Hotel operations, design adjust to social distancing
Hotel operations, design adjust to social distancing
27 MAY 2020 8:30 AM

Hoteliers and designers share how properties are adjusting to meet social-distancing guidelines, and offer their insights on what hotel design might look like in a post-COVID-19 era.

GLOBAL REPORT—As health officials continue to urge the public to practice social distancing, hotels are finding ways to adapt, despite many unknowns surrounding what works and what doesn’t.

RLH Corporation COO Gary Sims said the hotel industry has quickly been reacting to the information that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, government officials and local health departments provide. He said the CDC recently confirmed person-to-person contact is the primary transmission of COVID-19, though hotels are unlikely to ease up on new cleaning protocols.

“From a social-distancing standpoint, we have looked at the way our properties operate. Every property is built differently,” he said. “We have spent the last 25 to 30 years designing and concepting hotels to encourage group activities. … Now it’s 180 degrees from that.”

What hotels are doing now
Sims said the hotel industry has stepped up by implementing measures such as social-distancing stickers on floors and elevators, and plexiglass dividers at front desks and in food-and-beverage areas. However, recommendations could change completely in three months, he said.

“We’re continuing to evolve on that side. The things that we’re doing now, we’re only doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We still don’t know what the expectations of our customers are going to be. All these things we may be doing may be 100% accurate, but it may be completely 0% accurate. Until we start getting people traveling and the customer tells us what their expectations are, we’re kind of flying blind here.”

RLHC is actively seeking guest feedback and will adjust accordingly to eventually set brand standards, Sims said.

The company is experimenting with directing franchisees to separate occupied rooms by either one or two rooms, though that’s not a sustainable business model long-term, he said. Additionally, he said RLHC has recommended its franchisees remove or relocate furniture in lobbies to discourage groups from gathering.

Alyx Freid, assistant GM at the Aloft Orlando Downtown, said guests at the property during the pandemic have ranged from essential workers to leisure and corporate travelers. The hotel is located near a hospital.

She said the hotel is offering a no-contact policy to any incoming guest and keeps them notified them of the procedures in place.

“For example, we had a guest traveling for medical reasons … we actually got them in a room on their own floor. They chose to forego all housekeeping service. They were distanced from not only guests but staff as well,” she said.

She said the Aloft Orlando Downtown’s event space hasn’t operated during the pandemic, but a plan is in place for groups of 10 people or less. The hotel’s operator, McKibbon Hospitality, and Marriott International have been offering guidance, she said.

Signage and memos in public spaces have played a role in social distancing on property, she said. The hotel also implemented social-distancing stickers on the floor of the check-in/check-out line and glass barriers. To create a safe walking path through the lobby, staff set up event partitions.

“It’s ever-changing. We are just doing our best to keep up to date with the news, the protocols, the mandates, and do all we can to serve our wide array of guests that we’re getting,” she said.

Jennie Toh, VP, brand, Asia/Pacific at Marriott, said in an email interview the company is following the guidelines of local authorities very closely.

For example, she said in Hong Kong, the recommended distance between tables in restaurants and bars is 1.5 meters apart. Across its hotels in the Asia/Pacific region, F&B venues are operating at a limited capacity to ensure safe social distancing, she said.

“For our hotels currently in operation, we are removing or rearranging furniture to allow more space for distancing,” she said. “We will be working together with our owners to review design proposals to ensure that we meet the new hospitality norms and behaviors as well as the health and safety challenges presented by the current pandemic environment.”

Tamara Baldanza-Dekker, CMO at Margaritaville, said in an email interview that Margaritaville properties are known for expansive outdoor spaces, which is proving to be an advantage for social distancing, she said. She said indoor common areas have been reconfigured, and floor clings and signage have been placed throughout properties to help with social distancing.

With social distancing so prevalent, she said, it would be surprising if the industry didn’t see a shift in public space design. For Margaritaville properties currently under development, such as the Margaritaville Lake Resort in Lake Conroe, Texas, outdoor spaces continue to be a focal point while indoor areas are also being reimagined to ensure space is never an issue, she said.

Designing hotels post-COVID-19
Manny Dominguez, principal at Cooper Carry architecture and design firm, said there aren’t answers yet for what hotel design will look like in the future. One thing he’s certain about is social distancing will be part of designers’ vocabulary moving forward.

“I don’t think we’re not going to be looking at this for the next five to 10 years as far as creating spaces (where) people feel safe,” he said. “Along with that, there’s other things that are going to have to go into place in the industry, like hygiene and how people clean hotels and what effect that has on furniture and layouts.”

He said special layouts will need to be closely studied to avoid creating overcrowded spaces. Large hotels with large check-in lines are going to have to deal with queuing guests, and lobbies are likely to change, he said.

“You might start seeing more directional type of environments, where people are asked to walk a certain way. Also, looking at the furniture itself. We might be looking at a more minimalist approach and material things that we can wipe down (easier),” he said.

Dominguez said he anticipates a renaissance of hotel renovations. In conversations he’s had with interior designers in recent years, the topic of hard surfaces often comes up, he said.

“We’re going to start seeing less carpet in the guestrooms. There’s always been that conversation about carpet, or do we go to the (luxury vinyl plank) or do we go to the wood floors. That conversation is going to swing very heavily towards more hard surfaces,” he said.

He said carpet is something that can harbor bacteria and dust, and COVID-19 might “push this a little bit faster” to hard flooring.

Michael Buono, principal and CEO of New York Renaissance Group and Mulberry Development, said flexibility will be key to designing public spaces, noting a project in which private pods were designed into the public space.

“It’s actually a pretty good way of mitigating and respecting the social distancing,” he said.

Buono said the challenge now comes from undoing spaces that were once meant for density. The other question to consider is if that’s financially practical, he said.

“Is it financially viable to have a space that originally had an occupancy of 80 to now have an occupancy that’s maybe half of that? How do you manage that?” he said.

Suzie Hall, president of Cornerstone Design, said in an email interview that designers will be responsible for creating new solutions to meet new demands. Solutions in the guestroom might include fewer touchpoints, and technology will become a prime resource for guests to control their environment.

Decorative pillows, bed scarves and other absorptive items will no longer be part of the furniture, fixtures and equipment package, she said. Guestrooms will see more nonporous surfaces and finishes, she added.

The new normal of less furniture in public spaces can be offset by large, bold floor patterns and the use of decorative screens, she said. Seating options can include back-to-back layouts and seats with higher, hard surface backs.

She said outdoor social and dining spaces will become more important, noting owners and operators can invest in outdoor canopies and climate-controlled/heated areas with plenty of ventilation. Soon, the industry might see less communal dining tables as well.

“Those remaining or newly installed will have hard-surface dividers placed on them,” she said. “Two-top and four-top tables will replace a lot of community tables, and seating in these areas will be specified with non-absorptive materials.”

1 Comment

  • Jim Kresse May 28, 2020 1:32 PM Reply

    Hotels taking innovative social distancing measures proves to the guests that they care and can do it in a way that doesn’t remove the atmosphere or purpose of travel either business or pleasure.

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