OAKLAND, CA—COVID-19 has brought the travel industry to a screeching halt and hotels are facing an uncertain future. But just like retail, the hospitality industry is looking for ways to sell the public on safety during the pandemic.
One of the ways is through adjustments to operational procedures to help with heavily trafficked areas such as lobbies, fitness centers and restaurants. Other ways involve signage and technology, says Eric Price, commercial studio director for Lowney Architecture, who recently shared his insights into some of the ways hotels can adapt to this changing travel landscape.
GlobeSt.com: Will hospitality continue to have issues post-pandemic or are there ways to work around some of the health issues with staying in a hotel room?
Price: Non-essential travel has taken a notable pause because of COVID-19, but we’re not necessarily seeing that same slowdown on the design side with any of our hospitality clients. When you consider that the typical timeline for a large-scale hotel project is two to three years, it seems that anything in progress is being approached with some cautious optimism that we’ll be through the worst of this pandemic or at least have our hands on a vaccine by the time construction is completed and we’re ready to open.
Besides the obvious impacts to project costs and timelines, making major design changes in response to COVID-19 also risks problem solving for a set of conditions that we might not even have a few years down the road. This particular pandemic requires social distancing and masks, but we can’t predict how the next public health crisis will behave or when it will happen.
Hotel design has not been very flexible historically. It also hasn’t allowed for much social distancing between guests and staff. To help mitigate this, I think the hospitality industry will benefit from striving for more flexibility or a loose fit in their design approach. If you look at the industries which are finding ways to cope right now, grocery and food and beverage for example, it’s because they have some flexibility in their programming that allows for creative solutions like expanding dining room seating to be outdoors or open air or controlling traffic flow through aisles and checkout lanes, etc.
GlobeSt.com: Similarly, common areas such as lobbies, restaurants, bars and fitness spaces seem to be problematic. What types of mitigation is planned for sanitation and modifications to maintain social distancing of these heavily trafficked areas?
Price: In the short term, I think we’re seeing more of an adjustment in operational procedures to help with heavily trafficked areas like lobbies, fitness centers and hotel restaurants. These amenities are certainly the main focus for brands that are looking to control guest perception and safety. It’s what makes a guest choose a hotel over other short-term rental options like Airbnb, for example.
There will probably be some temporary inflation in operational costs and in staffing in order to have someone on hand to help sanitize the fitness equipment or wipe down the elevators more frequently. There will also be an emphasis on adding signage and other marketing spend to help deliver those messages on how hospitality brands are tackling COVID-19.
Technology will also play an important role with pivots towards things like fever scanning, contact-free arrival and departure, self-parking, etc. Many of the trends that we have already seen growing throughout the industry will likely be expedited in response to this pandemic.
GlobeSt.com: What challenges exist for reconfiguring existing space to be more distancing friendly?
Price: I think the major challenges for reconfiguring space are related to costs, as well as working within the confines of the existing program and natural elements like climate. A hotel can’t simply add another elevator bay or widen their corridors but can they afford to borrow a page from the air travel industry and operate at lower capacity? What does it look like operationally if guests utilize reservations for check-in or valet to help avoid a line?
Not every hotel is lucky enough to be in a climate that can leverage outdoor space for dining or explore moving the fitness center outside, but can they explore adding wind and rain screens, canopies, portable heaters, etc.? For solutions in the short term, it all comes down to capital, space and creativity.
GlobeSt.com: What kinds of changes would you expect longer term?
Price: COVID-19 has been such a lesson learned for many industries. In the longer term, I think there will certainly be a trend in hospitality towards more flexible programming or sacrificing some luxuries in order to facilitate more space and greater sanitation.
We may see some greater emphasis on fresh air and high-capacity HVAC, contactless technology or antimicrobial, easier to clean fixtures and finishes. Some are predicting a new system that rates a hotel’s cleanliness in the same way that the current star ratings speak to its luxuriousness.
Alternatively, we may see some high-end brands look at other ways of recouping costs to operate at a smaller capacity. It really just depends on the brand and the type of traveler they’re hoping to appeal to.
GlobeSt.com: How can design make a difference in these scenarios?
Price: Architects have always played a key role in the response to public health challenges like COVID-19, but functional design changes are only a piece of the larger puzzle. As much as we’d like our aesthetic motivations or opinions on the best use for a space to outrank the rulebook, our primary task from a design perspective is working within the confines of the laws protecting the health, safety and welfare of occupants in built environments.
Since the California Building Standards Code was newly published in January and isn’t due for another update until 2023, we can’t fully predict the long-term effects of this pandemic on building codes or safety regulations. Operational changes driven by a greater collective focus on safety and sanitation must come first.
Price has more than 20 years of experience working on a wide variety of hospitality and retail projects throughout the Bay Area. He has served as project architect and project manager for global hospitality brands such as Marriott and Hyatt as well as boutique brands.