March 20, 2014

Hotel lobbies: a place to hang out?

It’s midafternoon at the Crystal City Marriott in Arlington, Va. Flattering sunlight floods the airy modern lobby. A few people linger over lunch or work together in hushed conversations. An employee tidies the already tidy bar. Subdued music emanates from strategically placed speakers.

It’s midafternoon at the Crystal City Marriott in Arlington, Va. Flattering sunlight floods the airy modern lobby. A few people linger over lunch or work together in hushed conversations. An employee tidies the already tidy bar. Subdued music emanates from strategically placed speakers.

I’m tempted to abandon my plans to return to my messy cubicle or my messy home office and just camp out here for the afternoon. Which is exactly what Marriott would like me — and you, fellow guests and worker bees — to do.

If you were to wax metaphoric about lobbies, you might say that they’re the living rooms of hotels. But what if your living rooms aren’t, well, lived in?

“If you think of a hotel lobby, you think of a big empty space, and that’s what the tradition has been,” says Bjorn Hanson, a dean specializing in hospitality at New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management.

“Our lobbies have historically been transitional spaces,” agrees Paul Cahill, senior vice president for global brand management at Marriott Hotels & Resorts/JW Marriott Hotels. People check in. People check out. Maybe they hang around for a few minutes if they’re waiting for someone.

Now, though, hotels are transforming their lobbies into destinations designed to attract both guests and non-guests for extended periods of time.

Over the past few years, Marriott, for instance, has been rolling out its “Greatroom lobby” concept. The Crystal City Marriott was one of the earliest conversions.

To encourage guests to linger and passersby to pop in, the restaurant and bar moved to the ground level; they’d previously been one floor up. The centerpiece of the new space is a combination coffee shop and bar. A few large TVs surround it. The seating options include communal tables, two-tops with tall chairs, high-backed chairs with low-slung tables and a row of chairs along the bar.

And there are two 21st-century amenities that will almost guarantee bottoms in those seats: free WiFi, rolled out in all Marriott lobbies about a year ago, and lots of electrical outlets, often incorporated into the furniture.

More hotels have shifted their emphasis to public spaces because they’ve scaled back the size of their guest rooms. That’s because of limited real estate and the removal of bulky furniture that used to house equally bulky televisions, among other reasons, according to Hanson. Besides, guests these days aren’t as interested in holing up in their rooms by themselves, and hotels don’t want to see that, either.

“You want them to be pulled out of their room and into these public settings where they can be part of the community,” says Vanessa Guilford, design director for the New York-based Pod Hotels.

Hoyt Harper, global brand leader for Sheraton, says that hotels can capitalize on the fact that guests want to sit in a well-equipped space that allows them to “be alone but not lonely” — which quite succinctly describes the gadget-laden millennials who now represent a significant portion of the traveling and working public.

“People don’t work the way they do 9 to 5 in an office cubicle anymore,” Guilford says. At the Pod 39 in New York, the lounge — slightly set off from the more functional check-in/check-out lobby area — has tables equipped with outlets. There’s also free WiFi.

Hilton Hotels and Resorts’ lobby experience at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner in Virginia features a technology lounge. Here, guests can work at PC or Apple computers, set up shop with their own laptops at a communal table or park themselves in front of a four-panel LG “video wall.”

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But hotels realize that guests and guests of guests aren’t going to be just working. They may be meeting friends, catching up on TV shows on their iPads or eating.

The key, Guilford says, is making lobbies flexible so that they can serve different purposes and different groups. She stages what she calls “vignettes of furniture” with movable seating.

Of course, you can’t spell “functional” without “fun,” so hotels have made sure to kit out their public spaces with plenty of leisure opportunities.

At Pod 39, Guilford placed Ping-Pong tables in two rooms off the lounge. “We have people playing, like, serious games — they’re really into it — for hours at a time,” she said.

Social lubricants can also help pad the bottom line. In 2013, Sheraton introduced Sheraton Social Hour, a premium wine program, at its 400-plus locations. According to Harper, research indicated that more than 80 percent of guests would pay more for a premium wine than a cheaper house wine. So Sheraton entered a partnership with Wine Spectator magazine, which helps select wines that it has rated 85 or above.

Guests pay $5 for two 2-ounce pours, which often prompts them to buy another full glass or two. The wine programs take place at least three nights a week, but many hotels conduct one nightly. Sheraton has seen an average 20 percent increase in bar revenue since the program began.

Kimpton Hotels was a pioneer of the wine hour concept. Its free wine hour started in 1981 at the brand’s first location, the Clarion Bedford Hotel in San Francisco. Now every Kimpton property holds a nightly wine hour. Hilton’s Embassy Suites properties also host nightly receptions with complimentary drinks and snacks.

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According to Cahill, non-guests are an important part of the hotel lobby experience. Guests want to see “like-minded” people around them and feel as if they’re part of a unique local experience, he says.

The lobby mix can be tricky, though, says NYU’s Hanson. There’s a potential for a clash between demographics, he explains, such as a family with children checking in within eye- and earshot of some young adults having a little noisy fun at the bar.

The situation is helped in part by the natural ebb and flow in a lobby throughout the day, says Cahill. In the early morning, there might be a lot of activity, with business travelers checking out and eating breakfast. Then things slow down, and there might be some quiet meetings or a smattering of people working in solitude. Late afternoon brings another rush, with guests checking in, which transitions into the more lively socializing centered on the bar.

Ideally, no one gets in anyone else’s way.

Lobby design can be a little bit like a chemistry experiment, adding and subtracting elements, shaking things up and hoping that they don’t combust.

The planning goes down to the level of engineering the entire sensory experience, from lighting to music and scent, says Harper. The lobby “should be inviting and create a sense of warmth and belonging,” he says.

Hotels want to get the lobby right because it’s the first — and last — impression of a property that a guest will have, says Cahill. “It sets the tone for the overall stay.”

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