Back to the Future

28th June 2009 (Last Updated June 28th, 2009 18:30)

The Future Laboratory's co-founder Chris Sanderson talks to Christopher Kanal. They discuss trends, triangulation and the need to simply sit and watch.

Back to the Future

Chris Sanderson loves hotels and believes they are a litmus paper for society. “You can look at how hotels develop and get a very good judgment of how society is changing,” says the co-founder of The Future Laboratory.

“By the nature of what a hotel is about, it has to be hugely reactive to consumer needs.”

Sanderson is talking from across the table in a meeting room at the Future Laboratory’s east London headquarters.

Everything in the room is white, from the table to the walls. It’s stripped down to its essence to match the methodology of Europe’s leading trend, brand and futures consultancy, which has clients ranging from Lamborghini, Louis Vuitton, Veuve Clicquot, The New Yorker magazine and British Vogue to a variety of retail, tourism and municipal organisations including Melbourne City Council.

The only colour is provided by a lone magazine feature that has been torn out and pinned to the wall.

The Future Laboratory is the closest thing the hotel industry has to an oracle. Several years before the present economic crisis began, the consultancy predicted lifestyle trends including “Austerity” and “New Modest”, arguing that the good times for consumerism were coming to an end.

Few companies believed them then but now The Future Laboratory has been proved prescient, and Sanderson and co-founder Martin Raymond are in big demand.

“”You can look at how hotels develop and get a very good judgment of how society is changing.”

At the Design Hotels Future Forum last October, Sanderson and Raymond presented their unique brand of trend forecasting with its own terminology, coined by them, including “Freesumerism”, “Womenomics” and “Bleisure”.

For Sanderson, hotels offer one of the most accurate reflections of social and cultural change, and set trends as well as being influenced by them. “I think hotels react very, very quickly to trends and I think often they are doing it because it is still an industry with lots of independent visionaries,” explains Sanderson.

“At one end of the scale you have a large number of global corporates that dominate the sector but if we think about it, they are not often the ones who are really generating the headlines or creating the hotels that make us all go ‘wow’.”

As for the bigger hotel companies, Sanderson says they develop concepts too late. “They are developing sub-brands underneath their main brand but they are doing it ten years too late,” he says.

“You are not looking at JW Marriott’s Editions or IHG’s Indigos for inspiration because what they are doing is creating a ‘Me too’ brand and looking to Grupo Habita in Mexico City or Hotel Fox in Copenhagen.”

Sanderson cites the recently opened Aman New Delhi as reflecting a new shift for luxury accommodation; the resort philosophy has been re-imagined in an urban environment. “I think it is often on the level of much smaller groups, the independents, where you see that flexibility to be more creative and interesting.”

The co-founder of The Future Laboratory is rarely in London. Almost perpetually in transit, Sanderson and Raymond criss-cross the globe to hunt for trends, meet clients and give lectures.

This week the pair is off to Australia to present their annual “Trend Briefing” to clients and audiences in Sydney and Melbourne.

Through bespoke client reports, biannual Futures Reports on topics including luxury, retail and food, and LS:N – a trends insight portal – The Future Laboratory examines a multiplicity of aspects of culture and consumer change. Its methodology is straightforward and boils down to simple reporting, reflecting Raymond’s background as a journalist.

The Future Laboratory visualises the future through a methodology it formatted called “cultural triangulation”, taking as a metaphor the way you read a map. “I am at point A but I actually need to get to B, B being my journey towards something; ie towards the future,” Sanderson explains.

“First of all I have to know my context – where I am on the map – and in order to do that you triangulate.” The Future Laboratory uses this methodology to think about cultural and social triangulation.

“How do I actually find my point within a social map in terms of a brand? What do I represent to people and where do I fit into their lives? The process of triangulation is about interrogation and observation but spearheaded by intuition.”

The consultancy works with about 40 correspondents globally, who report back on hot new things, products, people and events. Sanderson says they prefer to use journalists, who ask questions and investigate as well as report on consequences.

The Future Laboratory then examines the journalists’ observations with a panel. If the topic was hotels the panel might include hoteliers, designers and anthropologists, who can discuss what is happening in the industry and identify certain trends in a sociological context.

“If I want to find out how people are using supermarkets, I don’t necessarily get them to take part in an anonymous survey; I am actually going to watch them shop,” says Sanderson. “You can do the same in a hotel. How do people actually use this space? An architect designs a public space but two years down the line, has anyone gone into that seating area you have created? Has anyone actually used it for the purpose it was created? You don’t really know that unless you sit and watch people.”

