Many hotels have moved at speed to put these measures in place. The Hotel 1 group, for example, is offering contactless services, including check-in, room key, menu ordering and television control, as well as redesigned space to ensure more distance between customers. The Marriott, meanwhile, has a Global Cleanliness Council that has put together rules such as housekeepers disinfecting their hands every 20 minutes while working.
But among the effort to put hygiene best practice in place, hotels must remember the foundation of what hospitality is. It is about generating the smiles, offering tokens of appreciation at arrival or thoughtful in-room details that make the stay more comfortable. Hotels should look at all guest interaction points and decide where risk can be mitigated – and where the experience can be heightened, if needed. To do this successfully, design decisions should combine practical interior considerations with brand thinking from the start. Getting branding and interior design to work closely together is crucial on any project – during a global pandemic that requires quick solutions even more so.
In touch, every step of the journey
COVID-19 has emphasised the need for hotels to innovate around experience, but it’s not a new concept. Every hotel we’ve worked with over the years has been looking for fresh ways to enhance the experience it offers. At Irish estate Mount Juliet, for example, we worked closely pre-COVID with the hotel to imagine and design every part of the customer journey. Details include personal notes of welcome, inviting children to take part in the estate’s traditional activities, or comforting guests with calming scents at the end of an active day. These are an expression of the hotel brand at every point. During COVID, these are even more important.
The hotel of the immediate future might be about fewer interactions, but it needs to continue to offer meaningful ones. A carefully crafted hotel brand can offer a sense of place, create special moments for guests. The new brand strategy for Thornbury Castle, for example, weaves its history as a 16th century Tudor castle into every touchpoint – from room names to bespoke guest activities. For recently rebranded and renovated hotel Ercilla de Bilbao, we worked closely with the interior design team at Red Deer architects to evoke the place’s character and history of 1970s glamour, as well as the excitement of present-day Bilbao.
Staff also has a major part to play in helping the experience come alive. Hospitality is a people business, and during this crisis, staff members can amplify the experience, distract consumers from over-thinking the hygiene requirements and make the social distancing measures almost invisible.
Lionel Real de Azúa, Founding Director of architectural practice Red Deer, agrees. Hotels must focus on offering refuge from the realities of the pandemic and looming financial crisis and despondency. They can provide opportunities for quiet, isolation and headspace, while promoting interaction through more tech-enabled platforms. “This crisis should be seen as an opportunity for radical disruption, reinvention and creativity,” he adds.
More natural spaces to combat fast-paced living
This is certainly a time for hotels to rethink spatial design, not just as an immediate response to the pandemic, but also with a view to the long term. In the past, hotels would fit as many rooms as possible into a building and incorporate big public spaces and conference rooms. Although this approach is not completely redundant, the current status quo offers a chance to redesign how space is allocated. For example, the hotel gym has long been an afterthought, one of the most pointless spaces in a hotel. Why not create more space for in-room exercising, with the help of interactive products such as Peloton or Mirror?
The concept of porous design is becoming more important too – design where there is a lot less hard space between the inside and the out. Rooftop bars with retractable roofs or walls, such as at Shoreditch House in London, aren’t just a practical solution to the immediate challenge. These designs allow us to slow down and carve a new, natural rhythm to the way we live. They allow us to make more meaningful interactions with others – and reject the ‘fast forward’ pace of life we live in. They should become an integral part of a more long-term sustainable strategy.
Material innovation has also accelerated due to COVID-19. Guests want to eat, work and rest in places which enhance their physical and mental wellbeing. Whether through developing more virus-resistant surfaces or using more natural and raw materials, material design can help to achieve this.
Another focus of post-COVID-19 hotel design is the marked change in consumer behaviour. Aversion to international flights, for example, means that hotels need to consider their local customer more. Danish restaurant Noma Copenhagen has temporarily changed its offering completely to welcome the local community. Instead of formal tasting menus, it is offering generous platters and burgers outside – it is a more casual experience, but it is equally rewarding for a different type of guest.
Not all hotels will be able to re-invent their space whole-scale – and they don’t need to go over the top in their attempts to redesign. They can approach the challenge in more subtle ways. For example, if hand sanitisers are here to stay, ubiquitous at every entry, check-in and corridor, they should be incorporated in the overall customer journey more effectively. This could be as simple as co-branding products with trusted cleaning specialists for personal amenity packs, or as novel as creating a new welcome ritual around hand-washing and cleanliness. This sets brand principles around cleanliness from the start, but not in a sterile, bland way. If you can’t offer a welcoming cocktail on arrival, let that first interaction be different, but equally purposeful.
Whatever the approach, a hotel’s commitment to COVID-realities needs to be visible. The efforts hotels are making must be evident and reassuring and touch all senses. The right brand strategy helps with this. Hotel brands are well-positioned to offer their guests refuge and safety, and they need to communicate that clearly, in a positive and meaningful way.