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Hospitality Design

The Hotel Welcome Experience is Undergoing a Renaissance

By: Nick Laws | December 2, 2019

Technology has continuously transformed how travellers and hoteliers alike view the welcome experience at hotels, yet through all the ebb and flow of the industry, there has remained one constant — the front desk. Until now.

Designers are transforming the idea of what this welcome experience should look like, taking a staple of any lobby — the front desk — and turning it on its head or tossing it aside completely.

The prototypical front desk, consisting of a large chest-high counter equipped with printers, computers and wires, is becoming less common, but it’s unlikely to disappear completely.

Allen Chan, partner and co-founder of Toronto-based DesignAgency, has worked on many hotel lobbies during his career and has seen a distinct trend in the industry. “I think smaller, sleeker designs are the way to go. I’ve never been a fan of the massive stand-up counter, which always felt too large and impersonal,” he explains. “There are exceptions (resort destinations, wellness retreats, spa resorts) but, for the most part, urban hotel destinations are moving towards this trend. While there will always be a need for human interaction, today’s traveller requires less one-on-one contact during their stay — ultimately freeing up space for other, more engaging activities.”

Doris Hager, principal designer at Hager Design International, is an advocate of ditching large, rectangular desks, in favour of smaller pods — finding a happy medium between guest experience and intelligent design. “The main reason for pods is being friendly with the customer, not hiding behind the front desk…it’s about the person coming out from behind the desk, greeting the customers and handing the keys over personally,” says Hager.

While some hotels are switching to pods or smaller, more-compact desks, some have gone the extra step of eliminating front desks altogether, replacing them with roving check-in staff — equipped with iPads and a smile — ready to help guests as they come in throughout the lobby rather than in one defined space.

But there is pushback from owners in certain situations, according to Hager, who says safety of employees is a high priority for hotel owners when designing their lobbies.

“Depending on the location of the hotel, we still see a lot of hotel owners/operators preferring a single monolithic-style or two-pod reception desk,” Hager explains. “If the location is urban and safe, the brand will push for a more open concept and smaller pods. When the location is more remote or in a less-safe urban setting, then there is an understanding between brand and ownership that safety takes priority over the brand’s philosophy.”

A big reason for the paradigm shift is the progression of technology, with bulky computers, telephones and printers being replaced by more compact and powerful technologies. This in turn has led to a shift in expectations and the prioritization of speed and efficiency over guest interaction during the check-in and check-out process.

As Chan explains, many of today’s travellers want a smooth, seamless process when checking in and out of a hotel. “As technology changes, so has the front desk in response to that. Checking in is becoming easier and, with online check-in, the front desk can merely be a place for human interaction, if required,” he says. “Printers are being used less and long gone are the days of using physical maps to orient a traveller around an area. Now, the notion of personalized service and the ability to interact with guests in other ways, such as through apps and other technologies, has made check-in pods the norm for most brands.”

For example, Sheraton Hotels recently announced a massive redesign of 450 of its lobbies worldwide, in line with the brand’s revitalization efforts. The new lobbies emphasize socialization, productivity and personalization and will boast a “Productivity Table” featuring power outlets, USB ports, built-in Qi wireless charging and drawers that can be rented out by guests to store personal items in.

“Socializing and activating the lobby space have always been a primary goal within any of our designs,” Chan says of the company he co-founded with partners Matthew Davis and Anwar Mekhayech. “Food and beverage are also factors we consider when it comes to designing lobbies and understanding what the level of service and expectations are for all these elements.”

Marriott‘s Moxy Hotels has transformed the lobby into a “living room” space with a bar as its primary point of contact with guests, facilitating check-in and check-out as well as offering drinks.

Hager says it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see a rise in less defined lobby areas and more free-flowing designs where those traditionally defined lines between lobby, bar and common space blur. “Everything has to be multifunctional, the foyer/bar/social area/lobby becomes very interactive — they mingle into each other and it is very hard to find defined lobby space. [Hotels] want people out of their rooms, feeling comfortable and safe in those common areas,” she explains.

One of Hager’s projects saw her design the lobby of the newly opened Pomeroy Hotel Fort McMurray — part of the mixed-use Rio Verde Plaza development in Fort McMurray, Alta. — which she says necessitated the use of a traditional desk due to the size restrictions of the lobby. However, she found ways to eliminate the clutter associated with the traditional desk.

“The limited space within the lobby dictated that the desk be monolithic in order to provide the basic functional necessities of equipment,” Hager says. “For this desk, a lot of time and care was taken co-ordinating with the operational manager to ensure the screens were built down into the desk and out of view of guests.”

Chan ran into a similar problem when redesigning the lobby of The St. Regis Toronto, but elected to use pods to transform the space. “We created check-in pods and rethought the entire ground-floor lobby. It’s not a large lobby, so we staggered the check-in pods to create a greater sense of arrival and space,” he explains. “The pods are free floating in the middle of the lobby, so they had to be finished immaculately on the back — an interesting challenge, especially when trying to keep it neat and tidy.”

While such designs are increasingly becoming the norm, Hager and Chan note there is still some resistance to moving away from traditional front desks.

“There is sometimes a struggle between us and the owner…” says Hager. “It’s a strategic process to guide the client to follow the brand standards and to let them know when they need to follow brand protocol and when they can ‘push back.’”

“Although I think we’ll be seeing less of front desks in hotels, I don’t think they will completely disappear for some time. There are many guests who still prefer human interaction and with that comes a check-in station,” says Chan. “Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to carve out space for any check-in desks though and allow designers to completely rethink the lobby experience?”

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