A new blank sheet

The hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit from the pandemic. But there is little that daunts Hans Meyer, the hotelier who initially created the game-changing CitizenM concept and is now building his new venture, Zoku. How did he turn change into opportunity and innovation?

The pandemic hurt almost every business. But the hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit. Renowned hospitality brand builder and change agent Hans Meyer believes that the pandemic accelerated the growth of a new market segment.

Now, his eyes are fixed on the growing number of young, mobile professionals who need to live and work in a city, often in another country, for days or sometimes months.

“Impossible is an opinion, not a fact.” There is apparently little that daunts Hans Meyer, the hotelier who initially created the game-changing CitizenM concept and is currently building his new venture, Zoku. “When I get pushback, I get motivated. It helps the process.”

Speaking from his home just north of Amsterdam, Meyer’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious, even over Zoom. Now 53 years old, Meyer started out working for mainstream hospitality companies such as Golden Tulip and Spain’s NH Hotel Group. But he soon came to believe the hotel sector was ripe for an overhaul.

“Hotels are commodities,” he explains. “The only differences are location and price; they are basically carbon copies of each other. But I felt the world was changing and there was a huge opportunity for innovation, focusing on a sensory experience and giving people what they need while leaving out the things they don’t.

“I was in an industry where first there’s a building, then space and then people. I believe in a reverse approach: put the people first and build everything around them.”

This viewpoint would eventually lead to citizenM, the affordable luxury boutique hotel chain. Along with four other founding partners, as Chief Operating Officer responsible for concept, creativity and design, Meyer looked to put guests – who they were and what they needed – ahead of everything else.

“I like starting with a blank sheet of paper and asking, what problems do you want to solve for your target audience?

In the case of CitizenM, if you want a cool space in the middle of a city between a late dinner and an early flight, what should that look like?”

Meyer also drew inspiration from the burgeoning lowfrills boom, from airlines to fashion, that was taking off at the same time and realised that the luxuries traditionally associated with five-star hotels – marble bathrooms or plush carpets – were no longer what mattered to their target audience. “Basically, what everyone wants is a great night’s sleep, a great shower, some cool design and free Wi-Fi. It doesn’t matter if you’re one-star or five-star.”

Meyer spent several years with citizenM before moving on to his next project: hybrid hotel Zoku, which he founded with fellow Managing Director Marc Jongerius. Much like citizenM, Zoku is centred on a specific target audience: young, mobile professionals who need to live and work in a city, often in another country, for anything between a few days and a few months.

Meyer concluded that this demographic wanted more than an anonymous hotel room and a commute to a satellite office. They wanted a flexible and personal space that catered for all their needs equally: somewhere to sleep, work and meet people, and a sense of community.

He spent a year interviewing around 150 people from this target audience to find out not what they wanted, but what they actively did not want. “Truly knowing what frustrates them: that’s very inspirational,” he says. He even went as far as to live as a “digital nomad” himself, spending two months in Buenos Aires, two in Washington and two in Bali.

“I very much believe in a no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” explains Meyer. “It means you make very deliberate choices: you choose a very specific target audience, you step into their shoes, and then you create the ultimate experience for them. It also means you’re perfectly comfortable with leaving part of the market out.”

There are now four Zokus: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Vienna and Paris. They offer a variety of rooms, but most are designed to be easily and convincingly converted into workspaces during the day, with the bed and all other hotel room trappings neatly hidden away. There are also community areas and dedicated shared workspaces, for use by individuals or teams, and regular community events.

Zoku also emphasises individual needs: staff actively help guests navigate their way around new cities with suggestions of events and places, all to help them find their tribe (Zoku means tribe or family in Japanese). Meyer’s research showed how easy it was to become isolated and lonely when travelling for work.

Eventually, Meyer and Jongerius expect to expand Zoku into the US and Asia, and continue to build on its European footprint.

But the shift to hybrid working post-pandemic is currently exciting him most. Having rethought how to view hotels, Meyer and Jongerius’ next, as-yet-unnamed project will see Zoku work with either building owners or tenants to rethink how we use under-utilised office space.

Zoku will seek to create, in partnership with either the building owner or anchor tenant, a “social destination for hybrid work”: traditional fixed office space but also co-working spaces, event spaces, social spaces, retail and services, and so-called hybrids, which like Zoku’s hotel rooms, are suitable for focused work during the day.

The central concept is that by making the building fully adaptable, no space is ever wasted, even at night or the weekend. For example, on non-busy office days, co-working spaces could be opened to external workers, hybrids can be converted to serviced apartments for overnight stays, and the public can use social spaces during the weekend.

The concept was inspired in large by lockdown. In common with all hospitality, the pandemic was also hard for Zoku, which relies on business travel. But its inherent flexibility meant it could adapt within the confines of lockdown restrictions. Empty rooms were used for meetings, while larger communal spaces were used by local companies keen to retain a sense of community while their offices were shut, be it through team dinners or socially distanced entertainment.

“These kinds of experiments were so much fun, but we also learned that we actually had a very flexible product,” recalls Meyer. “Honestly, this idea would never have sprung up if there hadn’t been Covid-19.”

As is Meyer’s way, considerable research has been carried out. “For innovation you need people who want to listen,” argues Meyer. “I reached out to the person at Google who’s globally responsible for workplace strategy and asked him if he was prepared to listen.” The Mountain View Executive was happy to help and put together a team for Meyer to grill. “The only question I asked was, why are you not giving me a call tomorrow saying that you want this?”

Meyer believes his approach will solve many of the issues thrown into stark relief by the pandemic: a tight labour market and unproductive workforce, the need for human connection and poor office utilisation.

“Pre-pandemic, it wasn’t high up on the agenda to think about wasted space because we’re used to it. But technology is advancing and we’re able to measure space utilisation, so why can’t we use space in a better way? After all, do we need more space – or do we need smarter space?”

Meyer points to data showing that pre-pandemic office utilisation was around 60%. “But that was measured during a 40-hour week,” he explains, “and a week has 168 hours. So, 60% becomes 15%, and after Covid-19 it’s between 5 per cent and 10%. So, the majority of all this office real estate is empty for more than 90% on average, which with regard to the climate crisis, sustainability and cost is a complete waste.”

Meyer intends to launch in the second half of 2023 before ideally going live with the first building in 2025. He expects to open in Amsterdam first but has also set his sights on London and other European capitals, with their wealth of underutilised office space.

There are considerable challenges. Meyer acknowledges that planning will need to be carefully addressed and negotiated, as they want to combine entities – hospitality, offices, retail – that fall under different regulations.

Meyer is also keen to involve local neighbourhoods and convert office space to public spaces when not in use, which raises issues around privacy and security. The space also needs to be frictionless and requires a flexible, intelligent design that allows it to adapt easily and quickly.

Likewise, the model will not suit everyone. Not all workers, for example, when visiting an overseas office for long periods will want to stay in the very building they are working in each day.

But of course, Meyer is undaunted. “Pre-pandemic, the idea would have been more difficult to sell,” he concedes.

“But we’ve had to reinvent ourselves. I feel that the true objective of hybrid work is giving people the flexibility and freedom to choose where they are most happy and most productive.”

As he concludes with a shrug: “I’m not very concerned about it. This market is so incredibly big and inefficient, and employee satisfaction in so many offices is so low – this is a huge opportunity.”

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