Michael Strohmer Principal & Architect, HKS
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed significant vulnerabilities in our daily lives and to economy. The hospitality sector was one that was most negatively impacted. Historically, hotels have primarily focused on guest room, food and beverage, and event revenue as their main income generators, but with many travel and large-scale events suspended due to the pandemic, the industry continues to struggle.
As our understanding of the virus progresses and vaccines roll out, the situation has slowly started to improve for the industry. However, hotel operators, owners, and developers are facing some big decisions on how to be proactive for similar situations and fluctuations that impact the travel industry in the future. As an industry, we must consider the ways that future pandemics or natural disasters, as well as recent shifts in social behavior will impact how hotels are designed and operated.
At HKS, we've spent the last year conducting research and generating strategies that hotels can deploy to potentially diversify their revenue streams in the face of uncertainty and changes in travel. Our research report, Hotel: Redefining the Guest to Design Business-Resilient Hotels, along with other concepts from our firm's experienced hospitality designers, puts forth forward thinking design solutions aimed at more enjoyable guest experiences that help to insulate our projects from market vulnerabilities and fluctuations experienced during uncertain times.
Redefining the Hotel Guest
Even during this pandemic, people have chosen to continue to travel. Data shows that most people are staying closer to home, trading train and plane travel for cross country road trips. While modes of transportation and length of trips were impacted, travelers continued to crave new experiences and destinations. Afterall, "travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer."
The hotel of the future will be a destination unto itself, designed to accommodate everyone who walks through the door including members of the local community. If hotel owners and operators think differently about who their guest can be, they will set themselves up to be on the cutting-edge of hospitality experiences and increase their chances of surviving economic hurdles.
An expanded definition of the hotel guest includes traditional short-term visitors in town for business or tourism, long-term visitors who intend to stay for a few months, as well as locals from the hotel's surrounding community. By integrating local users, hotels can continue to operate successfully with a more diversified market. Targeting the needs of the local community has the potential to provide economic benefits for building owners as well as those who reside in the area. While each type of guest may engage with a hotel for a different reason, they all contribute to revenue generation and in turn, receive the benefits of a hospitality-driven experience, a beautiful, amenity-rich place to stay, live, and work.
To speak to a broader, redefined guest base, hotels should focus on building connections within their communities, developing a unique identity, and embracing versatility in design.
Hotels are uniquely positioned to be vital social and cultural anchors, but they don't always serve those roles in their communities. Breaking down barriers and making spaces where everyone can feel comfortable is key to creating connection among guests as well as between the guests and the hotel itself.
Often, the guest arrival experience at an urban or suburban hotel begins as a vehicular centric moment at the porte cochere. The experience is not usually welcoming and as easily accessible to pedestrians and locals coming in for a meal or a drink. A simple design intervention would be to focus on creating an inviting environment, a place where ideas are exchanged, and where people engage with one another.
As designers, we try to influence hotel owners to think about what an interior space will sound like, look like, and feel like – whether it is packed with people or completely empty, as has often been the case during the pandemic. Breaking down the scale of the hotel, compressing public areas with permanent or temporary structures make the guest experience more engaging, active, and inviting.
When guests coming from near and far feel welcomed and comfortable, they are more likely to take advantage of the range of services hotels provide, if hotels give them the opportunity to do so. For example, many urban hotels have opened their roof-top pools and fitness centers to single day or monthly pass users. Building upon the success of those strategies, hotels can further expand the ad-hoc services they offer such as dry-cleaning or cafe dining to anyone, resulting in increased revenue.
One of the most lucrative and attractive moves a hotel developer or owner can make is to position signature restaurants and bars on the ground floor with direct access from both the street as well as inside the hotel. Often recommended by designers, this solution makes it seem as if the restaurant just happens to be in a hotel, making it a more exciting and authentic dining experience for any type of guest, not just those who stay overnight. The possibilities for revenue increase significantly when food and beverage is more approachable and easily accessed. And in a post-pandemic world where diners may be more comfortable with take-out rather than a seated dinner, the choice to have a street-facing restaurant would be even more helpful to ensure a hotel restaurant can serve such needs.
Developing a Unique Identity
A memorable guest experience relies heavily on the hotel's identity and the qualities that make it distinct from others. A hotel's design and business practices should resonate with its community in a real way, rooted in respectful understanding of local traditions and heritage. In addition to providing insight into the area's culture for out-of-town guests, it should also spark the curiosity of passersby, including residents.
Hotels vary in size and function, but they are place-based and must be infused with truly local characteristics. From the largest convention center tower to the smallest boutique, all hotels should seek to avoid designing or decorating with impersonal imitations of their city or town's culture. Framed stock photography of local attractions or a gift shop that only sells items with the city's name often mimic stereotypes and detract from a guest experience that feels authentic. Hotels can instead partner with the community in the design and decoration of spaces as well as delivery of services.
