Reshaping the guest experience for a post-coronavirus world

The past several decades of hotel design have been marked by a growing emphasis on creating evocative communal spaces such as lobbies and outdoor decks, where people can gather, celebrate and simply enjoy themselves. Today, the hospitality industry finds itself faced with a new challenge: in just a few weeks, the coronavirus completely shifted the mindset of the masses and people no longer feel safe in public spaces. Many expect this pandemic to leave an indelible mark and it is impossible to predict if and when people will feel safe to gather once again.

Click here for all of Hotel Management's COVID-19 coverage

The hospitality industry needs to problem-solve, and quickly so, to reconcile two seemingly contradictory intrinsic human desires: a longing for social interaction and a craving for safety. What can be done—now, in the coming months, and beyond—to meet these two fundamental needs without compromising comfort and convenience to create guest experiences that will make people want to check-in again and again?

Temporary and Flexible Solutions to Increase Guests’ Safety and Sense of Well-Being

There are several solutions for hotel owners and operators to provide guests with an immediate sense of safety and well-being that are relatively quick, easy to implement, cost-effective and flexible. 

First, an in-depth needs assessment should be performed to determine what aspects of current hotel operation require improvement. Cleaning protocols should be intensified and communicated to guests regularly and often, with focus on high-touch areas. Easy to implement temporary signage will provide visual cues that let guests know that sanitation is a priority.

Next, common spaces should be reorganized into more compartmentalized environments to allow guests the option to observe standard 6-feet social distancing recommendations. This can be as simple as moving or removing furniture and altering the layout of the guest check-in area.

A renewed focus on guestroom functionality and technology is needed in order to accommodate the new ways in which guests will utilize the space. For example, guests may want to work in their room rather than in a shared lobby space. Rooms should provide work areas, increased technology, and tools to accommodate these types of uses. Instead of having dinner in the hotel bar, more guests may choose in-room dining options. Augmenting the menu, such as creating a bento box, could offer a branded and safe meal choice. 

Finally, new guest and employee service protocols that emphasize safety should be implemented. While a practical consideration, owners and operators can take creative license to make these measures part of the guest experience. For example, bringing back the “white glove” approach when handling guest items upon arrival, providing hand sanitizing stations upon entry/exit, and instead of leaving a chocolate on the pillow, perhaps consider a branded face mask or travel-sized sanitizer.

R&D, Applied Technology and Industry Collaboration to Improve Safety and Sanitation

Unlike the previous recommendations, the following ideas are aimed at developing long-term solutions that will benefit the hospitality industry, and society as a whole. In order to solve the Coronavirus crisis all fields, sectors, and industries are required to cross-pollinate, come together, and share knowledge and technologies. New innovations are needed across the board for people to feel safe enough to gather, travel, and socialize. It’s a long list of needs, but priority should be given to medical innovation to discover a vaccine; sanitizing innovations to find ways to efficiently disinfect large spaces in cost-effective ways; advances in technology to develop more touchless or voice-activated user interface solutions; and organizational innovations to evolve operations and protocols that increase safety.

Many of these innovations are already in progress and new solutions are being developed every day. A recent example includes a public transport company in Shanghai who has deployed ultraviolet light units to disinfect public buses. While low-level far UVC is currently used to decontaminate medical equipment but is too dangerous for commercial application, the technology could evolve for safe hotel use. There is potential to adapt UVC for safe use in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems or localized entry points, providing additional safeguards for the ambient air. Additionally, other industries such as medical may already be utilizing tools for sanitation that can be adapted for use within the hospitality sector, making collaboration and communication between industries even more relevant.

Integrated Design and Implementation of New Technology

Another key consideration, and perhaps most important for the long-term success of the hospitality industry, is the implementation of new innovations and technologies into the design of new projects and incorporating them into existing buildings. This includes developing spaces that achieve a way to be alone together. Space planning will play a key role as public areas evolve to offer gathering choices that incorporate semi-private zones and social distancing measures, while maintaining social dynamics, energy and flow.

Implementation of new technology will include touchless and voice-activated systems, as well as ways to wirelessly connect directly to in-room and guest services. Voice-activated elevators, doors and in-room functions will allow guests to enter the hotel, check in and get to their room without their hands leaving their pockets. Hotel-specific apps will provide guests with options to use personal or assigned smart devices to enter rooms, access amenities and control functions from turning on the lights to setting the in-room thermostat. Further, in-room media should allow guests to leverage robust and seamless intranet technology to conference, do business and host virtual meetings.

As noted above, one of the most promising technologies for implementation lies in the evolution of the hotel HVAC systems in order to sanitize recirculating air within buildings, especially in public areas. Evaluating the different filter types, changing outside fresh cycles, modifying and perhaps integrating UVC into ductwork are options, albeit their cost effectiveness requires evaluation. Finally, modifying some design strategies taken from medical environments and implementing creative solutions can deliver both cost effective and long-term results. For example, implementing next generation antibacterial and germ-resistant wall coverings, surfaces, and furniture, fixtures and equipment materials.

The hospitality industry is—and always will be—about choice. The job of hoteliers, owners, brands, architects and designers is to create dynamic environments and evocative experiences that offer travelers the ability to choose their own adventures. In the post-COVID world, that mission has not changed but has expanded to include another level of choice. Hotels, by way of necessity, will prioritize safety and sanitation, but the hospitality environment must also incorporate flexible ways in which visitors can exercise their own sense of well-being given an array of choices.

Henry Wong is principal at AO Architects, an Orange County, Calif.-based architectural services firm with 10 design studios serving the entire commercial real estate spectrum.