Welcome Back: The New Hotel Stay

Returning joy to the hotel guest experience can be achieved with a variety of design elements.

By James Staicoff
From the August 2020 Issue

Design is a key component of the guest experience, an emotional response to interacting with a hotel that translates directly to guest allegiance, repeat business, and owner ROI. Designers always discuss “next” in terms of design trends. Suddenly, “next” is here, and it isn’t pretty—it’s urgent and ugly, and people are dying.

Seating options in a guestroom suite will need to serve a multi-functional purpose for both businesses and consumers. (Photo: Woodlark Hotel, Portland, OR)

Pre-COVID-19, designers would commonly insert hospitality tropes into hospitals and urgent care units. This pandemic has suddenly created a critical need to bring healthcare safety to hotels. For hotel executives seeking to survive (and thrive) in a post-COVID-19 world, there are practical solutions—both short-term and long-term—that can add joy back into the hotel guest experience.

First Impressions And The Role Of Hotel Common Spaces

Living in a post-COVID-19 world presents a complex interplay of design considerations, owner priorities, and social behavior. They require the designer to really understand how users will move into and out of these spaces and interact with them.

Unfortunately, the sense of community designers work so hard to create in hotel common spaces has been extinguished by new physical distancing requirements.

Mood lighting helps to project a soothing environment. (Photo: Hotel Murano, Tacoma, WA)

Immediate fixes, such as six-foot spaced tape on the floor and acrylic panels at check-in, are both inelegant and temporary. Moving forward, designers must become leaders in finding creative, hygiene-driven solutions with attractive, budget-conscious, non-porous, non-transmitting and sustainable materials for future crises. Anti-microbial products introduced to the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) market have skyrocketed in the last year as manufacturers scramble to offer more innovative, cost-effective solutions to keep up with new infection control and maintenance protocols.

At some point very soon, all necessary functional items—check-in, elevators, and restrooms—will be touchless. How can hotel and building executives safely bring “touch”—a basic sensory human need—back into guests’ lives while traveling?

Consider creating a “Zone of Calm” just past the entry vestibule, so the guest will be able to immediately sense that this hotel cares about their safety. Upon entering, for example, the guest could experience a physical cleansing with UV-C light (400–470 nanometers (nm), an antimicrobial against numerous bacteria) as well as a metaphoric one, an abstracted feeling of rebirth and joy due to the use of art, music, lighting, and planting. These are all critical components to elevate their experience during this transition. The UV-C light fixtures that can be programmed to activate when a guestroom, elevator, cab or corridor is unoccupied may soon become standard design practice. There could be an opt-out option for guests, but eventually may be standard practice.

Redefining Guest (Room) Experience

In the interest of guest safety, anything that might be considered multi-use, such as basic guestroom services and amenities—housekeeping, dry cleaning and laundry service, room service, continental breakfasts, religious texts, remote controls, mints, hotel swag, menus, and pens/pads—will no longer be available. As hotel operators navigate the new normal, expect to see innovations in hotel welcome packages. Especially with limited staff, hotels will need to rely on visual cues that indicate and reassure cleanliness.

Many hotels are putting contactless technology to use. (Photo: Hilton)

Major hotel chains have aligned with hygienic industry companies and trends to roll out programs aimed at giving guests peace of mind for choosing their brand amid the pandemic. A brightly-colored seal on the room’s exterior door or towels wrapped in clear wrap to show items have been cleaned and hygienically packaged are examples of visual cues to show how hotels are responding to new cleaning and safety protocols.

From an air quality control standpoint, guestrooms are designed to be neutral or slightly positive compared to the corridor, with low volumes of outside air (OA) and exhaust air (EA). This could present some costly obstacles for certain hotels wanting to convert guestrooms into hospital-like patient rooms (especially ones hosting first responders and low acuity patients in response to a surge in a pandemic outbreak). This next phase of guestroom should integrate separately-zoned HVAC supply and return HVAC systems, which have the ability to immediately evacuate air from infected rooms. To make the guestroom bathrooms ideal for privacy and infection control, restroom exhaust systems should be inspected and made to filter out air continuously.

Guestroom maintenance and repair is also a key area when planning the future guestroom experience. The risk of losing thousands of dollars in lost revenue has been a growing reality as hotels try to fill occupancy rates. Hotels should consider allotting increased capital spending to extend the life cycle of hotel furnishings that see the most wear-and-tear.

Designers must look to create multi-functional guestroom experiences for eating, wellness, and entertaining. For example, guests entertaining a small group of business acquaintances in their room, for example, may not want people sitting on their bed. Guestrooms worldwide are shrinking because space is expensive, which presents a challenge to designers looking to optimize already small spaces in line with social distancing guidelines. There needs to be more ways guests can sit and entertain. Variations on Virgin Hotels’ patented Lounge Bed serve a multi-functional purpose and are ideal for guestrooms with a smaller square footage.

Technological improvements to touchless entry doors, smart HVAC systems, and room lighting will occur, as information will now be imparted to the guest via phone or touchless television system. Smart spaces are not a new trend. In fact, a MarketsandMarkets™ report reveals the global smart home market size is expected to grow from $78.3 billion in 2020 to $135.3 billion by 2025. As more and more consumers rely on smart devices and sensors like Alexa and Google Nest, hotel businesses will need to adapt the same contactless technology solutions to their guestrooms and common spaces.

As hotels continue to limit points-of-contact for guests in public spaces, guests will be spending more time in their rooms. It must become a safe haven or “nest”, something consumers have refocused on in the wake of the pandemic. Elevated experiences to increase joy might include innovations in higher-end materiality, comfort, spa-quality guest baths, interactive workout systems, in-room workout equipment, and elaborate mood lighting systems. In the manner of the guest experience, the hotel needs to remain a peaceful, calm, and safe alternative to the more urgent, chaotic world outside.

Staicoff is the director of hospitality at Oculus, Inc. and the director of the company’s Portland, OR office. Oculus Inc. delivers comprehensive architecture, interior design, planning, and move management services for clients in the commercial, education, government, healthcare, hospitality, retail, restaurant, and workplace industries. Oculus has offices in St. Louis, Dallas and Portland, OR, is WBE-certified, and is regularly cited in top industry rankings for architecture and design.

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