BLLA gathered a panel of boutique hotel design and architecture professionals to discuss a number of pressing questions regarding how the pandemic will impact these aspects of the business. Founder of AEJ Collective, Amy Jakubowski moderated the panel, which included President of The Gettys Group, Andrew Fay and Principal at Gensler, Tom Ito. Together, they addressed critical questions to build a Boutique Hotel Crisis Guide webinar.
How Can Boutique Hotels Return to Pre-Pandemic Business?
The hospitality industry must outline a strategy for encouraging guests to return, but the question remains: How can hotels make guests feel safe while traveling once again? According to Ito, hotels must focus messaging on the health and welfare of their guests – perhaps by instituting air filtration, visible room and bedding changes, and optimized cleaning and disinfecting products and procedures to enhance the perception that hotel stays are safe. To Ito, that means a potential focus on how digital interfaces and personal mobile devices can be used to provide amenities and entertainment, replacing traditional group-oriented design practices.
Fay states that “travel is in our DNA” and remains confident that people will eventually want to get out and reconnect. However, the biggest challenge may be combatting the larger hotel chains, as Fay believes that “brand loyalty increases as uncertainty rises,” creating a conundrum for smaller hotels. Above all else, boutique hotels should concentrate on efforts to “shop local” and “stay eco-friendly” as in-routes to scaling the difficult return to business that the COVID-19 crisis presents.
Fortunately, the boutique community is uniquely positioned to remain flexible during the recovery period. Ito maintains that boutique is much more personal and more responsive to guest needs and desires, therefore it can create a curated experience similar to a home-like atmosphere, which many travelers will crave during this time. Panelists predict that operations like Airbnb and VRBO will experience difficulties much longer than the boutique community because they are not subject to the same stringent regulations.
What Changes Will Impact the Boutique Industry?
As the industry prepares to resume business after the isolation period ends, it’s clear that design and architecture considerations will continue to impact current hotels and future boutique hotel projects. Fay and Ito suggest utilizing currently owned group spaces for co-working to accommodate shifting business needs.
According to Ito, hotels must “rethink the current model, and consider how hotels can be more flexible.” Fay agrees, suggesting that hotels can retrofit current meeting and business areas for a more digitally focused approach to working from a hotel.
According to both panelists, work is moving forward on nearly all projects, and the industry has a sense of optimism when it comes to approaching new builds and conversions. They spoke about a key trend that may be emerging in these new conversions, regarding existing corridor-style motel buildings. What once was considered a safety issue – the removal of public areas and direct access to the hotel room, as well as elimination of a need for an elevator space – may now be a benefit with ongoing social distancing efforts.
COVID-19 in Hospitality: Changes Won’t Stop With the End of the Pandemic
Both Ito and Fay expect social distancing and the various regulations it spawns to be the norm for the foreseeable future, even after COVID-19 recedes. Regulations to support public health will remain in place long after the 12- to 18-month life expectancy of this pandemic, and the boutique industry should move forward with design and architectural practices with this in mind. Measures could include everything from eliminating extraneous decor and items within rooms to implementing digital gathering places. Solutions will depend on the creativity the boutique industry fosters.
Jakubowski, Ito, and Fay agree that the boutique industry is a unique pivot point for housing individuals most impacted by this crisis, and doing so is part of the industry’s social responsibility. After this crisis ends, it’s important to emphasize flexibility and the resources the industry can contribute to stemming the next one.
According to Fay’s own company motto: “Our job is to make people feel great. Do this, and the rest falls into place. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people may not remember what you said or what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
A renewed focus on post-COVID19 flexibility of design and architecture leads the boutique industry right back where it started – with a focus on people. Put your employees and guests first, and the route to recovery should become much clearer.
- Have you seen renovations come to a halt? When do you think they will pick back up?
Amy Jakubowski: I think this is split – I am aware of may that have halted and at the same time there are others that are moving forward. I understand this to be a matter of funding – projects that have been funded are the ones that are moving. If a project has not been funded or conserving cash is a bigger priority, these projects have stopped – some temporarily and others possibly permanently.
- How do you perceive the boutique side of hospitality championing the hearts of travelers?
Andrew Fay: People will be drawn to brands that can tell a story of how they helped their communities in these times and what they continue to do to support their communities. Social responsibility Is not just the right thing but an attractive quality that guests will consider when they return to traveling.
- How do you see design strategies changing due to this crisis? Things like event space; what else?
Andrew Fay: We have been embracing natural daylight and access to out of doors for a few years now; however, one could posit that it will be very desirable moving forward given our recent global confinement. The argument used for the past few years of hard surfaces in the guest spaces could translate into function areas; perhaps firstly in Prefunction and smaller meeting areas, but guests may question how long a wall to wall carpet has been in place or when it was last cleaned. Of course, hard surfaces call for different means of sound attenuation, so the designer will be challenged with how to accommodate that in a creative manner.
-As some guests will not want to be as social, will secondary monitors that guests can connect to their laptop and give them two screens be viewed as a perk.
