Having spent the day cavorting around Club Med Cancun Yucatan, my wife of 17 years and I stretch out on our ocean-facing king-sized bed. We listen to the gentle surf as it caresses the beach where, just a few hours earlier, we had sipped pina coladas, frolicked on the warm white sand and gamely impersonated the tanned and toned models who inject innuendo into resort marketing materials. Perhaps best of all, our two young daughters are firmly ensconced in their own bedroom.
It’s a far cry from our previous all-inclusive vacations, in which the wah-wah pedal of passion was invariably unplugged by the paradox of standard-issue family accommodations. On one hand, getaways with the brood are supposed to strengthen all manner of domestic bonds. On the other, the enduring two-queen-beds-in-a-room configuration does little to ease domestic tension – especially over the course of several days, let alone a week or more – and does nothing to help innuendo become reality. After all, does anything kill the mood like having young offspring snoozing in the bed right next to yours, or behind a flimsy room divider that provides about as much privacy as plastic wrap?
Fortunately, this frustrating arrangement is finally giving way to a more generous and practical approach to family lodgings. Similar to a growing number of hotel and resort operations around the world, Club Med is bending over backward to provide families and groups with flexible, modular spaces such as the ones they have in their own homes.
With market research revealing that 27 per cent of its own loyalty members were using home-rental services, Marriott International recently launched “Studio Commons” by Element Hotels, one of 30 brands belonging to the world’s largest hotel chain. This lodging concept, which features four private guest rooms surrounding a shared kitchen and living room, was initially offered at properties in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Boulder, Colo., with more slated for all 53 Element properties, including those in Calgary, Edmonton, Mississaugua, Burnaby, B.C., Vaughan, Ont.
Other multinational hospitality companies, including France’s AccorHotels and Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels, have launched similar brands and programs, and have made flexibility and modularity the focus of renovations. The recently completed multiyear overhaul of Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York, for instance, added three connecting suites on each of the grand dame’s third through 11th floors.
The growing demand for versatility and variety isn’t lost on travel agencies and booking websites. “The biggest change we’re seeing is in the breadth of available options,” Expedia spokeswoman Mary Zajac says. “Whether it’s a hotel, vacation rental or all-inclusive resort, families now have far more choice in terms of what best suits their needs.”
This shift is being spurred by competition from shared-accommodation giants such as Airbnb and HomeAway, as well as from proliferating condo-hotels and hybrid newcomers such as Sonder and Blueground that rent out apartment-style spaces. “Airbnb has been the game-changer,” says Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. “Travellers have come to expect flexibility and convenience, and for a family that means separate bedrooms, being able to cook their own breakfasts, and all the other factors that add up to an authentic family experience. That’s why so many hotels and resorts are redesigning.”
As an example of this shift, Dimanche points to the Homes & Villas short-term rental service recently launched by Marriott in more than 190 destinations across the United States, Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America.
By providing services and amenities such as round-the-clock phone support and check-in, premium bed linens and bathroom amenities, and high chairs, travel cribs and other family-oriented items, Homes & Villas aims to overcome the challenges facing the short-term residential rental industry, explains Roz Winegrad, vice-president of owner and franchise services at Marriott International’s Canadian office. These, she says, include “too much inventory without quality filters or brand assurances,” and “inconsistency across guest experiences that often leads to consumers feeling stranded or disappointed with their travel experience.”
At Club Med, new and renovated family lodgings have helped fuel a 12-per-cent year-over-year jump in resort bookings, says Amélie Brouhard, vice-president of the French resort chain’s Canadian and Mexican operations. My family’s “Superior Room,” for instance, is one of 60 units added to the 376-room Cancun property as part of a 2018 expansion. Upon crossing the threshold, I gleefully note the two single beds furnishing the kids’ room off the main hallway. My daughters, meanwhile, seem more taken with their expansive separate closets.
The same kind of approach is being taken at Club Med’s new Michès Playa Esmeralda property, which opened in November on the relatively undeveloped southern shores of the Dominican Republic’s Samana Bay. The resort’s four boutique villages each provide different “vacation environments,” Brouhard explains, with “Archipelago” and “Emerald Jungle” restricted to adults, and “Explorer Cove” catering to families with four room types – many with separate child bedrooms – a private family pool, bar and beach cabanas.
“There’s so much diversity these days that families expect something that fits their needs perfectly,” Brouhard says. “We have families, couples and groups within a single site and it’s challenging to cater to their many different preferences. Once we build walls we can’t make them disappear, so we make sure to listen to what our guests want whenever we renovate or establish a new property.”
What guests want, Ryerson’s Dimanche says, is the best of both worlds. “The big hotel chains have the resources to test the waters, to find out what this new generation of customers is all about. With Airbnb, every property owner manages relationships with their guests however they see fit. Hoteliers aren’t nimble enough to do that, but they are better suited to delivering a more consistent customer experience, with amenities and services, such as in-house dining, housekeeping and room service, that most shared accomodations can’t offer.”
Smaller independent hotels, he adds, could be left in a kind of limbo. “They’re going to have to start doing things they have never done before and not everyone is comfortable with this.”
Breaking new ground is precisely what Snow Valley Lodging is doing to energize its business. In October, the 60-year-old property in Fernie, B.C., added six 220-square-foot tiny homes to its diverse array of quarters. Said to comprise “the first tiny-home hotel in Canada,” each venue accommodates a maximum of two adults and two children, with a compact kitchen and sofa bed on the ground floor and a queen bed-equipped loft. “It’s definitely different from staying in a regular hotel room or in a house you can rent on Airbnb,” front desk staffer Noelle Le Maitre says. “Families want convenience and privacy, but they also want something fun and unique.”
A tiny home away from home? “Families who stay in our tiny homes tell us they could 100 per cent live there,” Le Maitre says with a laugh.
Now those are tight-knit families.
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