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Room service - checking in

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The two-day 'Hotels of the Future' event peered enthusiastically into the crystal ball of the hotel as a building type - but are the resulting plans and ideas anything more than wish lists?

What will the hotel of the future look like?

What will its occupants demand of it, its operators consent to fund, and architects design into such facilities?

'Hotels of the Future' was a two-day event held in Lausanne's hotel school, EHLITE, last week, which brought together architects, end users, engineers, technologists and academics and asked them to provide the 'interactive' element of the event - to 'brainstorm' their ideas for future hotel provision, guided by role play, scenarios, 'breakout groups' and workshops.

What quickly emerged was that we would not be talking space hotels or underwater venues, though both are being investigated, but realistic propositions about what sort of social, technological, economic, environmental and political issues - STEEP for short - might impact on the future hotel building type.

Chris Luebkeman, Arup director for global foresight and innovation, talked about the importance of looking 'back to the future', where technologies such as the 'flying wing', Norman Bel Geddes' 1929 vision that was 'essentially a flying Queen Elizabeth', will make a reappearance in a similar guise with Boeing's plans for three-storey aircraft. A plane with 'flapping' wings encapsulated another Holy Grail - it was similarly important in designing hotels to set sights on goals and ask what, professionally or individually, was being done to get there.

In the hospitality industry, Luebkeman said, the next 10 years will see important changes in the way we run our buildings, with 'turbulence' likely to come from 'huge' demographic changes such as the rise in number of the over-65s. And there will be other, less predictable but impactful changes - who could have foreseen the rise of the internet or mobile phone over the last decade? Miniaturisation and nanotechnology, with their prospects in medicine, hold further advances, while the political stability of the planet holds others. It is important to avoid 'underimagining' the future - even Bill Gates once said that 640k of memory ought to be enough for anyone.

For Jeffrey Cattrett from the Hotel Academy, its typical hotel design is a series of 'bottlenecks', representing 'probably the least efficient industry on earth'. Hotels must look to achieve profit margins of 15-20 per cent, rather than the 9 per cent average today.

Alex Lifschutz of Lifschutz Davidson, introducing himself as 'a sociologist, practicing architecture', meditated on another pressing financial factor: the 40 per cent average occupancy rates in Switzerland and the UK. This was shameful, especially in countries with housing problems. Perhaps, he thought, the hotel of the future could cater for that 'discontinuity' by providing some of the two million new homes needed in the UK. 'We have a crisis, ' he said, 'and the people to solve it are the hotel managers.'

Hotels needed to interact more with the city, and should perhaps aim to mirror Starbucks' success in terms of becoming 'living rooms on the street'. More than two-thirds of people live on their own or with one other person, so the need for contact should be uppermost in hotel operators' thoughts, away from the 'sterile' buildings they often produce. 'The hotel of the future is a place of life and actually is a microcosm of the city, ' Lifschutz concluded.

Alex Kravetz, managing associate from Hirsh Bedner Architects, brought a particular vision of the hotel room of the future, which he is building as 'the E-room' at the Villeroy and Boch showroom in Wimbledon. It features a large 'spa' bathroom (studies reveal that 80 per cent of 'active time' at hotels is spent in that area) and is replete with technological wizadry.

It would cost around £100 per square metre, but the technologies involved are getting cheaper.

Nathalie de Vries from MVRDV was less specific, relating how functions and typologies were starting to blur - museums giving up large spaces for shopping being one example, homes becoming offices another. It was, in her view, the task of the cutting-edge hotel of the future to make occupants feel at home, comfortable, warm, but also retain 'the element of surprise'.

Hotel operator Nick Howat, from MWB and Vision Hospitality and Asset Management, was realistic: hotels were only built to make money. There were two types: 'commodity driven', and those that are 'considered demand'. For some it is about a good night's sleep, others the overall experience.

For Keith Williams of Keith Williams Architects, it was important to remember that 'just because we can do anything we like' in designing facilities like submerged hotels, 'it doesn't mean we should'. For him too, the hotel was one of two forms: the cocoon or pod insulating the occupant from the outside world or the sustainable building that engages with the human soul.

Giuliana Salmaso from Claudio Silvestrin Architects pressed her vision of atmospheric places with natural ventilation, open-air spaces like gardens or cloisters, away from the mall-style hotel. It might be important to have a library or bookshop, a spa, massage area, a breakfast room with natural light, and baths and bedrooms with natural light. 'Technology has to be there too, ' she said, 'but not too strong.'

And technology was a theme picked up by Martin Illsley of Accenture's Technology Labs. But it was a vision not without problems on civil liberties. Mobile phones might one day contain personal preferences and be used as universal remote controls, but tagging may also play a role, through RFIDs - Radio Frequency Identification Devices.

These, like barcodes, will contain information, but can be embedded. In retail they are being used in supply and logistics. In hotels they could be used - Big Brotherishly - to 'track' the workforce.

Illsley also showed a future where chairs might contain microchips that sense how much they are used in order to bill the user for that time. In turn, the chair could relay information to the manufacturer who might offer a rebate, or advise the sitter on posture. Objects could act as supervisors, too, to ensure cleaners are doing their jobs properly. But the hotel of the future also needs to grapple with sustainability. For Jacques Richter, of Richter & Dahl Rocha Bureau d'architectes, sustainability meant long-term thinking. Having to refurbish rooms evey five years is not sustainable or good sense. Perhaps, too, the hotels of the future will, as in one of his practice's competition designs, mix and match styles - it proposed two types of hotel in one: a fivestar alongside a two-star in Verbier.

Ultimately, 'Hotels of the Future' posed many questions, and attempted to partanswer them through wish lists and responses to likely scenarios. Among the more interesting ideas was the notion that hospitals, performing relatively similar functions, might be run by the hotel operator; that technology will play a large part in terms of entertainment and building management systems, and booking facilities. And that issues of sustainability will affect hotels just as widely - perhaps more, given the high levels of waste involved in such 24-hour operations - than in other building sectors.

Perhaps there will be no check-in, rooms might be self-cleaning and more 'flexible'.

But timeless essentials like enjoying a clean room with a good bed will be just as prevalent. Some things will never change. But, as this event made most clear, it is often important to try and imagine them changing.

The AJ's European Hotel Design Conference takes place on 30 October 2003. Visit www. hoteldesignconference. com or tel Natalie Rubinstein on 020 7505 8614

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