By building strong relationships with other local businesses - farmers who grow food, brewers and distillers who produce alcoholic beverages, and artists and artisans who create paintings, furnishings, and decor - hotels can provide a sense of true local flavor to visitors from out of town and sustain mutually beneficial bonds with community organizations.
Hoteliers have long understood the importance of flexibility in design. Large ballrooms that can be subdivided for more intimate social gatherings, meeting spaces capable of accommodating a variety of different furniture arrangements to suit the program for any group event - every element for these spaces from curtains to the furniture is carefully chosen. Events that take place in those rooms, however, depend on groups of people converging in a hotel from far and wide but they almost entirely disappeared during COVID-19.
Ideal versatile design isn't about creating a "one-size-fits-all" solution or allowing for infinite possibilities. Instead, it is very thoughtful, well planned, and purposeful. It considered the alternate, synergistic uses of space underutilized during certain times of day or specific seasons. It's embedded in the hotel's operations as much as it is in the hotel's design. Smart design decisions that expand on traditional ideas of flexibility will help the hotel serve the range of all guests' needs based on the time of day, season, or market condition.
Design Solutions for More Resilient Hotel Businesses
At the heart of our design approach and research is the question: What more can a hotel be? By identifying spaces typically used for a single purpose and examining their potential, developers and operators can maximize budgets, enhance revenue streams, and maintain robust operations during market shifts.
To accommodate longer term visitors, hotels can intermix traditional guestrooms with furnished apartments. For a young professional assessing whether to move to a new city, a family that requires temporary relocation due to a parent's work obligations or someone in town to support an ill or aging local relative - a year-long lease isn't a necessity for these people, but a simple hotel room won't do the trick, either.
If hotels develop flex models for shifting between short-term overnight guestrooms to full-service apartments, they can ensure higher occupancy rates and more steady revenue. Apartment residents would benefit from upgraded levels of service, cleanliness, security, and highly desirable amenities and common spaces found within the hotel. As tenants move out, the units could be put into the guestroom inventory, improving accommodation options and upgrade opportunities for short-term guests.
Spaces not typically encountered by hotel guests can also take on new lives, particularly when it comes to food and beverage areas. A back of house prep kitchen, for example, can become a hub for cooking and nutrition education or serve as a test or ghost kitchen for local food incubators. Of the more public-facing spaces, a guest cafe could serve as a pop-up restaurant for newcomers to the local food scene. By looking at the assets they have available, and not limiting themselves to the previous uses for those assets, hotels can accommodate a much wider variety of scenarios.
Large, shared spaces in a hotel offer the most opportunities for developing community connections and implementing versatile design strategies. These areas can be positioned closer to streets and courtyards to make them more accessible for everyone rather than locating them deep in the building's most recessed areas. Intentionality in the planning and programming of such spaces - and a commitment to using them to serve a broader guest base - will help a hotel build more affinity for its brand and bring about more consistent financial prosperity.
With the transition to a digital-remote workforce, hotels have an opportunity to accommodate individuals and organizations who wish to conduct work differently. Co-working areas could be designated in large hotel spaces and meeting rooms can be designed to consider the needs of the local employers, who will likely desire options to help avoid long-term office lease commitments and support their staff to work remotely. By offering temporary collaborative office environments when in-person meetings and catered social events or happy hours are desired, hotels can move away from heavily relying on out-of-town business meetings and conferences.
Permanent and temporary uses for a large flexible space, as outlined in our report, Hotel&, include a local farmers market, a wedding reception venue, and even a vaccination clinic. In times of crisis or disaster, these areas of the hotel can serve as a community anchor, offering health and social services critical for safety. Similarly, hotels can embark upon formalized partnerships with their cities, opening doors to larger spaces for public forums, which may yield concessions or tax breaks as well as increased retail or food and beverage sales on site.
Future-Proofing the Hotel Model
Throughout 2020 and into 2021, hotel owners and operators have spent significant amounts of money renovating to adapt to safety and sanitation requirements brought on by COVID-19. With clever design, they can avoid similar costs in the future whether they're embarking on a new building project or making retrofits. There are numerous approaches depending on the size of their budget and bandwidth: experiential strategies aimed at enhancing a guest's stay, spatial strategies that make use of strong planning and layouts, and operational strategies where the hotel functions and user needs go hand-in-hand. Strategically planning and building for versatility allows hotel operators to experiment with programming and personalize spaces to fit guests' needs while retaining consistency and quality.
Hotels have always had a desirable model of service with full time on-site staff, great food and beverage options, along with other desirable amenities. The hotel of the future will leverage and expand upon those strengths to become a new, innovative destination. With diverse amenities for the community, local partnerships and thoughtful, flexible design, a hotel can become a more appealing place for everyone.
By transforming conventional ideas of users and services, hotels will evolve to a new model - one that is more resilient to market fluctuations in uncertain times and enhances the everyday experience of each person that walks through the door.