DESIGN CUES: In the age of COVID-19, hotel designers are rethinking how to reboot hotel brand images through interior schemes that give guests and employees a sense of comfort and safety. One trend is bringing the outdoors inside with the integration of natural light, greenery and easy-to-clean surfaces as shown at this hotel reception area.

Designing Hotels For Life

Creative leaders in hospitality design shift perspectives on how guests will use lodging spaces in a post-COVID-19 world

Hotel designers who help tell a property’s stories through branding, architecture and interior design are faced with new challenges in the age of COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has given owners, developers and industry allies a new perspective on how guests and employees will use hotel spaces during the crisis as well as for years afterward.

Rather than take it one hotel at a time, experts from various categories of the hospitality industry have stepped back to get an overall view of what the future may hold for hotels post-pandemic.

Ron Swidler, chief innovation officer at The Gettys Group in Chicago, said the company relaunched its Hotel of Tomorrow initiative to collaborate with experts worldwide to come up with short-term and long-term solutions in hotel design and technology to keep hospitality teams and guests safe and healthy in an environment that is literally life or death to many.

LISTEN: CONTAGIOUS DESIGN: Listen to Episode 277 of Lodging Leaders podcast featuring hospitality branding and design experts searching for creative solutions in the age of COVID-19.

277 | Contagious Ideas: Hospitality brand and design experts search for creative solutions in the age of COVID-19

The Getty Group first launched Hotel of Tomorrow in 2003, about 18 months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Its purpose was to look ahead at what’s to come for the hospitality industry, which had been shaken to its core as the nation adjusted to a new reality impacting travel – the war on terrorism.

Five years later, the U.S. hotel industry took a nosedive as the nation’s real estate lending market collapsed, only to revive beyond most investors’ expectations over the next decade.

As 2019 came to a close, the hotel industry’s boom years were settling into more subdued earnings outlooks for the year ahead.

Without warning, COVID-19 came ashore and overnight shut down the global travel and meetings industries.

We all know what has happened since mid-March when average occupancy plunged to a record low of 15 percent, according to STR.

Today, as states reopen their economies and leisure travelers hit the road, average occupancy has inched up to 50 percent with some destination markets charting even higher demand. Restaurants that have reopened are seeing similar upticks in business.

What lies ahead is anyone’s guess.

What’s Your ‘Day One’?

To get a clearer understanding about people’s changed behaviors, Mower, a marketing and public relations company, polled 1,000 U.S. adults in April to find out which activities they’re most comfortable with resuming and how long it will take for people to feel safe.

The study gauges consumer sentiments about returning to a post-pandemic life, starting with “Day One.”

Each person has his or her own “Day One,” said Mower. For some of the respondents, “Day One” begins when a COVID-19 vaccine is available. Others are waiting for the rate of infections to decline and others already feel safe.

Activities those surveyed will resume immediately include going to their places of work, going grocery shopping and visiting family and friends.

Though restaurants and other retail businesses are open in many states, few of those polled want to patronize them right away.

“It will be Day 30 before half of Americans feel comfortable vacationing by car and Day 60 before half will fly in a plane,” reads the report’s executive summary. “Only 42 percent would travel internationally by Day 60, and 22 percent say they have never or would never venture beyond the U.S.”

More than half of those polled plan to cut back one expenses and save more money post COVID-19.

BACK TO NORMAL WHEN? Mower in April polled 1,000 U.S. adults to gauge the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on their plans to resume a somewhat normal routine, including dining out and traveling.

Among those trying to figure it out and prepare for tomorrow’s reality are hotel designers.

In June, The Gettys Group officially relaunched its Hotel of Tomorrow initiative. It’s a think tank of hotel owners, operators, research institutions, designers and technology companies from the U.S and other parts of the world that is re-examining the business of hospitality in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.

IN SEARCH OF NEW IDEAS: The Gettys Group, a hospitality design firm, in June revived its Hotel of Tomorrow initiative to pool collaborators from all over the world to come up with solutions for the hospitality industry in the age of COVID-19. The image charts the project’s path from start to finish.

Ron Swidler, chief innovation officer at The Gettys Group, the firm decided to revive the program to be in a position to give the hotel industry what it needs as it reopens and owners restore their businesses.

Like its cohorts, The Gettys Group also wants to remain competitive in a post-COVID world.

“We’ve taken a cue from the tech industry,” he said. “They’re committed to constant reinvention; there is always that next version of the software or the hardware that’s expected, that’s required if they’re going to remain competitive.

“We really have to be in tune with tomorrow’s guests are looking for. We decided it was the perfect time to bring back the (Hotel of Tomorrow) platform that unified so many disparate portions of our industry for really meaningful and important conversations about what can we do an as an industry to find temporary solutions and longer term solutions.”

