No Matter the Generation, It’s About the Experience

It’s the August 21 issue, which also means it’s our annual brands issue. We bring you the results of our brands and franchise fees surveys, as well as our brands report. Senior Editor CJ Arlotta spoke to executives from Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Choice Hotels International and Hilton to find out what being a brand means in today’s lodging landscape. With the proliferation of new brands from the big guys, to soft brands and micro-brands from start-ups and entrepreneurs, a strong brand strategy is, more than ever, key to getting guests and keeping them.

One thing they all agree on: It’s about the experience—delivering that memorable stay via product and service. And, more than that, connection, forming that increasingly important relationship between the brand and the guest: a relationship based on trusting you to deliver an experience that fits their needs, values and expectations. And these days, it seems like no brand conversation can happen without the M word coming up. Millennials. Whether it’s appealing to this demographic or even just the mindset, this group is a major focus of not just hotel brands, but all brands.

But, while keeping one eye on the millennials—and the boomers and Xers before them—the other eye needs to shift more keenly to Gen Zers. Last year, Bloomberg predicted that Gen Z will comprise 32% of the global population of 7.7 billion in 2019, compared to an estimated 31.5% of millennials. And the Gen Z buying power is estimated at $29 billion to $143 billion in direct spending, with this generation being significant influencers on purchases for the whole family.

The age group of millennials is not clearly delineated, but there seems to be some consensus on the generation being defined as those born in 1980 through 1995, though some sources extend the parameters to late 1970s to early 2000s. Despite the fact that I hear the catch-all term “millennial” to describe all young people these days, the actual fact is the up-and-comers, the Gen Zers, are not so much the next gen. They’re here. Whether you take 1996 or 2001 as the year of the generation change, this group is just out of college, or just about to be, ready for adulthood—and ready to see the world. And by all accounts, they want to.

So, I’ve read many studies that essentially describe the primary difference between these two youthful generations as being one of “what’s in it for me?” (millennials) vs. “what can I bring to it?” (Gen Zers). Or, more bluntly put: self-centered vs. self-aware. Moreover, a report by Nielsen Holdings Plc. states that “Gen Z is bombarded with messages and is a generation that can quickly detect whether or not something is relevant to them.”

Read that statement again. Brands must resonate with this soon-to-be-target generation to stay relevant. Where do Gen Zers want to go? What kinds of experiences do they want? They’re digital natives. They’re looking for a personalized approach—perhaps, even more than incentives and discounts, unless, of course, those rewards are relevant to their needs or their journey. They turn to social media for travel inspiration and want immersive experiences. Local flavor is crucial. In fact, a report by the WYSE Travel Confederation found that these young travelers, while budget-conscious, are willing to spend extra on local F&B experiences. They’re a well-traveled generation, so authenticity is crucial. They prefer real and organic over perfectly packaged and one-size-fits-all. They want to “discover” the hotel, the amenity, the destination and share their “unique” finds with friends. Hey, the Instagram shot might have been the thing that got them to go—but the Instagram shot they post, well that needs to be new, different, first of its kind.

Good news for our industry: Research has shown that Gen Z prefers hotel stays over the backpacking adventures of the generation that precedes them. But, as a PhocusWire article succinctly points out, they want those talked-about experiences, not just status, “and if they’re committed enough to be loyal to a travel brand, they also want that brand to be equally committed to understanding their preferences and desires.”

As the mom of 22-year-old—yes, he was born in that cusp year—he reminds me, in the way he lives and the choices he makes: Fill your life with experiences not things. Have stories to tell, not stuff to show. By creating a meaningful brand strategy, hotel brands, big and small, can provide those important ingredients needed to create a narrative that can be crafted and shared.