The Evolution of the Hotel Lobby

November 10, 2015


The flat screen TV, when it became widely available around the turn of the millennium, was a godsend to hotel owners and guests. It took away the need for bulky furniture at the foot of the bed, allowing sleek sets to go right on the wall. This effectively made rooms larger, not to mention the giant leap forward in terms of aesthetics.


Within a few years, however, flat screens were not so much admired as expected. Hotel guests today are more likely to notice—with displeasure—an old tube set wedged into the corner of the room like some relic of a bygone age or worse still, hung up on a metal shelf above your head! That’s just the nature of the beast: Expectations evolve with the times.


One of the next big things to change—the next proverbial flat screen, if you will—is the hotel lobby. For decades, the lobby has been a place people pass through rather than pass time. You might wait for a taxi, or use it as a rendezvous point, but mostly it’s neither here nor there—a place for checking in and out, and maybe admiring a bouquet of fresh flowers if you’re lucky.


There are several reasons why lobbies are on the verge of their own evolutionary leap. The first (which we’ve mentioned in this blog before) is that hotels face increasing competition, both from each other and from crowdsourced hospitality options. This forces them to re-think existing spaces and amenities to create more value.


The second reason is the (also oft-mentioned) surge of Millennials who are constantly on the road these days, both for business and pleasure. If common wisdom is to be believed, these younger generations want more than just a bed for the night. They want social experiences, networking opportunities, places to get things done and connect. Hotels in turn want guests, which means they want Millennials, which means they want what Millennials want.


And where’s the most obvious place to look? A large room at the front the hotel that’s traditionally boring, empty and underutilised.


Going high-tech


Within the hospitality industry, quite a bit of noise has been made about a recent collaboration between Marriott and MIT. The goal was to create a lobby that fits the age we live in. The hotel giant approached the academic giant with a proposition to create a hotel lobby that younger generations will actually want to use for work and play. What they’ve come up with—although it hasn’t been released as of this writing—is an app called Six Degrees that actually interacts with lobby furniture. Set your phone on the bar and you might see glowing green circles around it. Look across the room and you might see the same green circles around someone else’s phone. It means that, according to your LinkedIn profiles, you have something in common.


There are also touch screen maps with restaurant reviews, workstations that convert into presentation kiosks, and other features that blend cyberspace with the real world. This is the kind of thing that happens when you get MIT involved.


Simple changes


But the evolutionary arc of the hotel lobby is not all gadgets and gizmos and technological mashups. On a more basic level, some hotels (including Marriott) are updating their visual designs, adding more functional seating, and even allowing non-guests to freely use wifi-enabled common areas. This is a nod toward openness and connectivity—the kind of social hub that people will leave the hotel in order to find, if they have to. But what if that coffee shop, that public library, that comfortable meeting place exists right there in your hotel lobby? What if the design is unique, or even (dare I say it) funky? What if there is local art on the walls, bulletin boards full of community events, locally roasted coffee brewing?


If the hotel can deliver a local, personal, social, memorable and unique experience, guests will have every reason to keep coming back. And the idea that people will simply abuse these common spaces—that they will systematically refrain from spending money at the hotel while leeching gigabytes of data and laughing all the way home—is entirely misguided until proven otherwise. Every indication is that more activity and utility attracts more business and cultivates a positive brand image—particularly in the eyes of Millennials or “Generation Y.”


From disparate to dynamic


In a typical hotel lobby you have a business center tucked away somewhere, a restaurant (often with many empty seats), a bar, meeting rooms, and so on. These areas are often located on different floors and opposite corners of the hotel—and we’ve all seen how empty and quiet they can seem.


A large number of lobby redesigns are gathering these disparate elements together in a dynamic and vibrant new space. Entertaining, meeting, eating, working, drinking—these can all be part of a more transparent, open design that fosters connection, networking, and a sense of vitality to the hotel’s social function. This is exactly the kind of thing sweeping through corporate workplace design as Millennials gain prominence, so it makes sense that hotels would follow suit.


What the future holds


One thing’s for certain—the hotel lobby cannot lumber on indefinitely like a slow-moving dinosaur. As the needs and wants paying guests evolve, so must the experience on offer. When hotels consider lobby renovations (and carefully consider they must), what they’re really deciding is whether their lobby will be a fossil or whether it will be a living, vital organ of the hotel.


And, whilst we are struggling to keep up with those groups already well advanced in this area, the next question of course is, what’s next?



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