Post-pandemic design trends: Upgrading spaces to enhance guest experiences

As we embark on the endemic phase of COVID-19, the hospitality industry is gearing up for a renaissance. After a nearly two-year travel hiatus shuttered many hotel doors and led to drastically reduced workforces, the desire to visit family and friends, explore new destinations or take a long-awaited honeymoon is upon us. Although many travelers seek to regain a level of normalcy or recharge with their adventures as they did pre-pandemic, hotel businesses will continue to evolve their spaces to accommodate new needs and expectations.  

Grow Your Role 

Embracing local culture and neighborhood identities is one way brands can differentiate themselves among competitors and appeal to guests. Designing for authenticity with creative touches connects the property’s aesthetic to a localized identity and weaves it into the fold as part of a travel destination experience. For chain hotel properties, incorporating localized design elements typically requires more flexibility in brand standards, but finding greater consistency in quality of service and guest contact can still feel brand driven, while also highlighting local surroundings. Lighting, fabric and furniture selection, as well as infusing murals and graphic art, can help formulate a unique hotel vibe.

One example, emphasizing community and belonging on a hospitality project, is the 15-story hotel, currently in concept design phase, adjacent to the Nimitz Highway in Honolulu. Situated in the area’s Chinatown neighborhood and repurposing a former parking lot, the new hotel will pay homage to the region’s heritage and culture and plans to include a large-scale art installation from a local artist.  

Dining is another area to explore for enhanced placemaking and cultivating neighborhood ties. Hotels might consider forgoing large, dine-in, food-and-beverage spaces to encourage guests to venture out to local establishments instead. Incorporating public spaces that welcome food trucks and/or meals purchased elsewhere can still appeal to hungry guests—and support the overall community. 

Blurring the Lines 

The resurgence of in-person, professional conferences and events, coupled with more remote work flexibility from employers, brings another type of guest hotels will be smart to accommodate going forward–hybrid work/leisure travelers. The pre-pandemic lines between personal and professional travel have blurred, and accelerated remote work models are driving the incorporation of work-friendly features into hotel layouts, such as spaces to hot desk or participate on video meetings. For existing hotels, this might mean ensuring high-speed, secure internet connections and adjusting for increased traffic in areas with computer or plug-in capabilities.

Hotels nearing construction should look at optimizing desk furniture, room placement, and common space or private area occupancy. Hotels still in the concept or planning phase can position themselves as work-friendly spaces by considering remote work elements as programming plans develop.  

Flexibility is Key 

Beyond aesthetics, strategic design can be leveraged to support and elevate hotel programming for emerging needs. Guestrooms should be re-evaluated to ensure enough space and flexibility to accommodate a variety of needs, including rest and relaxation, work and possibly exercise if a community gym isn’t available. For urban hotels and resorts, incorporating public areas and amenities with both indoor and outdoor space wherever possible is critical for maximizing available square footage and functionality in denser environments. A smart way for hotels to meet this need is to design for flexibility. For example, a front-desk area might serve as a place to check guests in during the day but function as a bar for late night cocktails in the evening.  

One project that does this is the Moxy Hotel in Downtown Oakland, Calif., which has flexible programming front-of-the-house including the check-in lobby/bar combination. In addition to the open lounge/lobby area that provides organic connection to the street and serves overnight and daytime guests for different needs, the building also incorporates a show-stopping, outdoor art installation in tribute to the surrounding art deco environment.  

The Future is Now 

While technology reliance is nothing new, many emerging digital solutions got a big boost forward to help society adjust to new behaviors, like social distancing, isolation and sterilization. Generations across the globe—Baby Boomers to Gen Z—have had to adapt to new levels of technology reliance, and a digital experience that once felt futuristic and millennial now enjoys greater acceptance across demographics. For hotels operating with reduced staffing, many applications helped bridge a gap through the travel hiatus, and these solutions will continue to be utilized for efficiency benefits. 

Among the more popular technology solutions are: 

  • Contactless check-in services 
  • Mobile key cards 
  • Digital menus and QR codes 
  • Mobile ordering and self-upgrades 

Recognizing that digital automation is always evolving, additional fundamentals for hotels to consider include: how much technology should be featured in design elements, and how much of the guest experience will rely on an individual’s smartphone or on the hotel. From there, determinations can be made to include tablets (or other devices) in bars, guest rooms and other areas, as well as large screens in the lobby for guests to self-check-in.  

Historically, a hotel’s purpose has been to provide a bed, breakfast and free Wi-Fi for visitors in a new place; however, hotel businesses can leverage smart design tactics to evolve their role and become a bigger part of the destination experience. At any phase of a hotel property’s development—from early design and planning to already completed and operational—strategic designs and layouts are key to attracting guests and ensuring they return again and again—even if there are major life events in between visits. 

Janice Li is a studio director and Noe Pegarido is a senior project designer in the Hawaii office of Lowney Architecture.