The effort has amassed 135 collaborators from around the world who comprise 16 teams working together on a virtual sharing platform to identify industry trends and develop innovation solutions to challenges caused by the pandemic.

Altered Views

Customers as well as industry businesses have a new set of priorities these days.

Patti Tritschler is founder and CEO of Interior Image Group with headquarters in Crown Point, Indiana, and an office in Cooper City, Florida.

It’s been an eventful year for Tritschler and the IIG team. The growing business moved into a newly constructed 8,000-square-foot building in December with a lot of business on its books. In a few months the whole picture had changed.

“We probably had from renovation to new construction a total of 15 projects within both offices, and we hit an immediate block. It was pencils down from all projects with the exception of two. It was pretty dramatic,” Tritschler said.

The IIG team returned to their headquarters about two months ago, but they were different now. Younger employees learned they valued face-to-face interaction and veteran workers learned a new way of doing business.

“Probably in those 16 years of owning my business, it’s been the most challenging time for us, but it’s also been the most rewarding time because we had to find ways to find positivity, and how to see that we’re going to get through this,” Tritschler said.

“Leadership became so important for our company to make sure were leading in a positive way and keeping everybody engaged.”

When designing and branding for IIG’s hotel clients, Tritschler said most owners and developers with hotels in the planning stages have not changed original floor plans or traffic patterns. But they have become more mindful of the FF&E materials such as surfaces and wallcoverings. Things must be easy to clean.

Redesigning or introducing new features to reassure customers that your hotel, bar and restaurant are safe can unintentionally weaken the business’s brand image.

Thoughtful interior design can promote the concept of cleanliness without erasing ambience and the warmth of hospitality.

“We’re challenged as designers to not make the space feel sterile,” Tritschler said.

Color is more important than ever because it can be healing and create a soothing or upbeat atmosphere. Tritschler also sees a trend toward “bringing the outside in” with large windows, earthy colors and textures.

“I think all of our senses are heighted more than they’ve ever been. We’re just more sensitive to everything today,” Tritschler said. During the sheltering at home, “our minds got reprogrammed to think of things differently.”

New Age Of Motels

The Gettys Group and IIG often work with developers of new hotels, which may find it easier to go back to the drawing board and make changes to accommodate guests in the age of COVID-19.

Owners and operators of existing properties, meantime, are challenged to find and implement new concepts that fit their business models.

That is even truer for owners of iconic economy-segmented roadside motels.

Alpa Patel, a lifelong hotelier, has come up with a solution.

She founded Spaceez, a web-based design and procurement company in Irvine, California, that caters to budget, economy and midscale properties.

Her goal is to make it easy and affordable for mom and pop motels and hotels to upgrade and refresh their FF&E and amenities.

“Old is gold,” said Patel, who has helped owners put a hip and chic shine on their motels.

A trend in hospitality over the past few years is for owners of traditional motels to renovate the exterior corridor properties into hip retro places that attract younger road trippers. Guests of all ages want a unique experience when they stay overnight.

NATURAL VIBES: Interior Image Group is the interior designer for the Inn at Bellefield, a hotel that will be part of a mixed-use development called Bellefield at Historic Hyde Park in New York State’s Hudson Valley. Patti Tritschler, founder and CEO of IIG, said as the U.S. emerges from the coronavirus crisis hotel design will bring the outdoors inside by integrating a lot of natural light and organic elements – all done to make guests feel safe and comfortable.

ROADSIDE REVIVAL: Spaceez helped turn the two-star Towpath Motel in Rochester, New York, into an affordable boutique property called Hotel on Monroe under Magnuson Hotel brand. Pictured is a before-and-after concept drawing by Spaceez, founded by Alpa Patel.

“Design gives an experience,” Patel said. “Experience is how you make a person feel. The guest experience and guest satisfaction are very much tied together.”

These revived post-modern “boutique motels” are commanding daily rates from $150 to $300 in certain markets, Patel said.

A trend in hospitality over the past few years is for owners of traditional motels to renovate the exterior corridor properties into hip retro places that attract younger road trippers. Guests of all ages want a unique experience when they stay overnight.

In the age of social distancing, more travelers than before the pandemic appreciate being able to access their rooms from an exterior corridor. In addition, guests feel safer when using the properties’ outdoor areas such as patios and swimming pools.

Patel’s goal is to enable moteliers and hoteliers to increase rates and generated higher profit by thinking differently about their traditional business model.

“It’s all tied to the ADR,” Patel said. “If your budget is $200 a room, improve the bedding; if it’s $500 a room, improve the amenities. You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg but whatever you spend on redesign has to be correlated back to ADR.”

As the hotel industry works its way through the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, some hoteliers will suffer irreparable damage but many more will emerge victorious.

Owners of traditional properties can do more than merely survive, they can thrive post pandemic as they redesign their properties and their business models.

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