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Designing Hotel Spaces for Micro-Events in the Covid-19 Era

By Mary Alice Palmer Principal & Director of Hospitality Interiors, HKS

Small weddings and elopements are a way of the future, with many of the top wedding industry leaders shifting business models to promote and accommodate these types of events. The idea of not having to settle on one's "Big Day" resonates with couples who are not wanting to pause life's joyous moments yet still prioritize health and safety. Micro wedding planning websites are popping up to help couples manage what this process looks like from idea to implementation. As wedding vendors navigate through these new waters, hotels are right by their side imagining new ways to celebrate small.

Understanding Your Guest First and foremost, working to understand the psychology behind non-compliance can be a constructive first step in developing effective risk-management strategies. During these challenging times, guests are seeking an escape, both mentally and physically, from their routines. However, during the pandemic era keeping one safe and healthy is a not a factor that can be ignored. If possible, reaching out to event attendees beforehand can be useful in preparing them for appropriate participation. Understanding expectations for observing precautions and following guidelines will help everyone stay healthy without feeling they are being inundated with rules at an event that should have a focus on other things like connections, fun and entertainment. Include guidelines in a welcoming email with other important event information and guests will come prepared, not surprised. Make the message fun and experiential, but appropriate to the occasion. Build excitement around participation.

Clear Messaging & Guidelines With information constantly changing at a rapid pace, messaging has never been more important to keep all feeling safe and informed. Trust is built on communication and the earlier one can solidify that trust with attendees, the better. Understanding that guests need transparency during these times, and as previously mentioned communicate regulations and protocols well in advance of the event and leading up to it. Think about what their comfort levels and make decisions accordingly. During an event, keep messaging consistent and readily available. Inconsistent info leads to lack of compliance as people drift back to human nature. For example, it is in our human nature to converse at a maximum of 4' or less; therefore, consider having signage or other clever ways to remind those of the guidelines of 6' or more. Unique graphics created for reminders can emphasize brand or event theming. Wayfinding can be a useful tool for keeping traffic one direction in certain areas. Graphics and floor lighting can be useful design techniques to keep the flow and dissipate any crowds. Stanchions designed to complement decor or event themes can help guests in safe circulation. Socially Distant by Design While "socially distant" may be the most used phrase of 2020, it goes without saying that it is advised as an effective tactic to curb the spread of viruses. As signage and wayfinding can serve as reminders to distance oneself, design elements including furniture can also be used to help enforce the rules. Set ups and seating diagrams should be planned far in advance to ensure distancing and clear directions for guests as guidelines change and they can be updated to ensure these evolving guidelines are followed. In a large space, such as a ballroom or banquet hall, King's Tables can be used to keep guests at a social distance but still fill spaces with design intent. The length and width of oversized tables naturally keep people at a distance and can do so even more when the seating is divided. Plexi dividers can be used to create subsections/quadrants. Furniture can also provide a bit of comedic relief as seen in a restaurant in Maryland where bumper tables provided a fun alternative for social distance. Large congregations of guests can be eliminated by having designated entrances and exits. Clever spacers such as branding displays or themed "islands" scattered around, and other decorative elements can make a less full space feel more inviting instead of cavernous and sparsely populated. Prearrange seating safe spacers. In spaces used for meetings, having meetings setup as a classroom style is preferrable versus lecture our roundtable. When conversing with others, it is only natural to move closer to the person speaking if you are having trouble hearing or if it is too noisy in the space. Not to mention, it is sometimes harder to hear someone's muffled voice through a mask. Acoustics have a factor in keeping people spaced appropriately. Keep music and background noise low if possible, so as not to interfere with hearing. Consider floating acoustical clouds, banners, or decorative acoustical panels to both mitigate noise and add filler and additional spacers. Strategically hanging drapery or tenting the room not only transforms the design but will help with acoustics as well. Biophilic Reminders From lighting to indoor plants, biophilic design plays a role in our wellness. Strategically placed greenery on tables and throughout the space can serve as room dividers and filler for spaces with reduced capacity for guests. Utilize any adjacent outdoor spaces that allow for fresh air to circulate and bring the outdoors in. Afterall, outdoor events are the best option. Large scale plants and hedges in movable planters can be arranged to guide and separate traffic and make a space feel inviting and full. They can also serve to unite decor from outside to inside a create an emphasis on healthy fresh air and circulation. Even in the winter months creative solutions are available to gather outside. With well designed overhead shelter and appropriate heaters, a winter wonderland is possible. Clothing recommendations for layers will keep guests warm with winter themed treats like boozy hot cocoa, firepits with smores or fondue. Launderable, personal blankets and cushions and heated tables will allow for seasonal celebrations to take place without interruption. Opportunities for Branding In previous years, branded "swag" might have been a reusable tote bag but in a pandemic, things look a little different. Branded Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is nothing new to the design and construction industry but now branded PPE extends beyond that. With face masks being a requirement for most events and gatherings, branded masks can make for a great and useful swag item. It should go without saying that all event staff should be the perfect models for this and lead by example. Hygiene stations with PPE and other well displayed elements can complement decor at multiple locations will assist guests in periodic, convenient refreshment throughout the day or evening. A signature scent might be added to hand sanitizer and wipes and clever themed display will make it fun not burdensome. Flexibility is Key Taking into account the many options available, the best approach is a flexible approach. Ballrooms are often designed to break down into smaller spaces with air walls that close off allowing for smaller spaces so that small groups will not be floating in an oversized space. This can enhance intimacy without going over occupancy limits and appropriate distancing. As guidelines evolve, the space has the ability to be expanded accordingly. Having multiple options allows for solutions to be created according to criteria and will not limit the ability to host a successfully distanced event. Tech-Savvy Solutions As many businesses have seen during this time, investing in technology solutions has been imperative to keep things afloat. Technology in this regard can be used for behind-the-scenes planning to attendee interactions. In thinking about design elements and floor plans for a specific event, software can be used to diagram layouts for guidelines and updates to ensure numbers do not exceed capacity. While not a new tech solution, mandatory pre-registration, and contactless onsite check in has never been more critical. We have also seen the check in process change as temperature scans are recommended. Wearable technology and accessories are also having a moment with things like bracelets indicating one's comfort level with social distancing or contact. For example, red signals a high discomfort, yellow moderate, and green is relaxed (while still following the rules of course!)

Healthy Conclusions Of course, health and safety are paramount as well as following the guidelines provided by science, but with thorough research, it is possible to take the right precautions to create a respectful environment that protects guests. You do not have to sacrifice your big event if you keep in mind all the creative ways we can gather safely in smaller numbers. Events may not be normal, but with a little ingenuity, they can be exceptional and provide your guests with lifelong positive memories of these unusual times.

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