“By the nature of what a hotel is all about, it has to be hugely reactive to consumer needs.”

“Bleisure” is a term created by The Future Laboratory to define the blurring of business and leisure that has resulted from the changing nature of the way we work and put an end to the traditional work/life balance. Bleisure people were weaned on the internet.

They are tech savvy and can switch between Facebook, LinkedIn and software in the same task. Economist Holm Friebe has dubbed them Digital Bohemians, who want the freedom and ability to pick from various options.

But whatever name you choose to call them, their impact on hospitality could be profound. What they want is convergence.

For Sanderson, Facebook is the new conference room for Bleisure people, who are able to mouse-click their way out of most situations. On business trips they will typically stay at boutique hotels.

This in-between space in our lives – when we are on the train, in the cab, at an airport or on the beach – is the heart of the Bleisure lifestyle. Work no longer defines them.

They define work and they define it in terms of their multimedia lives.

The Future Laboratory has identified shifting consumer attitudes and changing business and leisure practices that affect every sector, from finance to travel. Sanderson says that Bleisure will have a big impact on the hospitality industry, as will “Nu-austerity”, as wealthy consumers increasingly choose to be inconspicuous in the new economic landscape.

Sanderson describes how luxury brands will become quieter, adopting an austere aesthetic. He points to a new generation of hotels lead by projects including Rabih Hage’s Rough Luxe in London’s King’s Cross (See HMI Spring 2009).

Sanderson says that hotels need to reflect their locale, be anti-global and reject homogenous branding in favour of rarity, rawness, the use of artisan techniques in décor and a projected unique sense of self. At the top end luxury is being refined into something subtler as conspicuous consumption has evaporated, to be replaced by intelligent wealth and even philanthropic experiences.

For Sanderson the recession is simply exacerbating trends that were already in existence, so a more sober response to consumption is shifting from something that we only look at in particular ways or segments of our lives to being more actively holistic. “In a hotel a guest is looking beyond the lip service they might be paying to the environment,” he says.

“In a hotel a guest is looking beyond the lip service they might be paying to the environment.”

“We are not just thinking about food miles; we are looking at the whole process of consumption.” Sanderson says that not only are brands “really monitoring the trend of choosing not to buy”, but The Future Laboratory’s research shows that people are moving beyond shunning bad companies to actively punishing them.

Lobby living

According to Sanderson, as work and play become increasingly all encompassing, so too must the hospitality industry that services the lifestyle. Business travellers no longer want a grey, drab room.

Boutique design hotels are the new business hotels. People are more mobile than ever and they want a homely and welcoming experience when they arrive.

It is called “effervescence”.

Hotels such as the Hyatt’s Andaz chain, which first opened in London’s Liverpool Street in 2007, have done away with the reception desk and instead take guests straight to their room. Some hoteliers are developing more activities for their business travellers.

GuestInvest hotels in the UK host unsigned band nights and often have a cinema on site.

As Sanderson sees it, hotel guests want thoughtful service tailored to give them control. In Stockholm, the Clarion Hotel breathed new life into the business hotel with its atrium that doubles up as an impressive gallery space.

The Jones Hotel in London has begun to host regular art events in its lobby.

When they have the time, business travellers often extend their trips to make the most of facilities and the local culture. According to a Travel Industry Association survey, 62% of business travellers add a leisure component to at least one business trip per year.

Two-thirds of survey respondents bring family members with them.

There is also a growing appetite for art. Le Méridien, with the help of French cultural curator Jérôme Sans, developed the Unlock Art programme in response to this.

The innovative programme provides access to local contemporary cultural institutions for Le Méridien guests. For example if you stay at Le Méridien Barcelona, you can visit MACBA.

Unlock Art also commissions work from artists such as Younes Rahmoun, Sam Samore and Ralph Gibson to hang in the lobbies of selected Le Méridien hotels for three to four-year cycles.

With his eye constantly on the future, Sanderson identifies India as a source of interest and inspiration as a hospitality market. “I like to look there rather than in more traditional Far Eastern destinations,” he explains.

“It is quite an evolved luxury market, an old luxury market. I like the variety. I can’t think of another country where you get that breadth of different opportunities that are being examined, and the potential optimised for the hotel experience.”