• Subtle design moves make hotel spaces more appealing to a broader range of hotel guests. - illustration courtesy HKS

Hotels can be designed to better weather pandemics and other economic downturns while serving locals and visitors alike.

Early in the pandemic, it was evident that the hospitality industry was going to be hit particularly hard. Cruise ships were stuck offshore, entire hotels shut down when a guest fell ill, and travel bans were quickly instituted during the first wave of COVID infections. As challenging as this time was for those whose livelihoods are based on this industry, the pandemic did present an opportunity to discover how design could potentially mitigate long-term impacts of such singularities as the pandemic.

The hospitality industry has always been particularly vulnerable to crises. However, the devastation of COVID was an extreme manifestation of the sort of fragility made clear by other events, such as the September 11 attacks and the 2008 economic crisis. The industry’s performance responds to events like these with steep downward curves, and the pandemic resulted in a deeper drop than had ever been seen before.

By understanding the conditions that make the hospitality industry uniquely vulnerable, it is possible to anticipate their potential impact, in order to minimize volatility during future crises, whether these are driven by global disease outbreaks, the economy, climate change, or some other currently unimaginable factor. While it is impossible to eliminate all risks, the industry can take an approach that mirrors the advice given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention early in the pandemic: If a way could be found to “flatten the curve” of the industry’s extreme fluctuations, hotels would be better equipped to weather storms.

Fortunately, proactive design can integrate these insights to increase business resiliency and maintain steady revenue streams for the industry. It can also provide hotel properties with options for pivoting and controlling how they respond to crises, while at the same time improving the guest experience. Design solutions that anticipate the pendulum swing of major crises will also provide added benefits that accommodate the seasonal and regional fluctuations the industry already knows how to address.

Travel is a Choice

Although there is no single disruptor responsible for the hospitality market’s vulnerability, there is a major root cause: Travel is a choice. That choice is based on a risk-reward relationship: People will decide to travel when they can gain some sort of return on their investment. They will choose not to travel if doing so threatens their physical, emotional, or economic security — and during the COVID pandemic, all three of these things were threatened.

But although travel is a choice, the choice during the pandemic has been more about where people travel than whether to travel at all. Even in uncertain times, people still need a way to connect with others and escape their everyday lives. And so, people continued to travel during the pandemic, but they stayed closer to home. According to industry experts, the traditional drive-to-market radius — the distance people are willing to drive to a destination — grew during the pandemic, from 250 miles to 500 miles. In Texas, many popular weekend destinations saw occupancy rates higher than they had in 2019. For example, lodging occupancy tax collection was 21 percent higher in Fredericksburg in the third quarter of 2020 than it was at the same time the previous year. 

Regional and domestic travel have become especially appealing during the pandemic due to a variety of factors, such as affordability, which encourages shorter breaks from work and accommodates last-minute planning. 

Redefining the Guest

If people stay closer to home, hotels have an opportunity to maintain revenue streams during crises by establishing a base of local users. If hotels are designed as a destination for both locals and visiting travelers, they will be more likely to receive traffic and even attract those looking for “staycations” and other activities to add variety to or distract from daily life. In addition to alleviating revenue fluctuations, appealing to local segments can also enhance the guest experience during normal operations. An atmosphere that cross-pollinates local residents and visiting travelers creates a more dynamic experience, making the hotel attractive as a destination unto itself.

Texas hotels are uniquely positioned to draw on local markets as the state’s urban centers have continued to grow. A hotel in downtown Austin can potentially appeal to 2.2 million people within its metropolitan area as well as the millions of residents of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio within its 250-mile drive-to radius. And Texans are known for being willing to drive long distances.

Hotel designers can appeal to locals as well as travelers from afar by redefining the word “guest.” The term should not be limited strictly to people who are staying overnight. There are a variety of drivers that can be leveraged to bring many different types of people into a hotel, like food and beverage offerings, events, retail, or activities. If the word “guest” is expanded to mean “any person who experiences the spaces and services that a hotel offers,” then hotels can be understood to offer much more than a place to sleep.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to improving a hotel’s business resiliency by redefining the guest. Methods and strategies to successfully diversify the user base a hotel can serve will vary by property. Project-specific attributes such as context, client ambitions, and market potential should be viewed as assets that can help diversify this user base. The differences between each project are advantages in the hospitality industry; they help to create more vibrant destinations that can provide a unique experience for every single guest. 

Three overarching goals — connection, identity, and versatility — can act as a framework for hotels and their designers to enhance offerings for all types of guests. Focusing on these goals can enhance a project’s design narrative, yield many new opportunities for the hotel, and lead to a more resilient future.

Goal 1: Connection

Hotels are uniquely positioned to be vital social and cultural anchors within their communities and should aim to connect with people outside their walls. In the past, they have stood as backdrops to classic novels and places of respite for both travelers and locals. However, many trends in the industry meant to indicate a high level of service — think of a slew of uniformed bellmen standing guard at a hotel’s entrance — can contribute to an atmosphere of gatekeeping, making guests not staying overnight feel unwelcome. Breaking down barriers and making spaces where all guests feel comfortable results in opportunities for spontaneous and authentic interactions.

The Marriott Austin successfully resolves the issue of gatekeeping by providing separate entrances to their restaurants for overnight guests and other visitors. The rooftop bar has its own elevator on the exterior of the building that opens onto the sidewalk, distinctly differentiating between the hotel lobby check-in space for overnight guests and the amenities that support both tourists and locals alike.