-Where do I eat in the room? Will more and more guests prefer the grab-n-go or room service to avoid eating in crowded restaurants/bars? What is the TV tray of 2020?
-Virtual Happy Hour – As people have resorted to this as a way to remain social in these times. Will guests continue this trend when they travel? Will a limited minibar be in demand? Could I get my glass of wine or Manhattan from the bar to-go? Another branding opportunity.
-Hydration Stations – while some brands offer this amenity, will it become just expected. Will guests prefer to travel with their corckcicle/travel-friendly refillable water bottle. After all who all touched that plastic water bottle in the grab-n-go. Could hotels turn this into a branded/rewards thing? Bring your water bottle back and we’ll give you a free drink from the bar, snack, or?
Public Area Thoughts
-Pre-Check in/mobile check-in. Guests will want their keycards on their phone
-Check-in Queuing – how do you do it and integrate it into the design tastefully?
-More focus on intriguing elevator landings. A place that used to be viewed as a 1-2 min experience. If this experience becomes longer, what are guests experiencing? Sound, Visual Stimulation? Are their perches/ledges to sit your work bag/purse on while you are waiting?
Amy Jakubowski: We have been designing more and more communal spaces over the last decade or so, I believe humans need and crave connection – I think this connection will take on various forms but I do not believe the senes of the community will go away – we may step tepidly back into the physical connections but it is part of the human experience – just take a look at how hard everyone is working to stay connected in our current conditions.
- You talked about more antimicrobial spec’s happening, how does that affect the fact that a lot of coated fabric vendors have been taking out the Antimicrobials in the past year.
Andrew Fay: It will be interesting to see how travelers rate or question cleanliness. How do designers deliver a welcoming compelling environment without seeming antiseptic and harsh? Savvy travelers may also be concerned about the sustainability or earth-friendly nature of the hotel environment and the materials inside. If deployed well, it could be a great way to strategically market to that travel decision-maker. Designers and manufacturers have a great opportunity to make that happen.
Amy Jakubowski: In LA we are already seeing in a couple of short weeks (OK maybe it seems like forever to most) the cleanest air we have seen since 1980 – today we were rated as having the cleanest air across the country – in LA! I think sustainability and earth-friendly will be a driving force – a healthier planet – a healthier you!!
I believe at this moment manufactures have an opportunity to truly look at their production, the materials they are providing and how they are messaging that – antimicrobial fabrics are indeed widely used in healthcare and are effective but as in anything no two fabrics are created equally – there will need to be supported to the statement.
- The science suggests that the population will be immune to the Coronavirus from either past exposure or vaccination in the next 12 to 18 months. So aren’t all of these planning and design changes being discussed only relevant for the next 12 to 18 months? The discussion gives the impression that these changes are intended to be permanent in nature.
Andrew Fay: Taking a few pages from the history books, every catastrophic world event has effected some positive change on the global psyche. This pandemic will as well. Times of hardship breeds great resourcefulness and problem-solving. And in this case, given we’ve all had to be physically distant, virtual creativity has had to find a way. I think this in itself will open doors to positive new creations in the future.
While we all are excited about a vaccine, the “what if” will remain in people’s minds. Their behaviors will forever be altered. Even though it is safe, why risk it? Could there be another virus? While guests pre virus appreciated amenities like roof-top bars and etc. When they return to these amenities, they will appreciate brands and experiences that are looking out for their safety and wellbeing. If they feel “safe” on a rooftop bar, they’ll end up staying longer and want to come back.
- I know the panelist mentioned that ‘all their projects are still going’ but our experience in the past few weeks shows otherwise – many many projects are being paused. What advise do you have for suppliers that serve the hotel market, as to how to weather this lull – how long might it take to come back to pre-COVID levels. What might suppliers focus on for the time being?
Andrew Fay: With projects still moving forward but design teams all working from their individual homes, your sales strategy has to change. How does your email and its content stand out in a designer’s inbox? How do you share/present your latest and greatest? Email, video, virtual meetings or do you think of creating product commercials? The fact is that even when the world re-opens, design firms will operate differently on a day to day basis. Will there be limits or policies put in place for office visitors that will impact suppliers? What you may think as a temporary solution should be viewed as a sales strategy of the future
- Do you think we will begin to see more hard surfaces and less soft surfaces such as carpet in guest rooms etc?
Andrew Fay: Yes.
Amy Jakubowski: Probably but the truth is the material is only as relevant to the maintenance and cleanliness – how we care for our spaces will be (should be) more relevant.
- In one word, What are each of your thoughts on the future of design post-pandemic?
Andrew Fay: Ebullient
Amy Jakubowski: Ingenuitive
- What do you think will happen to all the closed hotels once the crisis is over. will they be bought, repurposed?
Andrew Fay: yes! But will they stay as straight-up hotels? Or Co-living spaces? Co-work/live places? Senior living facilities? We shall see!
Amy Jakubowski: As an Angeleno (previous New Yorker ), I would love to see this as a potential solution to our homeless population – if a hotel is to be repurposed is this a chance to house some of our less fortunate?