Reaching out to Generation X

In your mind's eye, you might see Gen X as a thin, buff guy in a dark suit with a narrow, muted tie, discreetly gelled hair, lots of stainless steel accessories and jewelry and the latest in personal communication devices tucked into his sleek duds. He's the type who loves those waterfalls in W lobbies and grooves on the tiger print furniture you might well come across in a San Francisco Kimpton.

Turns out that's only one variant of Gen X man, one that doesn't even take into account the Gen X woman who makes the travel decisions. Turns out they're married and have kids and are pushing 40. So even though they remain high on style and don't know where (let alone how) to draw the line between business and leisure, they've settled down and are looking to nest wherever they travel. That drive reflects the times they came of age, when many of their Boomer parents divorced and many of their Boomer dads lost their jobs. No wonder they value community, connection and connectivity. No wonder it's de rigueur to appeal to their need for the total experience. No wonder product-driven marketing is so 2000.

According to respected futurist Lalia Rach, the members of Gen X aged 27 to 42 want a relationship with lodging before, during and after the experience. “In some ways it's almost more important before and after, because a relationship demonstrates to that generation the value the company places on their business,” says the associate dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism & Sports at New York University.

These people, in a sense, are orphans who want their lodging to provide a sense of belonging and permanence, Rach suggests. “They grew up in a time when they saw that relationships didn't matter, and primarily what they saw was their fathers being laid off from businesses that their fathers had in fact committed to, businesses that in essence said, Sorry, Charlie. As children, they experienced divorce. They were part of that generation of the latchkey kids.”

Hospitality marketing rarely addresses Gen X's complicated approach, Rach suggests. It also doesn't take into account this demographic's fine-tuned, ironic sense of humor.

“They don't want advertising that tries to fool them or promises things that can't come from that product,” she says, calling a recent campaign for Sprite that ordered, Obey your thirst, a successful marketing effort. “The idea was that if you were thirsty you needed to drink something, not that by drinking it you would become something.

“Marketing in this industry tends to be extraordinarily product-focused, when what this generation is looking for is an experience based upon relationships,” she says. To Gen X, points and miles matter less than an ongoing connection. Because there are far fewer Gen Xers compared to the Baby Boomers (aged 43 to 60), Gen X feels inferior, too. Enhance and modernize your company's website so it pushes appropriate, customized information. “The new media require that you're able to push information to the consumer regardless of the device,” she says. “The consumer must be able to connect how they want.”

That approach is critical to Choice Hotels International, where technology and message go hand in hand. Wayne Wielgus, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, says Gen X is comfortable with technology because it grew up with it; Boomers, meanwhile, have to adapt. “Our messaging has to be that we help to stay in touch,” he says. “We're going to allow you to be technologically enabled, to be able to communicate wherever you're traveling.”

One way to look at this demographic evolution is to see Gen X as the new Boomer: “As Gen Xers continue to age, their lifestyle is changing,” says Wielgus. “They're getting married and creating families, so a lot of our marketing message is geared around family travel, different things to do, places to be.”

Meanwhile, Boomers crave something different because they are on “the back end of that,” becoming empty nesters with “a lifestyle of more freedom.” For Boomers, “it's more about me than about family. It's not that they forsake their family; it's that their family unit is in a different place.”

Customizing the marketing message is critical, he says. And adapting the unit to Gen X is key because they “like to be able to come in and spread out their lifestyle in their room.” Like other marketing experts, Wielgus says flat-screen televisions and high-speed Internet access are still hot buttons.

Balance is key, says Mark Nogal, vice president of marketing for Hilton Garden Inn. “These days you have to blend your life,” he says, name checking Adrian Kurre, a BlackBerry user and the brand's manager. “Adrian was skiing with his daughter. I sent him a message, he was on the ski lift, responding to me. So even though he was doing leisure, he was able to interject and get back to me with something I needed a response on. He was blending his time.”

Marketing's new frontier, Kurre says, involves how Gen Xers “receive their entertainment.” All will come through the Internet, Kurre suggests, so Hilton Garden Inn will offer a connection at the desk that will “allow you to hook your iPod up and show it through the television.” Yet to be developed: a device that facilitates many different kinds of personal connectivity equipment.

