From Peninsula’s lavish digital overhaul of its Hong Kong flagship, to citizenM’s pioneering brand of tech-focused ‘affordable luxury’, the past few years have seen extensive moves to entice the ‘connected traveller’.

Previously, such innovations were the concern of the upper tiers of the industry and select tech-obsessed newcomers with more economical offerings. However, as Holiday Inn Express unveils a redesign for its European hotels, in response to guests’ internet-oriented behaviour, it’s clear that connectivity is going viral across the mainstream too.

Holiday Inn Express’s ‘next-generation guest experience’ aims to combine the brand’s traditional economy and efficiency with clever use of technology, helping it meet the evolved needs of its long-standing target guest: the ‘smart traveller’. Developed in response to an extensive programme of guest feedback in collaboration with design consultancy IDEO and environments design agency Forpeople, the revamp sees changes to aspects of service as well as many physical tweaks to the lobby and bedroom.

With part of the research carried out in guests’ homes, interviewing them about how they live and even observing how they pack for trips, it’s no surprise that the idea of ‘home comforts’ comes through as a key theme in the redesign, from design-centric furnishings, to layouts more conducive to guest habits.

At the entrance to Holiday Inn Express’s prototype guest experience, a makeshift set design where guests recently trialled sound-absorbing sofas, tablet-driven check-ins and new bedroom layouts – brand director Europe Natalia Perez explains how the changing behaviours identified are very much a reaction to today’s technology-driven lifestyle.

"The guest was telling us, ‘my life is not that regulated anymore’," she says, "’I don’t really work a nine to five and then have spare time in the evening. Work and leisure is just much more of a blend these days; I may be sitting in front of the TV doing a few emails and actually grabbing a bite to eat at the same time’ – and hotels don’t always reflect that."

Multitasking in mind

Naturally, a large part of the overhaul is devoted to increasing access to technology. Wi-Fi comes as standard, and, as we walk through the mocked-up scenes in their varying degrees of completion, I see plugs scattered generously throughout the new lobby area and USB sockets peppering the bedroom, alongside a smart TV that lets guests plug in personal devices to access media streaming services.

Another conspicuous theme, though, is the extent to which day-to-day aspects of hotel layout and design have themselves been altered in the redesign – and remain alterable – to accommodate the new ‘online’ lifestyle of guests. Allowing guests to log on is the first step, but their associated needs must be supported too.

One such change concerns the desk in the guest room. "They were saying, it’s not particularly appealing to me that I’m facing the wall when I’m doing a bit of work, so I tend to end up working on the bed, which isn’t ideal either," Perez says. "So we’ve done away with the traditional desk, and we’ve replaced it with a flexible ‘work and rest corner’."

A signature chair, designed to provide the right lumber support for work and relaxation, and a smaller table that can easily be moved around the room, create this adaptable unit. Other upgrades include a control panel within the headboard, placing the room’s many switches at guests’ fingertips as they settle down for the night; technology inspired – in a curious reverse flow of ideas – by business-class seating on a plane.

But it’s in the guest areas and the offering as a whole that the smart traveller’s no-nonsense, ‘grab-and-go’ attitude is best represented. Armchairs, stools and wing-back chairs provide more varied, inviting seating options in the lobby, while the adjoining dining area features a selection of booths, smaller tables and chairs. Fold-away features and lighting changes allow a transition from breakfast buffet to afternoon cafe and then into a bar at night.

"Our guests were saying that the current lobbies are really lively at breakfast, and there’s lots going on, but after breakfast, they’re not very inviting and it’s not really a place to spend time," Perez says. "They were also telling us that actually they need a place where they can grab a quick bite to eat or a drink, or just do a few emails in between appointments on their agenda – a quick pit stop."

Taking these changes on board, an extended food and drink offering will for the first time be available throughout the day. Breakfast remains included in the standard tariff, but becomes more varied, with localised aspects – such as a bacon bap for UK hotels – on top of the continental offering. It also becomes more flexible, with another novelty openly embracing a trick guests may have been employing slyly for years; a takeaway bag.

"The smart traveller is always on the go," Perez says. "They are very independent, and a lot of the time they are in a rush, so being able to grab something and not having to sit down for breakfast is certainly a benefit that they welcomed a lot when we did the research."

While time is of the essence, quality remains important to value-conscious smart travellers, and Perez and her team have endeavoured to reflect this in everything from high standards of food, to more appealing design throughout. As we walk through, she points out eye-catching fabric wall-mounts in the corridor that double as sound-absorbers, and colourful oversized buttons for pegs replacing the bedroom’s traditional, bland artwork.

Offline downtime

The desire for quality also extends to leisure, with guests wanting a different kind of connectivity for their ‘offline’ moments in having easy access to attractions in the surrounding area.

"The guest was telling us, ‘sometimes I’ve got an hour to kill, but if I’ve only got an hour or two, I don’t really know the locality well enough to realise what I can do in that short space of time, so it would be great if the hotel can help me and make some suggestions as to what I can do’," Perez says.

Saving guests from more time spent online browsing for activities, Holiday Inn Express’s answer is decidedly low-fi, but extremely effective: a simple time-graded map displayed in the lobby.

"You’ve got three circles on the map that give you suggestions as to what you can do depending on the time that you have," Perez says. "So the first circle is within 15 minutes, the next one might be half an hour, and so on.

"You’ll have things that don’t move – so a museum within 15 minutes’ walk would be printed on the map, but we’re also going to have projected content, so that we can add temporary things, like if there’s an exhibition going on or a concert that night. We can also take suggestions from guests and members of staff for local restaurants or things going on in the vicinity. That resonated really well with our guests."

Such characteristics emphasise a fundamental nuance in the smart traveller’s outlook; yes, there are times they want to be left to their own devices – often quite literally, as they tune into their smart TVs – but contact with friendly, helpful staff is also important.

It’s a preference Holiday Inn Express has acknowledged in the new guest process. Check-in ‘pods’ – smaller in size than a formal reception desk – increase interaction with the staff that man them, with a tablet on hand to illustrate the location of their room within the hotel. And, while mobile check-in is introduced for IHG Rewards Club members, guests will still need to collect their key in person.

"Our guests absolutely love the service element within the Holiday Inn Express brand, and that is something that they don’t want to miss out on, so we saw that as a great opportunity for us to capitalise on, and the revised check-in experience will help us do that," Perez says.

The first new-look hotel will open in the UK later this year, and Holiday Inn Express aims to implement the redesign in one in four of its European hotels within three years. With 220 existing hotels open in Europe and more than 40 in the pipeline, the new experience will not dominate for a while yet; but, as the ripples of connectivity continue to spread across the industry, it’s clear the days of the traditional guest room with its desk and headed letter paper are over.