In January, London-based Thomson Holidays, one of the U.K.'s biggest tour operators, hosted the "Future Holiday Forum," with leaders in travel, technology and design. The most surprising part of its report, "2024: A Holiday Odyssey," predicted that the hotel of the future will be a foldable pod on stilts, which can be plunked down in remote locations. The pods will be self-sustainable, and guests can choose the images they want to be projected on the walls. When a destination falls out of fashion, whether due to demand or terrorism, the pod can simply be folded up and moved.
"The idea behind it is that the pods will have a minimal impact on the environment," says Rachel O'Reilly of Thomson Holidays. "They don't require infrastructure like roads to get there, as guests can helicopter in."
What's even more surprising is that the pod could potentially be made and put into use. The architects behind the design, London-based m3 Architects whose projects include the London Eye (imagine a giant Ferris wheel with glass pods) and Berlin's Reichstag, say the pod hotel is entirely feasible. "The technology is there," says partner Nadi Jahangiri. "Someone just has to pay to build it." Jahangiri estimates it would cost between $72 to $104 million to build, and says he has received a lot of interest from ship owners, who have dry docks and enough cargo space to accommodate the construction of a pod.
Future of travel
It's not just pod hotels which could be shaping the future of travel. Glen Hiemstra, founder of www.futurist.com, believes that three things will define the future of hotels: robotics, nanotechnology, and biometric security, such as retina scans. Some of these technologies, like retina scans, are already being used by high-security government offices, banks and the military, but Hiemstra predicts they will soon be embraced by the hotel industry.
"I think robotics will be the most significant technology to affect the hotel industry in the future," says Hiemstra. He envisions a hotel where robots can do the majority of the cleaning and check-in and safes will become automated by devices like retina scans. "But the really far-out science fiction scenario is with nanotechnology," he says. (In short, nanotechnology is the ability to manipulate and manufacture things at the molecular level.) "In 2025 or 2030, we might be able to have rooms reconfigure themselves to whatever guests want, whether it's a king-sized bed and a couch, or a single bed and a desk."
But swinging back to present day, where is most of the hotel innovation taking place? Howard J. Wolff, of the international design firm Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo (WATG) which counts Claridge's hotel in London and the Mansion at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas as clients, laughs and says, "The bed ... Starwood thought about what people wanted from their hotel room and when it comes down to it, it's a comfortable place to sleep which is why they spent their money developing the Heavenly Bed." (Starwood Hotel & Resort Worldwide's Westin Hotel subsidiary developed the Heavenly Bed, a custom-made mattress set by Simmons with 900 individual coils, that hotel guests can purchase for $2,565.)
Pushing the boundaries
Wolff says that the hotel industry is slow to accept radical design, and "any hotel opening next year was designed five years ago, so it's not exactly innovative." But WATG is pushing the boundaries of hotel design, and has created conceptual designs for a space resort; an undersea resort; an airship; and is also working on the world's biggest cruise ship, the America World City Ship, which will be more like a floating city with three hotel towers.
"There's a push and pull between high tech and high touch, which was covered in the book Megatrends [written by John Naisbitt]," says Wolff. "There's a desire for things like automated check in and smart cards, but people lose that human touch and interaction. There's a value in someone remembering your name when you come back to a hotel."
Kas Kasravi, a fellow at tech services company Electronic Data Systems in Plano, Texas, is a fan of Teleportec, a private Dallas-based company that allows videoconferencing with 3-D hologram projections. Right now the technology is only being used by individual companies, but Kasravi predicts that hotels will soon start implementing it to enhance conferences. But when asked what else he thinks the hotel of the future will have, or should have, his answer wasn't about robotics or nanotechnology. "I just want wireless web everywhere!" he wails.
So, how different will staying at a hotel be in 2025 than 2005? We spoke with technology companies, architects, and hoteliers to look at everything from space resorts to undersea hotels and smart cards. Some of the innovations are distinct possibilities in the near future, like smart cards. Other, such as space resorts, are still at the conceptual stage. Conspicuously absent are green hotels. "At the moment, nobody is truly doing any 'green' hotels," says Greg Chikaher, of Arup, an international consulting firm. "Right now energy costs are about 2.5 percent of operating costs. When energy prices go up, the big hotels will do something about it but not right now."
© 2012 Forbes.com