The Marriott Austin provides separate entrances for overnight guests and locals wishing to take advantage of the hotel’s amenities. – photo courtesy HKS/Al Argueta Photography

Gatekeeping does not just occur outside the front doors of the hotel. For example, the check-in desk for a hotel is often located front-and-center within the lobby while the food and beverage options are pushed to the side. This relationship can be reversed. The Joule in Dallas separates the check-in desk from the front door with decorative screens, allowing the rest of the lobby to act as a public mixing space abuzz with social energy. Simple layout adjustments can have a big impact on making all guests feel comfortable. The front desk is there if it is needed, but visitors do not feel like they are walking through a strictly guarded lobby when meeting a friend for dinner.

At The Joule in Dallas, the check-in desk is separated from the lobby, making the latter a more inviting space for public gathering. – photo courtesy The Joule

Goal 2: Identity

A hotel’s identity should resonate with its context and local culture, encompassing qualities that make these unique. Aesthetic identity should not be based on visuals of the destination’s stereotypes, but rather be rooted in a respectful understanding of local traditions and heritage. Additionally, by partnering with local businesses and brands, hotel properties can distinguish themselves while deepening their relationship with the surrounding community.

Hotel Drover in Fort Worth embodies the character of the historic cattle-driving trade and invites guests to experience it with a modern flair. Located within the Stockyards district, the hotel goes beyond playful livestock-themed decorations through a site plan that evokes the nature of a ranch with meandering paths dotted with pockets of Adirondack chairs and campfire pits for guests to explore. A creek runs behind the hotel’s “backyard” space, a unique outdoor venue for appropriately Texan activities such as listening to live country music, playing cornhole, and making s’mores on an open fire. These activities also serve to experientially transport guests outside of the city to the open Texas range.

Hotel Drover provides the conveniences modern hotel guests demand while still reflecting the historic character of the Fort Worth Stockyards district. – photo courtesy HKS/Dixie Dixon Photography

Ensuring that the hotel generates buzz about itself as a local destination can help cultivate a strong identity, too. Its design should serve to spark the curiosity of passersby and lay the foundation for the hotel to become an icon within the neighborhood. Regular events and programming can draw locals and help establish the hotel as a dynamic place that can be revisited time and time again. Austin’s Commodore Perry Estate has established itself as a sought-after destination by building an extensive calendar of events that take place throughout the property, including movie nights and “Records and Reserves,” where Victrola music is paired with spirit-tasting.

The grounds around the restored mansion of the Commodore Perry Estate in Austin have become a popular destination with an extensive calendar of scheduled events. – photo courtesy Auberge Resorts Collection

Goal 3: Versatility

Versatility refers to the immediate multifunctional use of a space. True versatility should go beyond operable partitions and traditional notions of what makes a space adjustable. It should not be about allowing for infinite possibilities, but rather about designing for deliberate, well-considered alternative uses of space. Smart design decisions can lead to spaces that fulfill different needs based on the time of day, season, or market condition. In addition, spaces that currently serve one distinct program should be reenvisioned to find synergistic uses that can plug into the typical day-to-day configurations.

Versatile design can efficiently make more thoughtful use of traditional hotel spaces. This does not mean that spaces that are functioning well should be rethought entirely. Rather, versatility allows hotel operators to experiment with programming and personalize spaces to fit guests’ needs while retaining consistency and quality in the overall experience. Both first-time guests and local regulars can be certain there will always be something new to discover.

Successful versatility should not be about allowing for infinite possibilities, but rather about designing for deliberate alternative uses of space. – illustrations courtesy HKS

As a renovation property with historic architecture, Hotel Emma in San Antonio surprisingly excels at providing multifunctional areas. The updated ground floor plan has crafted groupings of interconnected event spaces that can be booked individually or together so guests can have control over the scale and size of their functions. While the hotel still plays its traditional role of facilitating meetings, weddings, and parties, the enclosed courtyard and demonstration kitchen support opportunities for more unexpected events to take place in the building’s commemorated spaces.

Located in a repurposed brewery, Hotel Emma in San Antonio contains several event spaces that can be booked individually or as a group. – photo by Jason Risner Photography

Why Thoughtful Design Matters

Business structure and operations play a big role in a hotel’s ability to achieve connection, identity, and versatility goals, but designers play a pivotal role as well. Thoughtful design can help hotels streamline operations, bolster marketing, and create opportunities for ancillary revenue streams. Upfront design decisions can set the stage for a higher return on investment and lower operating costs down the road. Many of these goals can even be achieved without adding a premium on construction costs.

Spatial considerations like adjacencies, passive strategies, and life-cycle cost analysis are design solutions that can have a positive impact on the bottom line, but aesthetic choices also have implications for economic performance. A study conducted at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration found that guests spend significantly more time looking at photos than any other information when booking a hotel online. This is true even if the photos are of spaces they are unlikely to use, indicating that the online “curb appeal” of a property highly influences occupancy potential. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then design is of the utmost importance in telling a hotel’s story and attracting more business.

Building connections with the local community can bring major benefits to hotels that may not be as obvious. Many municipalities offer concessions like reduced parking requirements or increased floor area ratio to properties that help create more walkable developments or provide public spaces and services. Additionally, using local suppliers and varying concessions can lead to direct profit increases. Designing with the local community in mind can give hotels a steadier revenue stream while minimizing the ups and downs of transient market segments.

Architects have the unique skills to synthesize project-specific attributes such as context, client ambitions, and market potential to create a place rooted in connection, identity, and versatility. Redefining the guest does not mean redefining the hotel, but it does require proactive design so that when the next crisis hits, hotels can continue to provide a quality experience no matter what their guests want or need.

Kay Curtis, AIA, and Jenn Carlson, AIA, are architects at HKS in Dallas. As part of HKS’ Research Incubator program, they together researched and wrote “Hotel&: Designing Business-Resilient Hotels.”

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