In the era of experience, rooftop bars are an elevated draw

Rooftop bars are making a comeback in the hotel industry, particularly in the era of the experience economy, where guests expectations go far beyond just a room. It should be no surprise, then, that building up top helps hotels stand out. 

Since 2015, White Lodging has built four rooftop bar spaces, including at properties in Denver and Austin. Not only are these bars attracting travelers looking for something special, but locals as well. With a drink in their hands and their toes in a pool (or being warmed by a fire pit depending on the time of year), travelers can gaze at 360-degree views of the city, befriend locals without leaving the comfort of their hotel and feel like they are having an authentic and unique experience.


While expanding up has proven worthy of the significant upfront investment, rooftop spaces come with their own set of challenges. Rooftops have a way of cultivating a cool and cozy vibe that makes people want to gather and linger into late hours—but this means that guests can wait for two hours or more just to get in, the staff can end up serving hundreds of people for a long time. It also requires careful consideration of the hotel’s core competency of providing comfortable sleeping conditions. 

Despite the operational challenges, White Lodging plans to continue the trend. By 2020, we will have nine rooftop spaces in our portfolio of hotels. However, as we layout designs and divvy up marketing dollars, we will take into account our experience thus far, keeping some practices and rethinking others. Following are some of the insights we have learned related to design and promotion that we will apply as we continue to capitalize on the rooftop craze. 

Not Your Ground Level Operations

Designing a rooftop bar is decidedly different from creating one on a lower floor. For example, a designer must be aware of the region’s weather patterns. In Austin, Texas, the weather is less of an issue, but cold weather climates require extra attention. When the weather dips below 40 degrees, guests take cover, so we provide fire pits and enclosed areas to keep guests outdoors despite the cold temperatures. (Imagine an urban ski lodge.) 

Tempering the Party Tone 

Rooftop bars also invariably create a party-like atmosphere, so it is important for designers to consider the guests below who are trying to sleep. You can address this in the design phase. Right now, we are building a new 600-guestroom convention center hotel in Austin that will have a rooftop deck, pool and bar with an exclusive elevator that goes down the outside of the building to the street below so rooftop customers can circumvent the hotel. Escorting crowds of people to the roof is difficult. We have relied on the No Wait app that turns customers’ smartphones into buzzers to streamline the process of getting guests to the rooftop and to their tables as quickly as possible. 

Rooftops Make Meaningful Instagrammable Moments

Rooftops are inherently picturesque, so Instagram is proving to be a promotions power app for rooftop spaces. Guests snap pictures left and right and post them on the popular picture sharing site—where the users are hyper-engaged, affluent and looking for hip spaces. We have counted hundreds of Instagram mentions in association with our rooftop spaces, which translate into thousands in free marketing dollars. We maximize the Instagram mentions by reposting through our UGC (user-generated content) app, to amplify great content and show social proof of the elevated guest experience. 

If you can acquire sufficient capital, rooftops are worth the investment, but you can’t apply ground-level thinking to the rooftop design and planning phases. You will need to consider a number of new issues if you want to innovate and make the most of the trending allure of rooftop bars. 
Chris Anderson is SVP and chief commercial at hotel management firm White Lodging. Anderson, author of “I’m Not Buying It”, specializes in branding, consumer behavior, and emerging trends.