“People need to have beauty around them all the time,” says Dana Kalczak, VP, Design and Construction, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Toronto. “There’s always a strong positive emotion in guests, and people in general, when something has pleasing geometry and beautiful materials,” adds the architect, currently supervising 25 hotel projects around the world.
Incorporating beautiful elements into the construction of public spaces is a crucial design requirement these days. Lasting first impressions among guests are being made across Canada, where communal activity, connectivity and multi-function spaces are driving design. Hoteliers are embracing open and flowing, interactive lounge areas and eye-catching, beautiful spaces, says Guido Kerpel, VP, Canadian Region, of Connecticut-based Newcastle Hotels and Resorts and GM of the Westin Nova Scotian in Halifax. “The first 10 minutes of the arrival process are the most crucial; they set the tone of the hotel experience,” he adds.
“The complexity of connecting with the emotional and psychological needs of a hotel guest is exemplified in the design of great public spaces,” says Gordon Mackay, president and creative partner, at Toronto-based Mackay Wong Strategic Design. But it wasn’t always that way. Hotel lobbies were once dead zones. “Twenty years ago atrium hotels were all the rage around the world,” says Conrad Smith, managing director of Reardon Smith Architects in London, England. “They were vast spaces everyone was supposed to be impressed and awed by — with 40-storey high spaces with palm trees and a fountain.” They were also the place to catch an uncomfortable glare from the concierge, which undoubtedly made guests scramble for cover.
Never regarded as a place to congregate, public hotel spaces were considered no man’s land — uninviting vacant spaces with huge glossy floors. And the quiet, empty spaces never earned their keep; they provided no financial benefit to the hotelier’s bottom line. “They were basically waiting rooms where people sat until their taxis came; nothing happened there. The revenue potential was completely lost,” says Smith. Thankfully, Kalczak explains, today there’s room for profit. “If there’s food and beverage in a lobby, there’s potential for revenue.”
And, where once there was nothing happening in lobbies, now there’s life. Natalie Cherry, GM of the Saskatchewan-based Days Inn, Regina Airport West, whose hotel debuted the brand’s new prototype design, says patrons are enjoying the hotel’s new open space. “Guests hang out, lounge, have meetings in our lobby during all times of the day,” she says. “The way they’re behaving in the hotel, I know they appreciate it.”
While hoteliers are hesitant to divulge how much public spaces add to their bottom line, Mackay says refreshing public spaces costs between $140 to $200 per square foot. A more thorough public space redesign starts at $250 per square foot and up, depending on scope, market and ambition. “A refresh program is a cosmetic approach to updating an environment,” says Mackay, explaining the difference between the two approaches, “whereas a redesign would likely include the demolition of walls, possibly stairs and ceilings.” But whatever route a hotelier chooses, the cost is well worth it and the pay-back can be lucrative. Emily Sharp, design associate, at Mackay Wong Strategic Design, says revamping the N.B.-based Delta Fredericton’s lobby into a communal area with “plug-in ability” boosted its F&B sales immediately. “Within the first two weeks of opening the restaurant they sold more martinis than they had in years,” she explains. But hoteliers should heed Smith’s words of wisdom, too. “Throwing money at things doesn’t always make good design or efficient design,” he says. “You can have gold-plated taps and silk tapestries, and it still doesn’t work,” says the Londoner. “Or you can have just a nice, simple, clean-cut, pleasant room that hasn’t cost anything but the paint.”
These days, the trends playing out at most hotels include opening up the lobby with appealing sight lines and exaggerated heights; fluid environments where one area blends seamlessly into the next. Other hot design elements include moveable furniture and communal tables — encouraging guests to gather around — and a good Wi-Fi signal. The result is an interactive lobby, a social hub, or what some designers call, the “coffee-shop” idea. It’s all about breaking down barriers, while boosting revenue. At the Delta Fredericton, in New Brunswick, for example, bringing the bar into the lobby works well, says Sharp. “The thinking is it breeds more creativity, if you’re not sitting around a stagnant table. [It’s] the same as your dining-room and kitchen at home; the trend is to knock everything out. In most cases we’re trying to open everything up.” Residential touches are in vogue, too, with lamps, shelving and moveable furniture giving guests the option to create their own seating areas. Sharp says there’s also a move toward eliminating the reception desk entirely. “Instead of a solid untouchable bench, we’re seeing pods that allow people to come around the side and really interact.”
Over the past five years, Mackay says hoteliers at budget brands have invested in good public spaces, differentiating themselves in the market. “These lobby spaces are designed like a Swiss army knife; compact but packed with life-saving, multi-functional purpose.”
Mid-range hotels continue to innovate around evolving technology and the needs of business travellers, with emphasis placed on designing flexible spaces throughout the property. “These environments must be as relevant in the morning as they are at night. Food and beverage concepts are no longer regarded as a necessary evil within the property’s amenity offering but as an opportunity to signal the brand’s commitment to innovation,” says the Toronto designer. “Edges are blurred between adjacencies and an overall casual and dynamic flavour results.” In the past luxury hotels emphasized “public spaces that showcased classic craftsmanship, exotic materials, artwork and exceptional social spaces,” says Mackay Today, “contemporary, luxury public spaces appear to speak in a more understated and elegant tone.”
When it comes to meeting rooms and other public spaces in a hotel property, there’s a new wave of trends happening there, too. “It’s important for people to continue their lifestyle when they travel, and for many people fitness is part of their everyday, especially in the business world,” says Sharp. As a result, hoteliers are investing in fitness centres and spas, refreshing them with rubber flooring, mirrors and TVs built into the equipment, and increasing their scale. “They used to be shoved into the basement and [hoteliers] are bringing them up to the ground floor more and more. Radisson has developed a very good standard. It’s important to them,” says Sharp.
In Saskatchewan, the Days Inn has more natural light than ever before. “That’s a huge trend — I’ve been to older hotels where you go downstairs to the meeting spaces and [they’re] in dark areas,” says Cherry. “Both our meeting rooms and our pool … we wanted to make sure we had lots of natural light coming in.”
The best advice Sharp can give hoteliers is to keep a blank canvas. “You have to be careful not to create something polarizing. You don’t want a bride to walk in a say ‘I hate pink, and this ballroom is pink.’ You want something that’s universal. Those rooms are really just floors and walls and lights.”
Newcastle Hotels’ Kerpel, a 20-year hotel-veteran, believes, “we’re going back to the original purpose of a lobby as a gathering place, somewhere to meet friends and business associates. Due to the high cost of land in many parts of the country, the lobby became an amenity and not a core component of the lodging experience.” The challenge when designing hotel public spaces, says Kerpel, is “finding the balance between size, functionality and extension of the overall design.”