Current in-room entertainment providers have to change their business model, he says. “Their being the broker between us and Hollywood will be in question because the guest can go to Hollywood directly, which means I don't have to go through them,” Kurre says. “They need to shift their thinking to how to continue to produce value, which will be through marketing messages: my ability to deliver things to guests that they can't get directly from Hollywood. There's a model there.”

Changes in the marketing model are necessary, too, says Tom O'Toole, senior vice president of strategy and systems, Global Hyatt Corp. Gen Xers and those in their 20s known as Gen Y, or Millennials, have “grown up in a totally different media world,” he says.

“Marketing content is going to be content that people want to receive either because of its information value or entertainment value,” says O'Toole. “If you think in terms of Google or the more general search model, potential customers are searching out specific information rather than having it pushed to them on a mass basis.” Travel content, particularly about emerging markets like China, is of great interest, he says, making it critical that marketers find out how to reach the younger customer.

“Kids coming into the work force today started turning in their assignments in PowerPoint when they were in junior high,” he says. “They caught the Napster boom and the idea of sharing content. How does one market to a generation that has grown up with digital media? And we haven't even talked about video games.”

It seems that marketing and technology have become so intertwined that it is time for a new position at hospitality companies: marketing information officer.

For now, however, the titles remain distinct even though the fields intersect. Peter Yesawich, chairman and CEO of marketing, advertising and public relations agency Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell (YPB&R), says Gen X places a greater reliance on technology than the Boomer and naturally gravitates toward “new media” like the net; Gen X is more “responsive to lifestyle messages”; and it and Millennials, the demographic hot on Gen X's heels, are “much more prone to explore and much less loyal, which is an issue of great strategic concern.”

Marketing campaigns from W and Hard Rock Hotels resonate with Gen X, he suggests. “The messaging is more lifestyle-oriented, rather than feature-oriented.”

Like NYU's Rach, he says the points- and miles-based loyalty programs that appeal to Boomers and Matures (those over 60) don't resonate with Gen X or Millennials.

GENERATION EVERYBODY

To Jim Abrahamson, all this generational talk may be beside the point. After all, Gen X is aging even as the Boomers rediscover the fountain of youth. Cases in point: more Gen X family travel and Detroit's reformulation of Mustangs, GTOs and Chargers so Boomers can relive the thrill of ‘70s muscle cars.

“What we're finding is that the oldest Boomers are turning 60, but today, a lot of researchers say 50 is the new 30,” says the senior vice president of Hyatt Hotels Corp. “We're saying there is no generation gap. Today, Boomers are listening to the same music as Gen Xers.”

At the same time, hospitality has to develop brands with specific appeal, so Abrahamson is pushing Hyatt Place, the “emerging brand” it's building on the bones of the former AmeriSuites. In Hyatt Place, the technology is ubiquitous and free to the customer, the room is flexible and customizable and the space is designed for both work and leisure. “Customers are bringing their own technology, so we need to help them plug in their own devices,” whether it is laptop of iPod, he says. And in the lobby, Hyatt Place is taking “our desk clerks out from behind the front desk and making it feel more like a Regency Club,” greeting guests at the door. Check-in by kiosk or in person are options, and “there's no reason we can't have a coffee and wine bar that doubles as a front-desk facility,” he says.

Boutique hotels have stressed individuality and flexibility for years, suggesting the hotel shouldn't be cookie-cutter, particularly if it targets a customer who values individuality and personality. At Kimpton Hotel Group, “each hotel is individually designed and concepted,” says COO Niki Leondakis. And because the Kimpton customer “is used to customization and personalization,” each Kimpton property “tells a story,” features complementary Wi-Fi and bundles experiences to distinguish its unique appeal. Kimpton finds that Gen Xers enjoy socializing and people watching, “predominantly hear about hotels through word of mouth,” are not brand-loyal and want to “give back” to their community.

Some marketers, meanwhile, stress the sizzle as they reformulate the steak. Take Deborah Fell, senior vice president of marketing and strategy, Marriott International. She's bullish on Gen X, suggesting that Marriott's “spectacular” airport ads for the brand's new Revive Collection of bedding are particularly resonant with that age group.

“We definitely are targeting Gen X and we have lots of new things going on in the brand,” she says. “With the Gen X market, they don't define the leader brand as necessarily the biggest, they define them as the most innovative.”

