For Chris Schaeffer, the choice of which hotel is not so much a matter of clean sheets or the quality of the breakfast — it’s where he can find an electric vehicle charger.
It’s “because I’m cheap,” said Schaeffer, who works for a company that maintains airport service vehicles and who travels frequently for the job. “If I get there with one percent charge left, I can get a full battery of fuel, and not pay a thing for it.”
Until recently, there haven’t been a lot of electric travelers like Schaeffer, who drives from his home outside St. Louis either in his Jaguar I-PACE or his wife’s Tesla. There also haven’t been a ton of hotels to meet the need with a charging plug.
But that’s about to change, in a way that will weave the EV experience into more Americans’ lives. Considering the influence that hotels had in spreading emerging technologies like Wi-Fi, the shift could also play an important role in the growth of EVs.
The sector’s interest in EVs was apparent last month, when two of the country’s largest hotel chains, Hilton and Marriott, announced plans to bring charging stations to thousands of locations.
Going big on EV charging is not a hard decision for hotels to make, since the cost of building stations is offset by getting new customers to stay overnight, experts say. EVs are pouring onto the country’s roads — the U.S. is on track to buy more than one million EVs this year, a new record, according to an analysis by Cox Automotive. That is occurring as the hotel business is booming after the pandemic and companies are looking for ways to attract tech-savvy consumers — creating a perfect convergence for electric cars.
“Hotels are important locations for EV charging networks because hotels are by definition places people park on journey from one place to another, and so it’s a place to charge,” said Michael Krauthamer, who has worked in the siting of EV chargers for more than a decade and advises businesses on how to deploy them.
Moreover, today’s road-tripping EV drivers are sending clear signals that if a hotel chain doesn’t install plugs soon, they might take their business elsewhere.
Hotels are “at a point, especially in key markets, that they will be at a disadvantage now,” said Loren McDonald, an independent EV-charging consultant who has studied the charging landscape for a major hotel chain. “An EV driver will choose a hotel based on where chargers are or are not.”
Most of these chargers aren’t the fast ones that can refill a battery in less than an hour and that are the focus of billions of dollars of federal subsidies. Rather, they are the kind that hotels have always preferred: The slower “Level 2” machines that can recharge a car in eight to 12 hours, depending on the size of its battery.
That recharge interval is similar to how long it takes drivers to recharge themselves with dinner, sleep and breakfast. The concordance is one reason that that hotel charging may be ready for takeoff.
‘Being able to charge while asleep can reduce the number of times (drivers) need to charge on a trip,” said Jonathan Katz, who used to run the hotel charging program at Tesla.
Phones and cars
The hotel industry is hailing EV charging as a new trend to emerge after the Covid-19 pandemic, which was a dire experience for the hospitality industry.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), a trade group, estimates that the hotel industry will approach full recovery from the pandemic this year, selling 1.3 billion nights of hotel stays, up from the 1.29 billion from the pre-Covid year of 2019. In 2020, stays reached a low of 831 million.
Travelers’ digital expectations have changed, with many guests wanting to control services with their smartphones, such as room entry and TV streaming, according to a study this year by Hilton. Many are “bleisure” travelers who are combining work travel with person travel.
Roughly 26 percent of all U.S. hotels currently have chargers, according to a separate “green lodging” survey of 17,000 facilities by AHLA. They are skewed toward more expensive facilities. Almost 90 percent of luxury hotels have charging stations, while adoption at “limited service” hotels — those that offer nothing but a place to sleep — is at 20 percent.
Choose your charging flavor
Marriott and Hilton — both based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. — are taking different approaches to building their charging networks and are allying with different brands.
Marriott, based in Bethesda, Md., operates 30 chains from the high-end Ritz-Carlton to mid-range locations like Sheraton and SpringHill Suites. Its chargers will be built on a digital platform run by a company called EV Connect.
The charger the Marriott customer sees could be of nearly any brand. EV Connect works with 22 manufacturers that represent 95 percent of chargers on the market, according to Seth Cutler, the company’s chief operating officer.
Marriott won’t say how many of its locations will get chargers or on what timeline. At the end of last year, Marriott said it had installed charging stations at roughly 1,200 of its 5,900 locations in North America.
Hilton, by contrast, will use only Tesla chargers.
Hilton, headquartered in McLean, Va., has almost 5,900 locations in North America. It encompasses 19 brands, from the luxury Waldorf Astoria to more pedestrian chains like Doubletree, Hampton and Embassy Suites. It has 1,850 locations with chargers, with four-fifths of those located in North America.
That network will grow by 20,000 charging points at about 2,000 locations, with installations starting next year. It says its network will be “the largest of any hospitality company,” according to an emailed statement from Matt Schuyler, the company’s chief brand officer.
This year, Schuyler said, searches for EV charging at Hilton hotels was the fastest-growing search term, “jumping from the fourth- to the second-highest in converting searches to stays.”
According to a J.D. Power study released last month, 19 percent of hotel guests say they want a charging station at their hotel, though only six percent have actually used one.
“While the most important technology features of a hotel are good quality Wi-Fi and plenty of USB ports for charging devices, availability of EV charging stations is also starting to influence hotel selection and satisfaction,” the study said.
Like Wi-Fi, but with Teslas
Observers say it’s possible that hotel charging will follow the adoption path that was blazed by Wi-Fi starting in the early 2000s.
