inn, which is owned by Hilton.

Marriott International, which introduced Moxy in Milan, is creating a guestroom in the United States that is expected to be about 180 sq ft. A room at a Courtyard by Marriott, by contrast, is about 300 sq ft.

Hilton said it had commitments to open 189 Tru hotels and expected several to be up and running before the end of the year. Moxy will open three hotels in the US and nine abroad this year, with more than 50 eventually.

"There's a higher acceptance of the small rooms," said Mr Mark van Stekelenburg, a managing director at CBRE Hotels. He said that guests saw value if the hotel offered significant amenities.

Technology is a big draw, especially when it is deployed in creative ways.

Yotel, for example, dispensed with bellhops in its New York microhotel, relying instead on a robotic arm to store and retrieve luggage. At CitizenM, a tablet computer controls the blinds and turns on the lights and the television.

Moxy uses motion sensors to light the way into the private bathroom. They activate when a guest steps out of bed. Pod has an in-room media centre or an iPod dock.

For working guests, Hilton anticipates having private spaces and built-in alcoves instead of traditional business centres.

"There's much less labour than a traditional hotel," said Ms Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.

The rooms are small and have the trappings of a traditional hotel room, to a point. At CitizenM, beds are extra long and king-size, but the only way to reach them is to step onto them because they fill the width of the room. At Moxy, a wall of pegs replaces closets.

"There's everything you want and nothing you don't," said Ms Tina Edmundson, global officer for luxury and lifestyle brands at Marriott. "Most people never unpack."

Small may not necessarily mean less expensive. A recent search of hotels in Tempe, Arizona, found that a Friday-night stay at Moxy was US$259 a night. That was more expensive than at a nearby Holiday Inn Express, an Aloft or an Embassy Suites.

The focal point of these microhotels is their oversized common areas with sections for working, eating, drinking and playing. A recreation area might include a chess set or a foosball table.

"Travellers want friends and guests to meet them there and feel good about it," said Mr Hubert Viriot, chief executive of Yotel.

Still, the rooms might not appeal to travellers who want individual touches. Ms Liz Gagliardi, a retail executive who lives near Boston, previously stayed in a CitizenM in Europe and liked its high-tech features and mood lighting.

At Yotel in New York in January, which she booked for its price and location, her room did not have bottled water or an in-room coffee maker. (Yotel says free coffee is available all day at check-in and free muffins are available in the morning.)

Some microhotels offer grab and go, or prepared, meals for a fee. Still, that did not sway her. "I wouldn't use it as a destination again," she said.

Ms Buck extended her stay a night when her return flight was cancelled. She hung out in the lounge, which was decorated with paper Japanese lanterns and offered a table-tennis table, books and overstuffed furniture.

"It's not for everyone," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 03, 2016, with the headline 'Hotels go micro'. Print Edition | Subscribe