So even though Marriott delivers traditional advertising, it also serves up websites like www.experiencemarriott.com, where “you can shut the drapes so the room goes dark; you can pull back the duvet on the bedding,” Fell says. “You can move our television and some of our connectivity panels around. The Gen X consumer wants to engage with the brand versus be marketed to.”

Another touch point is the mSpot. In October, Marriott parked a two-story modular unit in Times Square to show off its new bedding and a glass-enclosed model of its new, full service guestroom. It plans a similar mSpot in New Orleans.

For SpringHill Suites, Marriott selected 1,000 people to try the brand, respond to it on comment cards and spread positive word by talking to their friends. “Gen Xers really want to hear (about) it from someone who has experienced it,” Fell says. In addition, Marriott is working on interactive games “with pass-along properties emphasizing the spaciousness and studio suite aspect” of SpringHill, a brand that “is pretty much all about word of mouth and viral marketing.

“No longer can the strategy show,” she says. “It's got to be the real thing, it's got to be genuine, and it's got to deliver.”


Visit www.LHonline for more information and related articles.

THE BIG IDEAS

Design for multi-tasking. Generations X and Y don't separate work and play, so design and outfit your hotel unit for informality and productivity.

Make technology part of the product's personality. Younger travelers expect technology to be ultramodern, easy to use and unobtrusive. Integrate it into your product so they're drawn to it.

Marketers must think afresh. Growing up with digital media means Gen Xers absorb information more quickly and process it more individually than Boomers. The key task for marketers is crafting messages about distinctive lodging products with contemporary appeal.

Targeting Gen X With Technology

When Novare Group conceived of TWELVE, the executives of that holding company knew that technology is an important draw for the Gen X clientele it targets. That's the reason the TWELVE Hotel at Atlantic Station in Atlanta features proprietary technology designed to provide its guests with the latest and user-friendliest in Internet access and entertainment.

“Technology has been a large focus of ours in developing the hotel brand,” says Daniel Bassett, chief information officer for the Novare Group. “In each suite, there's a terminal on the desk with a thin monitor, keyboard and mouse, and there's an application we call GHOST, which stands for guest hotel operating system terminal.”

Guests of the flagship TWELVE Hotels & Residences LLC, which opened in mid-February, use GHOST to access hotel services such as housekeeping and laundry, access information about local attractions and surf the net. The software was specifically designed to attract the traveler aged 25 to 45, Bassett says. Using GHOST is free to guests, as is high-speed access to the net, both wired and Wi-Fi.

In addition, each suite in the 101-unit property features a voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) telephone system, 32- and 27-inch televisions with ultramodern technology and a movie-on-demand library. And in the lobby, there's a “virtual art gallery” featuring what Bassett calls “high-definition art.”

“We have flat-panel LCD TVs in the living room and bedroom, and we're pulling TV over IP signals so you've got a very wide variety of channels, as well as a few hundred titles from a movies on demand selection.” The TV is free; MOD is on a charge basis.

The clock radio “is fairly standard, but it does have an extension to hook your MP3 player to,” Bassett notes.

“This generation is very comfortable doing things online and not having to pick up the phone or having to leave the comforts of their living environment to get things done,” Bassett says.

It's also comfortable with multitasking and is beginning to travel in family groups. That blend is the target market of the Best Western Sterling (MI) Inn, where Victor Martin caters to younger families that can't take a week or more off for vacation.

The 246-room property in suburban Detroit features a water park where the kids can play while Mom or Dad surfs the net the Wi-Fi way. “We found that people just love the ability to go on the Internet for free,” says Martin, “so we took it a step further and made the whole property wireless, including the water park. You can sit there and browse the Internet, or if you're one of those people who commutes from home, you can actually do work while watching the kids in the water park.”

He installed T3 connections to facilitate net access, “so if you've got a large file to upload, this is one of the few places you can do that in a hotel environment and have the same speed coming down as uploading.”

Other amenities targeting the younger, more tech-savvy family include a business center, a video arcade, and an extensive workout area with an indoor running track. The idea was to create an “urban resort” targeting the working couple with kids who partake in numerous sports programs.

“It's so difficult to fit in a time when everyone can get away,” Martin says. “Everybody's busy.”


Visit www.LHonline.com for more information and related articles.

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