Hotel occupancy is down 50 percent nationally in the pandemic-stifled world of travel. While hundreds of hotels nationwide remain closed because of the crisis, new hotels — from the sleek high-rise Joseph Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., to the Kimpton Armory Hotel in a 1941 Art Deco landmark in Bozeman, Mont. — continue to open.
Whether they are banking on the swell of tourism that many predict will follow the introduction of a vaccine, or bound financially to open, hoteliers are making plans for a future that now must consider new outbreaks and pandemics in the same way that public buildings permanently changed their security measures in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Boutique hotels that once acted as cultural commons with art exhibitions and buzzy public spaces will be toned down and disperse guests rather that draw them together, at least until the health crisis is over.
“The biggest thing right now is this focus on health and wellness and making sure people feel safe and confident going back into hotels,” said Tom Ito, the hospitality leader and a principal at Gensler, a global architecture firm. “Anything that assures that now and in the long term is here to stay.”
We asked hotel executives, designers and suppliers to imagine how the hotel experience might change in the post-Covid world beyond the now very evident enhanced housekeeping. The following predictions span present practices and speculative solutions.
Contactless and touchless room controls
Hotels have long been moving toward automation with self-check-out and keyless guest-room entry via cellphone, especially at budget and mid-scale hotels. The pandemic has only heightened the importance of these features, which align with increased needs for social distancing and avoiding strangers.
Now, travelers can expect more automation. Google Assistant has created a hospitality application for its virtual assistant Google Nest Hub, rolled out this summer in a handful of hotels nationally, including the Gansevoort Meatpacking hotel in New York City, the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Viceroy in Washington, D.C. (It’s not the first; Amazon’s Alexa assistant was launched in hotels in 2018).
A combination of a speaker and a tablet-size screen, Nest Hub allows guests to ask questions about things like pool hours, set an alarm and make requests for extra towels or room service without picking up a phone. For hotels that have blinds, temperature controls and lights wired for digital access, Nest Hub can control those with voice commands as well.
“We believe that it’s actually going to help both in providing a better in-room experience, but also avoiding unnecessary contact,” said Manuel Bronstein, the vice president of Google Assistant.
At Virgin Hotels in Chicago, Dallas and Nashville, and coming to Las Vegas early next year, the company’s app was made more robust this year to control room lights, temperature and television. Room configurations separate the back bedroom from the dressing room near the hallway with a barn door behind which guests can remain, allowing attendants access to make deliveries without contact.
“We don’t make you sign the room-service check,” said Raul Leal, the chief executive of Virgin Hotels. “That’s an archaic accounting tool.”
Pop-up dining and robotic servers
Not every hotel can offer outdoor dining year-round. Neither can their restaurants thrive with the capacity restrictions forced by social distancing requirements. The solution: Make the entire hotel a dining area. And throw in robotic servers.
“This is meant to be an answer to how do you deconstruct the restaurant experience so you don’t have to eat in one small place,” said Ron Swidler, the chief innovation officer at The Gettys Group, a Chicago-based hotel design, development and consulting firm. The Gettys Group recently convened with a consortium of 325 industry professionals from Hilton, Marriott and Cornell University, among others, to come up with the Hotel of Tomorrow project, collaborating on future hotel innovations. (The company has a track record with the workshop; in the early 2000s, it came up with the idea of a robotic butler, later developed by the Aloft brand of hotels as the Botler).
The think tank envisioned delivery units of various sizes that could keep food hot and drinks cold and provide video or music for entertainment.
“Maybe these robots have personalities and hang out with you,” Mr. Swidler added.
Even without robot partygoers, existing hotels have a great incentive to repurpose their now underutilized meeting rooms, ballrooms and even event lawns.
“We’re thinking the whole dining experience could change,” Mr. Ito, of Gensler, said. “You can create spaces around the hotel that aren’t necessarily in the restaurant, but become pop-up areas for private dining. It’s all about personalization and creating a unique experience.”
Bringing the outdoors inside
Most hotels are already maximizing the use of their outdoor spaces, where guests may feel safer from virus transmission, by moving dining tables and fitness activities outdoors. Ahead, designers predict, travelers may see more greenery coming inside as hotels seek to capture the calming effects of nature.
The Gettys Group envisions redesigning spaces such as boardrooms and event areas with plants enhanced by digital projections that simulate the natural movement in nature, supplemented by air-filtration systems that produce a cross breeze and germ-killing ultraviolet light.
“A part of it is a physical signal to people to say that this inside space is safe,” said Mr. Swidler, citing research that shows the stress-relieving effects of viewing nature.
Incorporating nature into buildings, known as biophilic design, is already at work in places with green walls, potted plants or moss gardens in guest rooms and public areas, such as those at the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“We’re seeing biophilic design as a driver,” Mr. Ito said, noting that more hotel rooms may feature expanded balconies or patios and operable windows that allow fresh air in.
Rooms designed for living
Guest rooms will no longer be just places to sleep and shower. Instead, they will multitask as gyms, dining rooms and offices. Of course, travelers often use rooms for these purposes already. The difference will be designs to accommodate these expanded roles.
Consider room service. Instead of sitting on the edge of the bed and leaning over a rolled-in table to eat your club sandwich, the more accommodating rooms of the future may have banquettes or convertible dining spaces.
“Before room service was not so nice, but now it’s an amenity people want and you can design guest rooms for great dining experiences in your room or on your terrace,” Mr. Ito said.
Gyms are also expanding their in-room presence beyond the yoga mat in the closet. The newly renovated Gansevoort Meatpacking hotel in New York City features a fitness-on-demand service called Mirror that broadcasts fitness classes on a full-length mirror. Weights are available on demand.
“You don’t have to go downstairs and interact with other people in the fitness center and wear a mask while you work out,” said Anton Moore, the general manager of the hotel.
Sleep remains vital. The Gettys Group think tank proposed a high-tech bed that could monitor your sleep through sensors in the mattress and pillow and feed that data to a guest’s mobile device for analysis in the morning.
Mobile hotel rooms
This summer, Americans rediscovered recreational vehicles as a means of taking their dwellings on the road. Now imagine a hotel company that maintains a fleet of autonomous R.V.s — equipped with a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen — that could rove from one location to the next.
The mobile hotel room — already imagined by rental van companies like Cabana — is one of the more futuristic of The Gettys Group ideas, featuring units that pull cars that detach for more nimble exploration in a destination. Guests would be driven from one hotel location to the next on a deluxe road trip, parking at affiliated hotels to use the pool, dine or have it serviced by housekeeping.
“The basic idea is to uncouple the hospitality experience from the hotel and set it out on the road,” Mr. Swidler said.