Tourism & hospitality

The view from a distance

With social distancing measures in place, the role of the hotel lobby has changed – and it remains to be seen whether the space can stay relevant during a time of little social interaction. Abi Millar speaks to to James Dilley, head of hospitality and interior design at Jestico + Whiles, and Kate Mooney, founder of Occa, about how the lobby can remain a vibrant part of the hotel experience, while being recalibrated as a more fluid and versatile space.      

In recent years, the trend has been clear – reduce the size of the guestrooms in favour of a larger, more dynamic lobby. For hotel brands like CitizenM and Marriott’s Moxy, along with the new crop of midscale brands that target a ‘millennial mindset’, the emphasis has been on making the most of the public spaces.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has dealt a blow to our ideals of communality and sociability. With social distancing rules in full force, the public spaces of a hotel have become an article of some caution. Guests are more likely to head straight to their rooms than mingle in the lobby, risking contagion.

Evidently, this has influenced lobby layouts in the short-term, with signposted traffic flows and Perspex screens now the norm. The real question is how it will impact on lobby design over the longer term. How will our understanding of public spaces be affected, even once the pandemic is over?

For James Dilley, head of hospitality and interior design at Jestico + Whiles, the answer is simple – it won’t be.

“For the time being we’ve got these measures in place, but they are only going to be temporary,” he says. “People will not continue to go to restaurants and bars where they’re sitting three meters away from the next table with a Perspex screen between them – that will change the attraction of these places. This is a pandemic that will, at some point, fizzle out just as other pandemics have in the past. And people will get back to their natural level of sociability.”

It’s a heartening message for anyone wearying of social distancing measures, not least hoteliers who can’t wait to resume normal service. However, it’s some way down the line for now. With the pandemic set to continue for some time, they need to determine how their lobbies can stay relevant during a time of minimal social interaction.

“I still believe that the lobby should be the heart of the hotel experience,” says Kate Mooney, founder and principal at Occa Design Studio. “I think that can be achieved just by being smarter with design, carefully considering guest wellbeing, and really thinking about how you reduce anxiety for guests in that environment.”

Since the start of the pandemic, adaptability and versatility have been the watchwords for lobby design. If you can easily reconfigure your space to meet social distancing guidelines – maybe with some savvy rearranging of furniture – the impact of the pandemic will be lessened.

To an extent, this is nothing new – hotels have been moving towards mixed-use, multifunctional spaces for some time anyway. However, Covid-19 has served as a catalyst for a trend that was already well underway.

“This was happening before – we were working on hotels which have got other uses conjoined with them,” says Dilley. “We have a really interesting scheme at the moment, which has a full screen cinema as part of the development. There’s no reason why places where people can stay overnight, have to simply have a breakfast room and that’s it.”

He believes we will see the evolution of many more hybrid concepts over the next five to 10 years, with co-working being another obvious example. With the shift towards remote working here to stay, there will be a strong demand for co-working spaces, which hotels are well positioned to monetise.

 “Why would hotels have a bunch of people sitting in their lobby, using their heating and WiFi and buying one coffee and staying for eight hours, when they can entice people into paying for a co-working environment?” he says. “There used to be a bit of a myth that every hotel lobby was this amazingly convivial space where you’d go and speak to your fellow traveller. Actually what you’d see is 70 people talking to people on the other side of the world via their iPad. So we’ll see mixed-used schemes combining co-working with hotel operations.”

This ties back to the pandemic in two respects: firstly, we have all learnt that anything can happen and that it’s critical to build some flexibility into business models. Secondly, business hotels in particular are being placed under intense pressure and will need to adapt if they are to survive the crisis.

“The old days of somebody flying to New York for a day are over,” says Dilley. “That day in New York is often now going to be replaced by the Zoom call or the Teams call, and that’s two nights in a hotel that are not being taken up. I think that the business hotels are going to have to work very hard to reinvent themselves.”

Covid may have accelerated another trend too, namely the shift towards contactless technologies. With many guests keen to minimise human contact, digital check-in has become more attractive. The same applies to keyless room entry and phone apps that can control the room lighting – anything that allows the guest to touch fewer surfaces.

Mooney remarks that, while this has already been happening for some time, Covid-19 has forced large hotel groups to step up their game.

“In general, the bigger hotel groups have been a bit slower to change, whereas a lot of smaller independents have been a bit more innovative,” she says. “But there’s no doubt that Covid has helped the big guys get moving much, much faster. We’re working on a couple of projects where technology companies are selling into the hotel groups, and a sales cycle that would have taken the best part of a year in the past is happening within weeks.”

Dilley, however, thinks the much vaunted ‘move to contactless’ should not be overstated, particularly in higher-end hotels. Especially pre-Covid, the very definition of luxury was contact with human beings in a hotel environment – it spoke of attention, personalised service and care. This is likely to be reinstated as soon as Covid allows.

“In terms of other hotels, people will be doing more and more through the hotel app, because it’s just a natural progression,” he says. “They are doing that in their own homes with Hive and Nest. But it’s not for everybody. Certainly there are some people who really would rather not be bombarded with more technology.”

As to whether Covid will effect any lasting changes in lobby design, it could be that ideas of wellness and wellbeing really start to come to the fore. It is debatable low long ‘cleanliness theatre’ (i.e. very visible and obvious hygiene protocols) will outlast the pandemic, but assuaging guests’ anxieties will be important for the foreseeable future. 

“The safety concerns and the cleanliness, and communicating all the new hygiene protocols – I think those are the kind of things that we will probably take forwards in terms of how the pandemic has affected lobby design,” says Mooney. “I don’t see the basic principles changing much, but we’ll be layering it with this new understanding. The awareness of the virus and how it spreads will stay with us for a long time.”

She adds that designers will be thinking even more deeply about how design affects guest wellbeing. This will lead to more discussion around ergonomics, lighting, and biophilic design. There is likely to be an increase in circulation space, natural ventilation systems, outdoor areas, and carefully considered acoustics – all positioning the hotel lobby as somewhere safe and salubrious.

Aside from that, the lobby will retain the functions it’s always had, which include making a strong first impression and clearly communicating the story of the brand.

“You’ve got 15 seconds to make a lasting impression on your guest and set the scene for the whole stay,” says Mooney. “I think the lobby is still really crucial, perhaps even more so in times like this – rather than lobbies being an empty space, we need to think about how we create something that builds a sense of community, and enhances the overall character of the hotel.”

She points out that every client at the moment is asking these kinds of questions, considering how their lobby design can adapt to a post-Covid world and alleviate guests’ concerns. But Mooney is wary of going too far here. Very likely, post-pandemic design won’t be radically different from what we’re used to.

“I would love to think that we’re not all going to become very distant and very alien from each other,” she says. “Certainly there’s room for improvement, certainly there’s room to respond to some of the things we’ve seen. But I would be very disappointed if we changed the whole purpose of lobbies and the movement that we’ve had for the last 12 years, towards making them much more sociable community hubs and places to really enjoy the hotel experience.”

This article appears in the Winter 2020 edition of Hotel Management International

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