For Rachel Moniz, the ideal hotel lobby has come to look a certain busy, buzzy way: a popular bar full of guests and locals, maybe featuring a fashion show, art exhibition, or live music.
"That's exciting, that's an experience, and that's something that people want to be a part of," said Moniz, executive vice president of HEI Hotels and Resorts, which operates 83 independent and branded hotels around the country.
“All that became important to us as a company,” she said. “Up until March. Then it was like, ‘Oh, yikes, get all that out of there.’ It definitely changed things for us.”
The coronavirus pandemic has kept most travelers home, slashing hotel occupancy to about 35% the weekend before Memorial Day — a recent high, according to hospitality research firm STR. And the crisis took a buzz saw to one of the hotel industry’s most pervasive trends in recent years: the lobby as social hub.
Lobbies at opulent hotels once functioned as high-society gathering places, but over time that space gave way to cookie-cutter sameness. Boutique hoteliers started to revive and reactivate lobbies a few decades ago, followed by the hip W Hotels chain, which referred to the area as the "living room."
The concept has become widespread in the last 10 to 15 years, with brands across the trendiness and budgetary spectrum embracing the idea of revving up their lobbies with food, drinks, activity and local engagement — and making them comfortable enough to lounge around in.
“As many of our brands have gone through refreshes and prototype redesigns, bars and lobbies have become a top priority when it comes to creating spaces where guests want to gather and spend time with friends or family,” Phil Cordell, global head of new brand development for Hilton, said in an email. “The goal is to create a space that is inviting and that guests want to remain in.”
So-called microhotels, including Marriott’s Moxy brand, have placed an even greater emphasis on public spaces such as the lobby while building smaller-than-average rooms. At Moxy, guests check in at the bar instead of a front desk.
“What ended up happening is hotel developers and designers were saying people like to be together, a buzzy hotel makes the hotel look attractive and vibrant, and we can take some furniture out of the guest rooms and make them smaller, maybe fit a few more guest rooms in,” said Stephani Robson, senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.
So what becomes of lobbies designed for social interaction in a time when social distancing is the norm?
“We live in a six-foot world, and the lobby has to reflect that,” said Jan Freitag, STR’s senior vice president of lodging insights.
He and other experts said solutions should include new furniture arrangements, signs, or other ways to keep guests apart, fewer decorative flourishes that can’t be easily cleaned, and surfaces that lend themselves well to constant sanitizing. Many hotels have already been introducing online check-in and keyless entry, and Freitag expects more to push that option.
"I think what we need to do is not get rid of social lobbies, but think about what we need to do to make people feel psychologically comfortable as well as safe from the health perspective," Robson says, without making the experience "medicinal."
Industry giant Marriott International, which includes 30 brands, said in a statement that it will use signs in its lobbies to remind guests to keep an appropriate distance and create more space by taking away or rearranging furniture. The company is also "evaluating" adding dividers at front desks and putting in more hand sanitizing stations in areas including entrances, the front desk and elevator banks.
Cordell said Hilton is "currently exploring how to adapt these lobby personas in ways that both keep the energy and personality of our shared spaces, while also creating environments that are clean and safe."
That includes applying spacing requirements between guests in communal and dining areas as regulations mandate, incorporating more natural material and plants in design, and making greater use of outdoor spaces. Some things, Cordell said in the email, will not have to change: “For example, communal tables have always been a visual anchor of a room and provide flexibility — and they’re here to stay in our design efforts. They will continue to be perfect for a family to spread out, eat and drink.”
Frank Lavey, senior vice president of global operations at Hyatt, said his company is also exploring what to do with lobbies.
“Undoubtedly, the lobby atmosphere will change,” he said in an email. Tech solutions such as online check-in and chat through an app are enabling guests to avoid too much face-to-face interaction.
“However, we want to make social distancing not feel that way — you will see lobbies, bars, restaurants and communal areas take on a new look and feel in an effort to find the right balance between connection and space,” Lavey said.
Hospitality consultant Anthony Melchiorri, host of the Travel Channel show Hotel Impossible, said hotels should be hiring designers to make smart temporary fixes that don’t make hotels resemble hospitals. Still, he said, constant cleaning should become part of the lobby scene.
"The visual cues for cleaning are so important," he said. "Whereas we used to clean at night and we used to clean when you weren't watching, we're going to clean in front of you."
Melchiorri said he doesn’t believe that the pandemic spells the end of the social lobby.
"Everything I've designed and worked on and managed, it's absolutely about the lobby is the heart of the hotel," he said. "I don't think that's changing."
Barbara Parker, principal at hospitality-focused Parker-Torres Design, said her firm has offered clients with recently completed projects free "social distancing furniture plans" to help them adapt in the near term.
"We wanted to make sure that when a guest walks into the hotel, if furniture has been removed to create more social distancing, we want it to look intentional and well-designed," she said. Ideas include simply removing clusters of furniture or using work created by local art students or mannequins decked out in goods from area boutiques to designate the spaces people need to avoid.
At the properties operated by HEI Hotels, the initial response to the virus gave the hotels a dorm-like feel, Moniz said.
“The front desk agent is safely behind plexiglass,” she said. “It’s not a great environment, so the best you can do is keep things really clean and safe, and that becomes much more important than a fashion show or live entertainment.”
But as more states are reopening, so are the company’s lobby bars and restaurants — in accordance with whatever capacity and distancing regulations are in place.
“You have to really kind of set it up to let people know in advance: Here are the rules, you have to practice social distancing, you need a reservation,” Moniz said. At the Hotel at Avalon in Georgia, the restaurant — a local draw — reopened, but the attached lobby bar had to be limited to just hotel guests so they would have their own space.