Today, connecting wirelessly to the internet from a hotel room is nearly ubiquitous. But it started as an attractant that would cause affluent, early technology adopters to choose one hotel over another.
“At first, it was kind of slow and clunky, and if you went to a hotel that had it, you went, ‘Woo-hoo, I can do work when I’m there, and I’m happy to pay,’” said McDonald. “But as the years passed and internet became the part of everyone’s life, we expected everyone to have it, and then it wasn’t a differentiator.”
A distinctive wrinkle is that unlike Wi-Fi, which emerged with several providers, the charging experience at hotels has been overwhelmingly shaped by one player: Tesla.
Many of the first hotel chargers to appear were Tesla’s “destination” chargers, as the company called them. These chargers, of the slower Level 2 variety, were at popular locales or were targeted at locations that involved a long stay.
For its part, Tesla approached hotels because it wanted to build confidence among potential Tesla buyers that charging would be available. To do that, it needed “more dots on the map,” according to Katz, who started working with the company’s destination-charging program in 2015 and ran it for two years, ending in 2019. He no longer works at Tesla.
Back then — before the Model 3 made Tesla a household name — “there was a lot of explain” to hotel managers, Katz said. “They didn’t know what a charger was and what was in it for them.”
Tesla sweetened the deal by donating the equipment and subsidizing the installation. As the popularity of Teslas grew, the flow reversed: It was Tesla getting entreaties from hotels. By around 2019, Tesla stopped paying for installations, although it still provides free equipment.
Today, Tesla’s destination chargers account for more than 73 percent of all chargers installed at hospitality locations, like hotels, inns and bed and breakfasts. That’s according to an analysis by McDonald of a charging database run by the Department of Energy. Hotels often split their stations between Tesla chargers, which are compatible only with Teslas, and the alternative technology, called J1772, that works with most other EVs.
Tesla’s overwhelming dominance may be somewhat less than it appears because Tesla is in the habit of reporting its locations to the government, while other providers may not, McDonald said.
Regardless of who builds them, the charging stations looms large in the attention of hotel executives for one reason: They are starting to peel customers away from loyalty programs. And loyalty programs are the base for a hotel’s repeat customers.
Schaeffer, the business traveler, attests to this. His loyalty program is with Marriott hotels, but whether his travels take him to Nashville, Tenn., or Milwaukee, the plug is king.
“I have gone to a Hilton because it had a charger,” he said.
The charger challenge
Experts say the case for installing a charging station is a pretty easy one for a hotel to make, though it does create perplexity.
The fundamental plus is financial, according to Krauthamer: A customer gained because of an EV charger is much more profitable than an empty room. “If they can fill a handful of nights that a driver with a charger wouldn’t stay there, the chargers can pay for themselves pretty quickly,” Krauthamer said.
Another trend that is swelling the rolls of EV-driving travelers is the move by car rental agencies, like Hertz, to add thousands of EVs to their fleets. Those car-renting travelers also stay in hotels.
But it can be tricky to figure out where to put the plug, experts said.
The most logical place to put a charger is often the rear of the building, as that’s where the electrical infrastructure often is. But few hotel customers want to park in back. Go to the expense of routing the charger to the front, and a second problem emerges: that’s the prime real estate that everyone wants, including those who don’t drive EVs.
Another challenge is how big to build the charging plaza.
While demand is growing, it’s hard to tell how fast it will ramp in the future. “Today, four chargers might be OK, but in a year from now, you might need 10 or 12,” McDonald said.
Perhaps one of the biggest difficulties for hotel management is educating the front desk staff.
Clueless receptionists are a perpetual complaint of those who use hotels to charge their EVs. “It a 50-50 blend,” Schaeffer said about whether the person answering the phone knows the answers to basic questions about the technology: Does the hotel have charging stations? Are they designed for Teslas or non-Teslas? Is there’s a fee? Is the station even working?
“The worst case is you can see them staring at you blankly through the phone,” Schaeffer said.
The training process is made more difficult by another perennial problem at hotels: high staff turnover, meaning that today’s knowledgable receptionist may be replaced by an ignorant one tomorrow. “There’s going to have to be laminated cards at the front desk,” McDonald said.
The new era of ‘Keep Out’
McDonald observed firsthand one of the main problems that hotels hope to solve with a new and more sophisticated approach to EV charging: opportunistic scavengers.
On a site visit to a hotel in the San Francisco Bay Area recently, he watched a parade of people plug in.
“I saw a husband and wife who drove up in two Teslas and charged one and drove off,” McDonald recalled. “Another guy sat and charged for a while and had a snack. Another guy lived in the apartment complex next door, pulled in with his grocery bags and walked to his apartment.”
“In the hour I was there, not a single person who used the chargers was a hotel guest,” he concluded.
McDonald’s anecdote illustrates how different kinds of EV drivers — tenants of nearby apartments, random passersby, guests of adjacent hotels — can take advantage of the fact that no one is monitoring the charger’s use.
For this reason, the next generation of hotel charging stations likely will come with digital fences so only hotel guests can use them, either via a loyalty app on their phones or with a code from the front desk.
“To be able to control access, so [the hotel] can choose who does and does not get to use the charging location, is tremendously valuable for the hotel,” said Katz.
An open question is whether this electric fill-up will continue to be a freebie, like Schaeffer is accustomed to, or whether it will be a paid experience.
One hint comes from Hilton, which said “individuals will need to download the Tesla app to charge and pay.”