Analysis: airport hotels

Airport hotels are being reinvented to attract a new wave of travellers and events bookers…

SURINDER ARORA MAY NOT BE AS FAMOUS AS HOTELIERS such as Sir Rocco Forte or Bill Marriott, but he is fast becoming the king of Britain’s airport hotels. His Arora Group either has built, owns, oper­ates, or manages the property assets of a dozen major hotels at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted among other airports, and it recently secured planning permission for a 298-room new property at the re­vamped Heathrow Terminal 2, the first hotel within the Central Terminal Area under development, with a direct link from hotel to terminal.

Together with plans for two new hotels being built and operated at T4 – due to open in 2018 and also directly linked to the terminal – Arora has some 1,048 rooms set to come onstream within the airport over the next few years. Its crown jewel at Heathrow’s T5, of course, remains the Sofitel, the only hotel with an airbridge to the terminal that’s home to British Airways. The Sofitel at Gatwick’s North Terminal is Arora’s, too.

Arora, 58, worked for BA in his 20s as a customer services officer before building a hotel adjacent to Heathrow to house BA flight crew. He is part of a new wave of change sweeping through airport hotels, as their rather negative image as ‘last resort’ places to stay in or use is challenged.


There has been a gradual shift over the past few years with the major hotel groups seeking to embrace more modern design, with greater use of natural light, upscale food and drink offerings and other ameni­ties – such as spas and fitness centres – to attract both business and leisure travellers.

And already the recasting of the tradi­tional airport hotel appears to be paying off: room demand at airport locations world­wide has grown from about 55 million room nights in 2010 to 65 million last year, accord­ing to hotel data provider STR.

“Airport hotels around the world are transforming themselves into sophisti­cated destinations for business and leisure travellers alike,” says Shawn McAteer, VP for global brand management at Hilton Worldwide. “I think we’re redefining what that airport hotel concept can be.”

Hilton’s showpiece attempt to rein­vigorate the airport hotel concept can be seen at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, where it opened a 433-room new-build property at the turn of the year. It is design-led (by in-vogue Dutch architects Mecanoo) with an exterior offering a striking 12-story curved cubic design white building covered by more than 5,000 grey panels and windows all set at a 45 degree angle, evoking a ‘reptile-like’ outer skin (think crocodile or alligator). Interiors are by chic London designers The Gallery HBA. Natural daylight – which is now de rigeur in new hotel designs – is provided by a glass-roof covering the 42 metre-high main atrium lobby.

But Hilton does not forget that airport hotels are as much about meetings as simply a place to eat and sleep, however upmarket they may want to be: it claims the hotel is the largest for conferences near Schiphol. Next in the group’s airport pipe­line are a 357-room Hampton by Hilton at Stansted, slated for next summer, and in 2018 properties at Ankara in Turkey and Raleigh-Durham airport/Brier Creek in North Carolina.

All round the globe, it seems, airports are embracing hotels in their midst: from Christchurch International airport (an Accor Novotel) later next year to Cuba’s Jose Marti International airport (a probable five-star property, although no brand has been announced yet).

Most high profile, however, is likely to be a new 505-room hotel on the site of the iconic former TWA terminal at New York’s JFK airport – the one shaped like a bird’s wings, a protected landmark since being shuttered in 2001.

JFK currently has no on-site airport hotels since the closure in 2009 of the Ramada Plaza, but work has just started on rede­veloping the TWA terminal, which will house the hotel’s lobby and 40,000 sq ft of meeting and event spaces, along with bars and restaurants and a 10,000 sq ft public observation deck. The hotel rooms will be housed in adjacent wings to the terminal and opening is not expected until late 2018.

Not to be outdone, Chicago’s O’Hare airport is planning a new 300-400 room hotel next to Terminal 5, which handles international flights, with up to 65,000 sq ft of meetings space. Access to the hotel and terminal will be via the airport’s automated ‘people mover’ transit system. Likely opening date will be 2020. By then, the 8 million-plus people who fly each day, according to figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), will – un­foreseen events not withstanding – have been joined by many thousands more on present forecasts. This is despite evidence of a recent slowdown in the rate of global passenger growth numbers as a result of terrorism fears and economic issues.

While these numbers alone are enough to encourage global hotel chains to pursue a more aggressive airport hotel strategy, the key dynamic in the next two decades will be the growing prevalence of the millennial traveller (those aged between late teens and mid-30s).

As far as it is possible to ascribe collective behaviour to this cohort, many millennials seemingly display a desire for a certain type of travel experience that includes bright and spacious hotels with flexible designs (such as multi-use lobbies), ‘wellness’ centres, global cuisines and a more informal style, according to research carried out by Hilton and Marriott among others.

But even if the upsurge in new gen­eration airport hotels being developed is maintained, will demand follow? “Clients who want somewhere convenient to meet or stay have used airport hotels for many years,” points out Margaret Bowler, direc­tor of global hotel relations at HRG. “The only difference now is that there are more properties with better facilities being built close to airports.”


In many respects, the new generation of airport hotels offers a range of additional choices to travel buyers. With more hotels being located within airports and close to terminals, the advantages of using them to hold meetings or small conferences are apparent: savings on taxi transfers to city centres, for example, as well as more productive use of an employee’s time by staying on-site before returning to home base. Calculating the total cost savings – in time as well as money – can make significant differences in assessing whether on-site airport hotels are truly cost-effective.

Although room rates in the new-build hotels may be higher to justify the extra investment, says Bowler, in the final analy­sis they remain “as driven by demand as ever”, as shown by HRG’s annual global hotel survey published earlier this year.

The activity that clusters around large airports means hotels also see significant meetings revenue from local businesses. The London Heathrow Marriott, for example, which recently completed a multimillion-pound refurb of its conference centre, says roughly 60 per cent of its meetings, incen­tives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) bookings comes from local businesses.

Conference and event organisers, however, “are definitely taking new hotel developments at key international hubs into serious consideration when putting together a client proposal”, says Victoria Deprez, senior events manager at Event Travel Management. But she adds that “many clients are still reluctant to consider airport-based properties as a serious alterna­tive, due to the adverse perception these hotels sometimes have”.

Ironically, London’s newest ‘airport’ hotel is actually separated from the airport by the River Thames: the 18-storey, 453 room Intercontinental London – The 02 is perched on the Greenwich Peninsula close to the O2 Centre, while London City airport is on the north side of the river. But the five-star hotel is only a short tube, taxi or riverboat ride away, giving it some claim to being an ‘airport’ hotel – not surprisingly, perhaps, since it is owned and operated by Surinder Arora’s Arora Group. Yet soon there may really be an on-site hotel at London City: the government recently backed a £344 million expansion plan for the airport which would include a 260-room hotel on site. Maybe the man who would be king of airport hotels will get involved in that, too.

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