• Hotel rooms on the shrink

Hotel rooms are heading smaller. The phenomenon appears to be evident across the quality spectrum, responding to cultural, societal and technological changes that mean hotels are increasingly designed with an emphasis on shared space, rather than a large personal room.

For hotel groups, one key driver is real estate cost, meaning city centre locations will favour the compact room. Tokyo was famously the launch location for the first capsule hotel, which in 1979 provided small sleeping spaces measuring just 2x1x1.25 metres, too small to stand up in, and stacked one on top of another.

While the capsule phenomenon has not gained much traction outside Japan, others have taken up the compact challenge; though generally, all offer a room guests can stand up in. Operator Yotel has made a virtue of its small rooms. At its airport locations, they are called “cabins” and likened to something that might be found on a cruise liner, measuring just 7 or 10 square metres for singles or doubles, respectively.

Hotel rooms in New York are also generally small, and some are without windows. Yotel still calls the rooms in its Manhattan hotel cabins, albeit they are a little larger at 17 square metres each. Upcoming European brand CitizenM has squeezed its room footprint down to 14 square metres, and Marriott’s new Moxy is built around a 17 square metre room; while Whitbread’s Hub rooms, developed for urban sites in the UK, absorb just under 12 square metres of floorspace.

“I think it’s going to be market driven,” says Jacqui Kirk, a director at hotel design specialists Dexter Moren, pointing out that while London seems a logical place for a small hotel room, the same might not be expected in Dubai. But she notes that this is not the only consideration.

Also coming into play are societal changes – a new generation that is connected online via pocket sized technology appears to care less than their parents, about physical personal space. Technology is also changing the way people work, while coffee shops are replacing business meeting rooms.

Hotel design is responding, says Kirk, with a shift to making the public areas in a hotel more attractive in their own right. “The lobby is an extension of your living room,” she says. And with hotels increasingly linking with celebrity chefs and turning their restaurants into attractions “hotels are becoming neighbourhood assets in their own right.”

Kirk also attributes change in the sector to the rise of boutique hotels. “There are quite a few interesting boutique brands doing things successfully,” she notes – and the big brands are catching them up. In design terms, there are some challenges in making small feel beautiful. “You have to be more creative with how you use space,” notes Kirk, and the use of high quality finishes helps to reinforce style and take guests’ eyes away from the lost acreage of carpet between bed and bathroom.

Last year, consultants HVS suggested this move to smaller rooms would also hit the serviced apartment market, helping them to keep costs under control. “This urge to downsize is just the beginning, and can be taken further,” said the report. Clever design could bring unit size down to around 20 sq metres for a studio, they reckoned.

Agents Savills have noted that the phenomenon in the UK is no longer confined to London, with a number of small format room projects in the pipeline across the country. Martin Rogers, the firm’s director of regional hotels, comments: “The rise of pods and smaller format hotels throughout the UK can largely be attributed to cost. If room count can be increased by providing smaller rooms without significantly impacting on average daily rates there can, in the right circumstances, be a positive impact on value. Land values have also contributed, for example in cities where land values have increased by between 10-20%, such as Bristol, Manchester and York, developers are now having to intensify sites and making rooms smaller is the easiest way.” 

At Whitbread, management said the new Hub format was borne of the need to keep prices down, in city centres where real estate is expensive. The reinvented Premier Inn has rooms that are 45% smaller, leading 25% lower build costs, 25% lower operating costs and a 30% lower price point. Each Hub room occupies just 11.4 sq metres, compared with an average 21.4 sq metres for a Premier Inn room.

Its more recent expansion in London has allowed Premier Inn to see how busy and profitable the market is, with their responsive pricing policy increasing rates according to demand. But they were also noticing how many customers they seemed to be losing as a result of the higher prices, and Hub is designed to capture some of those.

Bristol looks likely to have the first capsule hotel in the UK, with a project approved for a central site. Birmingham has the Nitenite hotel with 7 square metre, windowless rooms, opened – perhaps ahead of its time – in Birmingham in 2006. It has recently been purchased by a new owner, who has pledged to expand the brand. Elsewhere, ZHotels, which runs with rooms of 10-12 square metres and is open in London and Liverpool, has recently won consent to build a new hotel in Bath.

“What these regional pod hotels will offer guests is a central location at a smaller price, two strong motivators to give up that extra bit of space,” says Martin. “Improved technology and construction innovations such as flat screen tv’s and improved storage will also mean that the small space will begin to feel less and less like a sacrifice.” Savills believes the compact room also works best in strong tourist locations, where visitors are more interested in days out, rather than spending time in their rooms.

Marie Hickey, Savills’ associate director of research, adds: “Star ratings can be subjective but smaller formats and pods introduce a new element that the industry will have to decide how to adapt to and rate. Whilst we don’t expect them to replace traditional hotels, for some visitors size really does matter, but ultimately they will provide greater consumer choice to overnight visitors.”


HA Perspective [by Katherine Doggrell]: As real estate in prime locations gets ever-more expensive, expect to see a lot more hotels where design is employed as a replacement for space. They’ve been doing it for years in New York, where a suite can provide one’s butler with serious cat-swinging issues, but no-one seems to mind.

Pod rooms have come a long way from their origins as capsules for the drunk Japanese businessman. You aren’t provided with sleeping attire, for one thing. The new breed tend to have room for everything except a bath and it is more ‘perfectly formed’ than small.

The trick, as the Savills report notes, is locating such limited-space hotels where the room is more of a place to dump bags and sleep than somewhere to hang out. In the case of Citizen M, attention is paid to making the extensive public spaces as enticing as possible, ensuring that they are not missing out on F&B revenue and atmosphere.

As is to be expected at the value end of the market, the rise of the pod hotel is challenging the more traditional economy hotels, as well as B&Bs (where rooms have never been generous) and the ever-traumatised mid-market. The question for hotels is whether the design element will challenge further up the scale, particularly in the battle to attract the Millennial customer.

In terms of rate, there is no contest. In addition, Citizen M, Moxy and Yotel have all been quick off the mark in terms of building a personality around their brands and making themselves look attractive against the traditional flags. They also don’t face the challenges of scale that boutique brands do, with USPs which don’t rely on an infinite supply of talented local chefs or mixologists. It looks as though the Davids may be serious contenders against some of the existing Goliaths.

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