It's not easy for hotels to genuinely surprise us – but citizenM did. I encountered citizenM's London location during our diginomica 2104 team kick off. The experience got me thinking about the role of hotels in community - not to mention hotels as a sparking ground for startups and mobile workers.
When I first walked in to citizenM London, I thought I was in the kind of Euro designer hotel that brings out my ugly Americanisms – like the hotel I stayed at in Madrid without a shower door (a practicality I happen to find useful, especially on cold mornings). In this case, I was dead wrong. citizenM has taken some design liberties, but not in the name of fashion as much as the modern mobile worker (the 'M' in citizenM stands for 'Mobile' as in 'Mobile citizen').
Does killing six hours in a hotel lobby sound like a nightmare ? It does to me also – but not in this case. I burned through a day in the citizenM lobby pushing through projects on a blazing fast, free wifi connection. A growing curiosity about how the hotel was run was peaked by the adhoc groups of geeks and suits that huddled over tables concocting evil plans. Watching the hotel staff swap from checking in guests to baristas duties and back again also intrigued.
I began taking photos and investigating what makes citizenM tick. The above photo gives a flavor of the informal meeting buzz in the lobby, as does this one:
I saw someone wearing a citizenM t-shirt that said, 'I'm not a tourist, but a mobile citizen'. Some hotels have mission statements – but how many have manifestos? Outside the upstairs meeting rooms, I found the citizenM manifesto. I couldn't get a photo of the whole thing but I found a full copy online:
Business as activist fashion? Perhaps. But it beats photos of old dudes in stuffy arm chairs.
During the rest of our stay, Den and I chatted up the citizenM hotel staff off hours to find out more about the operation. Some of the factoids we learned:
- citizenM was launched in Amsterdam. There are now locations in London, Glasgow, and Rotterdam, with a soon-to-be opened New York locale.
- The hotel rooms are intentionally minimalist; the vision is for the bulk of your hotel time to take place downstairs in a collective setting, not hunkered over the computer in your room. The extreme 'go to the lobby when you're awake' message is underscored by the lack of in-room coffee makers, though the shower was lovely and did have a door, so you can at least be freshly scrubbed for your downstairs caffeine fix.
- The lobby, with easy access to the open bar and coffee shop open virtually around the clock, welcomes outside visitors. College kids and entrepreneurs have informal meetings and hop on the free wifi as needed. (I believe startups have launched from meetings at citizenM but I don't have specifics at presstime).
- The hotel staff are trained in all functions on the hotel floor, allowing rotations from shift to shift and a fluid movement to where the customer needs are. (The check in area is more like a self-service airport kiosk than the conventional hotel desk – I never saw that typical hotel check-in line forming).
- The room itself takes a page from the mobile workforce playbook, with everything from free movies on-demand to exotic lighting controls all managed from a tablet computer (though citizenM is far from the only hotel to pursue in-room management by tablet, e.g. Hyatt's iPad apps).
Closing thoughts and ideas
One of the staff members, wearing the barista hat at the time, told us he had chosen citizenM over a more conventional hotel to learn all aspects of a hotel's operation (the staff on check-in duty also take care of the hotel's financial books at night).
Whether citizenM can be successful in the US remains to be seen. In urban metros with a hipster/startup population, I'd expect that citizenM would be received pretty well. If I were in charge, I'd put San Francisco next on the map. I'll definitely consider a stay at their New York City location. Given that tiny hotel rooms are a tradition in New York, citizenM might be an easy adjustment for Manhattan roamers.
I'm not sure mobile workers are united in a common cause, or that life on the road is worthy of the romantic sheen the citizenM manifesto proclaims. That said, hotels are ripe for digital lifestyle innovation. Look no further than the empty/stale 'business centers' at most hotel chains – places you would only go if your laptop was fried or if someone from the 20th century wanted you to fax them something.
Hotels may not want to turn their lobbies into startup incubators, but there are lessons to be learned from citizenM about open workspaces and connections made not at the bar, but in the context of project mingling and adhoc meetings. And should I bring up all the collective time lost attempting to log into into crummy hotel wifi connections (and paying for the privilege?)
These days, the most famous disruption to the hospitality industry is Airbnb. But there is room for more; see our own Jessica Twentyman's piece yesterday on driving online bookings (meaning: literally book your hotel from your (Ford) car as you drive). We may not be ready for the completely mobile hotel room, but designs like citizenM's are at least focused on infusing fun and productivity into the work we are tied into wherever we are.
If other hotels don't feel disrupted by the likes of citizenM yet, here's hoping they do soon. The mobile citizen deserves better than we usually get. And, should you find yourself at citizenM, don't bother fussing with your in-room desk. Grab your iPad, and head downstairs to the lobby – because that's where the real action is.
Update: this detailed slideshare has a bunch of pictures and relevant stats on citizenM.
Image credit: citizenM photos by Jon Reed