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Seven Super Hotel Innovations You Need to Know About

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Not all consumer travel news is gloom and doom. The hotel industry, unlike the far less competitive airline sector, is seeing some positive progress. Arguably, traveler-friendly trends -- from innovations in booking to fresh and alluring amenities -- reveal the promising shape of lodging to come. Did we mention craft beer in the lobby? We like what we see. Here are seven intriguing hotel innovations that you need to know about before you book your next stay.

Phones Become Key Cards

Smartphones, which travelers can use as electronic boarding passes, credit cards, and such, are becoming a significant means of identification in the travel space. Naturally, the time has come for the phone-as-hotel-key-card. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide plans to test virtual key cards at select properties this year. Guests will have to download a smartphone app that will provide their room assignment, allowing them to skip the check-in process altogether and zip right to their room—no need to talk to a human in case you prefer screens to people. The key itself will live on your phone. Just swipe your smartphone to unlock the door. If all goes well—and we don't see any reason why it wouldn't—travelers should expect to see this technology at more and more properties in the near future.

Online Booking Burgeons

You know that little two-room B&B you stayed at in the French countryside, which you learned about through word of mouth? Chances are, it's bookable online now. And if it's not now, it'll likely be posted online soon. More and more obscure mom-and-pop properties are moving into the 21st century by adopting online booking systems, also known as global distribution systems (GDS). New reservations-management technologies that focus on boutique properties, such as Global.li, are allowing smaller properties to more easily expand their online presence.

Even travel agents are hip to the movement. According to a study by TravelClick, agents—those pros of phone calls and impassioned negotiation—are powering up their computers to book hotels via online platforms. TravelClick's Executive Vice President, Jason Ewell, says, "The GDS is more popular with travel agents than ever. This year the GDS is on pace to produce 58 million hotel reservations, up 5 million from 2011."

New Ways to Compare Hotel Prices Arrive

New and exciting tools for unearthing hotel deals are popping up in the travel space. With the help of big data, consumers can better compare hotel costs and amenities, using algorithms to determine the best properties—and the best-priced properties—to meet their needs. Innovative sites like Top10.com, a metadata analyzer that looks at hotel locations, reviews, and rates on major booking sites to create top-10 lists of the best hotel options, are a great addition to consumers' decision-making arsenals. Furthermore, Sabre, the major GDS used by the bulk of the airline industry (it powers big booking sites and aggregators like Travelocity, Expedia, and Kayak, as well as most major airlines) is launching a new hotel aggregator. This is a big deal. Powered by hotel site ZoomAndGo's map-based search capabilities, Sabre's booking product could give us even better ways to sort and search for the best properties, filtering by price, location, proximity to airport, brand, and more.

Resort Fees Go Buh-Bye

In recent years, there's been some news about ancillary hotel fees—such as resort fees or parking fees—rising. But the trend, it seems, may be reversing. Consumers aren't stupid. By now, many travelers know to look out for additional fees when comparing room rates, and once a hotel hits us with nasty, unexpected fees, we're unlikely to return. We're onto your schemes, hotels. And so properties, accordingly, are responding. According to a report from Skift, which quotes the 2013 edition of Trends in the Hotel Industry, hotel revenue from ancillary fees (not including food and beverage) fell 0.8 percent in 2012, compared to 2011. Hotels, says Skift, are beginning to raise room rates in lieu of building annoying anti-consumer laundry lists of ancillary fees, allowing guests to see the full prices up front. Finally.

Free Wi-Fi Flourishes

A survey from SmartBrief Media Services shows that 57 percent of hotel guests will not stay at a hotel if it doesn't offer free Wi-Fi. It's about time, of course, that hotels provide what has become a fundamental amenity for ever-wired travelers. So who's on board? Loyalty-program membership is sometimes a prerequisite, but more and more properties are jumping on the complimentary Wi-Fi bandwagon. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group now offers free Wi-Fi to guests who book online and fill out a short survey. Hilton HHonors members who have Gold and Diamond status or subscribe with AT&T can connect for free at more than 3,000 Hilton properties. Starwood Hotels & Resorts just started offering free Wi-Fi for its Platinum members, too. I predict that more big hotel brands (and smaller properties too) will cut Wi-Fi fees in the year ahead.

Wellness Amenities Expand

Bikes. Clean eating. In-room gyms. Hotels are beefing up wellness perks en mass, responding to a traveling public that is becoming deeply health-aware. According to a report from Spafinder Wellness 365, hotels are developing ways to court health-conscious tourists because these travelers spend, on average, 130 percent more than standard guests. There are so many examples of hotel health campaigns: Kimpton Hotels rolled out fresh juice menus, with concoctions such as a green drink made from cucumber, celery, spinach, kale, and lemon, at 10 Kimpton restaurants around the country. Westin Hotels & Resorts launched a $15 million Westin Well-Being Movement that features wellness benefits such as workout gear (available for rent) and a "SuperFoodsRx" menu. Or consider IHG's new wellness-branded EVEN Hotels, outfitted with ergonomic chairs, healthy menus, and athletic studios. Two EVEN Hotels are currently open, with at least two more set to open in New York in 2015.

Hotels Create More Interesting Lobbies

The sharing economy: It's the millennial-driven model of peer-to-peer asset transfer. People are renting directly from other people. They're collaborating. They're sharing ownership. It figures, then, that millennial hotel guests might want to share space in hotels, too. Thus, many properties are beefing up collective spaces such as lobbies while scaling back on guest-room sizes. Marriott, for example, is hoping to roll out its "great room lobby" concept in 80 percent of its hotels by the end of this year. The lobbies will have craft beer. Coffee, communal tables, free Wi-Fi, and electrical outlets (all the better to charge up those smartphones) will abound. About the lobby, Marriott's Senior Vice President Paul Cahill says, "It represents a strategic and holistic approach to design, technology, and service that is truly relevant to the new generation of travelers."

--By Caroline Costello

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Read the original story: Seven Super Hotel Innovations You Need to Know About by Caroline Costello, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.