May 16, 2014 6:46 pm

Postcard from ... Gatwick: The hotel of the future?

The Bloc hotel app©Charlie Bibby

The Bloc hotel app

Is it a glimpse of a dystopian future or just a commonsense approach to technology? Either way, Gatwick airport’s newest hotel offers something different, a vision of a post-employee economy where tasks are automated by a computer. At Bloc, a hotel of 245 rooms, there are just two members of staff on duty.

Despite its unglamorous location in a renovated office block above the airport’s South Terminal, Bloc has grand plans to shake up the hotel industry. Thanks to a partnership with Korean technology giant Samsung, almost everything here can be controlled by smartphone. Once guests have made a reservation online, they are given a code that can be used to log into an app, enabling them to check in without standing at a reception desk. In the room, the phone can operate the air-conditioning, switch on lights, turn on TVs and open blackout blinds. Even keys have been rendered obsolete – guests can unlock the door to their room using their phone (with something called “near-field communication” technology). At the end of their stay, checkout is also done via the app, meaning that guests can complete their entire stay without speaking a single word to a member of staff.

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Which is why on my visit the corridors are almost silent. Guests bend over their phones, transfixed by their screens. It’s a scene that could have come straight from Her, Spike Jonze’s darkly comic sci-fi film in which a lonely, introverted man rebounds from his divorce by falling in love with the operating system on his smartphone. The man and the machine become inseparable.

“The concept at Bloc is to streamline everything and to automate the hotel experience. We want to make travelling stress-free, with no waiting around,” says Rob Morgan, Bloc’s director and a former managing director in UBS’s equity derivatives department. “Your smartphone becomes your wallet, key and remote. It’s a modern-day approach. We make it possible for guests to sleep, shower and go catch their flight.”

Those without smartphones can use the same app running on tablet computers provided in the rooms (and technophobes can make a booking in the traditional way). “The amount of information that flies around the airport is quite significant,” says Morgan, “so there have been occasions when the tablets have gone a bit loopy because data has been wiped out of them. But we are getting better at protecting them.”

So far, the technology has been installed in only 20 of the rooms, but it will be rolled out across the hotel’s top two floors within the next couple of months. And then, according to Morgan, to other city centres across the UK. “We already have another hotel in Birmingham. London will be next up.”

Despite the high-tech approach, rooms here are cheap: doubles start from £54 and day lets are available from £29, while corner rooms – bigger and offering views across the runway – go up to £84. The low prices are made possible by Bloc’s decision to eliminate all the “unnecessary space”, so that rooms can be more densely packed into the site. The four-storey hotel, beside security on the landside of the airport, doesn’t have a restaurant. Nor does it provide room service or a minibar. In fact, there are barely any home comforts. “If you want a trouser press and a spa treatment, Bloc isn’t for you,” Morgan admits.

Research showing that hotel guests rarely unpack their overnight bag has resulted in space-hungry wardrobes being replaced by something called an “integrated bag-storage area” (really just small cubbyholes). Certainly, there’s no denying that my room is a box – most in the hotel are just 10 sq metres – but at least it’s a well-designed box.

In my room (which is neutral if a little tacky – one wall is padded, another backlit with a purple light) the only freebie is a small bottle of water and a booklet of offers for the in-house cafés, chain restaurants and supermarkets dotted throughout the South Terminal. I can get a 10 per cent discount at Caffè Nero and Marks and Spencer, and a free drink at Giraffe, which is where I eat dinner, an unappetising meal of overcooked chicken and floppy chips. (For dessert, I buy a box of strawberries from the supermarket.)

The shower room is a cubicle behind smoked glass, with a powerful monsoon showerhead set into the ceiling. The double bed is surprisingly comfy, though I wouldn’t describe the sheets as luxurious. No matter: you come here not for the luxury but because it is cheap – and to avoid the fate of so many travellers in transit who lie uncomfortably sprawled across several seats outside the hotel, mouths wide open. “Not particularly attractive to the airport or to users of the airport,” says Morgan.

John Sunyer was a guest of Bloc (blochotels.com)

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