t’s no news flash that COVID, in one form or another, is not done with us quite yet. And not only has it ted people, it’s affected places, including hotels, and how people stay in them, utilize them and move about in them. An unintended consequence of everything we’ve gone through is that we more clearly understand — and are on alert for — airborne viruses, whether that’s COVID, colds or flu, and how to minimize or eliminate transmission. And hoteliers have adjusted those spaces with that in mind.
Hotels may not only keep their Plexi-glass barriers and hand sanitizers in place, some companies are getting creative with those features. Austin, Texas-based Vaask, for example, has designed a fixed hand sanitizer specifically for commercial spaces — and they’re stylish as well as functional, with customizable finishes.
Likewise, hyper-clean environments and surfaces, upgraded air-filtration systems, and socially distanced furniture and fixtures have been embedded into hotels and are here to stay.
“[Having to shift] the use of spaces has given us a great opportunity to think beyond COVID and more about the day-to-day and how we’re using these spaces in a flexible, multi-functional way while still supporting restrictions,” says Marti Gallucci, design director for Mason Studio in Toronto.
She cites one of her clients, the Kimpton Banneker Hotel in Washington, D.C., as an example. “While we have meeting rooms and event spaces on the ground floor, we were also thinking of ways to incorporate private dining, workshops, small weddings, community and lifestyle events where it’s not about setting up tables but shifting the purpose of those spaces.”
Consideration has gone into how to squeeze more out of single-event spaces to not only activate often dead space, but to generate revenue from them. The Lady Bird Bar on the Banneker’s rooftop, for example, during normally closed hours can be opened up for a private brunch, co-working space or small meetings.
“It’s being used for public events, too,” says Lori Harrison, director of Marketing and Business Development for Mason. “Hotels have traditionally been more closed spaces and just for guests. The Lady Bird is having musicians and artists come and it’s feeling a lot more like a public community space, which obviously benefits the guests, but also provides more opportunities for people to find spaces for whatever they need to do.”
Shaun Pearson, general manager of the Yorkville Royal Sonesta, says despite laws being relaxed somewhat so hotels can go back to “normal,” the Yorkville is continuing with social-distancing protocols that were initiated at the start of the pandemic. “Everyone wants to feel comfortable when they’re attending a meeting, so tables and chairs are still six-feet apart, food-and-beverage offerings are individually plated or packaged, and meetings are staggered.”
He says because all eight of the hotel’s meeting rooms are on one floor, events are scheduled so they’re a half hour to an hour apart for breaks and meals to minimize interaction. “The rooms are even designed to have one dedicated entrance and one dedicated exit at the other end of the room so you don’t have people crossing each other.”
Turning big spaces into small
Many people still feel more comfortable with six feet between them and the next person, others have no problem sitting face to face. The trick is to accommodate all comfort levels, so hotel designers have placed greater emphasis on flexibility.
“[Consideration has gone into how larger spaces] could be blocked off and divided into smaller areas where it could be used for a small party or small business meeting, but also have that opportunity to open up all these spaces to join together and create one large space [to accommodate] a large number of guests,” says Gallucci, pointing to the Andaz Hotel in Ottawa, where the second level is dedicated to events as large as one grand ballroom, but also with the flexibility to create five separate spaces within the same area in which multiple events could be hosted at once.
“You could use a glass partition between two spaces so you still feel that energy of the people beyond your space. Or, if you want them to be more closed off and intimate, use a partition that’s more solid. We also frequently consider the acoustics when we create spaces, [because] it’s not just about the visual, it’s about air quality as well.”
Pearson says the Sonesta’s ballroom can accommodate 180 people but meetings now top out at 40 to 50 participants. “People are thinking differently, picking and choosing which events they want to attend,” he says. “There are also a lot of hybrid events still happening, so if maybe 300 people are invited, only the first 50 can attend at the hotel, the rest can attend online. Companies have their own rules from a risk-management standpoint where they’re not allowed to attend meetings. We’re adapting to those company rules, not just our own.”
Take it outside
Outdoor spaces have become a more favourable option, weather permitting, for all kinds of meetings and events, since it comes with natural air circulation. Pearson says they have 2,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space that is being used more often. “It’s great for breakfasts, lunches, dinners, receptions. A few clients have done their meetings out there as well for 30 to 35 people at most. We set up meeting tables with umbrellas just to keep it outside.”
The bottom line, says Harrison, is that COVID has created the need to think about spaces in a different way. “No longer can a space just be kind of a throw away, if you will, so a lobby just being a lobby; a meeting room that’s not fully utilized. They’ve been lost opportunities. Now there’s a chance to think about them in new ways: how can we bring more animation and excitement but also [set aside] places for quiet reflection, places for people to work. It’s really thinking about them in more dynamic and exciting ways.”
By Robin Roberts