Many cities were flushed of occupants during the pandemic. So harsh was the French lockdown that the slightest hint of a second was enough to clog the roads with people fleeing Paris for their country houses. In London the office workers which form the population in this non-residential city drained clean away.
This has opened the debate on what the future holds for cities, which has kept the hotel sector on the edge of its seat for longer than is healthy. There are a lot of hotels in cities, you see.
It’s not a new debate. Airbnb and mass tourism had some locations – Venice, let’s say – accused of Disneyfication, of becoming travel destinations which were no longer living cities but visitor attractions. The lavish cost of real estate and lack of business other than selling guided tours had meant a removal of them local types. As an aside, this phenomena can been seen in tourist destinations than cities, with Cornwall and the New Forest in the UK having suffered for decades from a drain of the local population.
The answer to the problems in those rural areas (and London) could be resolved, in the main, by controls on second home sales and real estate prices. But control economies can lead to bad things, so we won’t be suggesting that, and will instead look to what the people who think such things more often than us are pondering.
This year’s Pandox Hotel Market Day, always a must-see/attend event, focused on this question (there are a lot of hotels in cities, you see).
First up was the Pandox CEO Liia Nõu, who said: “Quality will be what matters and we will pay more for that. Change is coming. We will see the pandemic as a great turning point, where we decided to walk a different road.”
Leo Johnson (yes, that Johnson, he said he’d had no hand in writing That Speech), partner, disruption lead, PwC UK, was all about the end of cities as we know it, commenting: “We’ve had the city of Henry Ford, shaped by the car and we lived these lives anchored around efficiency. There is an existential threat to that city. It’s starting to fall apart”.
Looking back, he said: “If we go to 2008, when the wheels started to come off, that was a model of capitalism which had a vision which was to look at the people inside the cities and deliver mass-produced goods to that market, then find new models to saturate new markets. It was like fishing with dynamite, where you get a lot of short-term growth, but kill off the market in the long term.
“There is an invisible wall of wealth and assets which capitalism has not pulled down and the pandemic has made higher. We have a window now where the walls may become visible. What will the cities of the future look like?
“We need to turn technology outwards. It’s not the panacea, but we need to use tech to start to solve climate problems. Is your city shaped like the plaza – like a shopping mall – or is the city shaped like the piazza, where people come together? To get the best people you have to make it liveable and fun.”
It seems fair to point out at this juncture that we have had walls before and often they had moats and boiling oil, so more of that wouldn’t be anything new. Indeed, Venice has erected an entry fee to try and deal with the pre-pandemic hordes.
Will we be living in a wall-less state of liveable fun, surrounded by the best people? There was no clarity on who these ‘best people’ were, but it sounds expensive, bouncy castles don’t come free.
Ian Goldin, professor of globalisation and development at the University of Oxford, painted a picture of cities which drove growth – currently 60% of populations are in cities, accounting for 80% of productivity. But Goldin pointed out that cities were also “refuges, places where people have left fragile areas, coming to cities where they are struggling to survive. These are fragile places”.
Are the best people also the people seeking refuge? We would hope so. And it’s not just us thinking about it: read Mews founder Richard Valtr’s thoughts here.
Commenting on how to attract more people to working in the sector, DJ Gunn Lundemo told attendees that more inclusion was needed to attract people into the sector. And so it surely must be with cities. What we learned from the evaporation of central London was that a city which only works for one type of person doesn’t work at all. People come to cities for multiple reasons. Most of them hopeful ones. Much – and here’s the crowbar – like they come to hotels. The next iterations of both must must accommodate these varied needs.