How COVID-19 could impact hospitality design: personal space

No industry has been as badly impacted by the current pandemic as the hospitality industry. Sales at restaurants in the US are expected to decline by over €207 billion during the next three months according to the National Restaurant Association. Venues in London are already reporting a 47 per cent drop in year-on-year footfall. If the situation persists into the summer, the World Travel and Tourism Council projects a global loss of 75 million jobs and over €1.9 trillion in revenue. The question now is, what comes next – what can be done to convince consumers to book again and how to better prepare brands for similar events in the future. ‘When the global lockdown starts to be lifted and we begin to find what many are calling “The New Normal” for the hospitality and travel industry there won’t be a “business as usual” bounce back, but instead a rethink and collective adaption of what hospitality means,’ Philippa Wagner, head of Ennismore’s insight division, tells Frame. In the second instalment of this two-part series we look at what should be learned from the pre-existing trend towards more individualized hospitality offers.

There’s one bright spot for those working in hospitality that are alarmed by the idea of long-term social distancing measures: even before the outbreak, it was clear that a growing number of consumers enjoy hospitality offers that allow them to be alone, or at least in smaller groups. Two recent trends, namely the rise of the so-called ‘solo economy’ and a shift towards accommodation offers that privilege personal space without sacrificing service, have already laid down some useful blueprints for how hotels and restaurants might adapt to the new normal.

This has in part been driven by behavioural shifts around (de)coupling. According to WT Intelligence’s recent report The Single Age, 62 per cent of singles globally claim to prefer being unattached. ‘Being single has gone from being a lack of choice to a choice in itself,’ said Chen May Yee, APAC Director of WT Intelligence. ‘This group is increasingly empowered, affluent and are staying single for the freedom to live on their own terms. They are flexing their economic muscle in various ways. Singles are fuelling the growth of solo travel and solo dining.’

This is borne out by booking sites like Open Table, which saw reservations for individual diners grow by 160 per cent between 2014 and 2018 in the UK, and the activity-focused platform Klook, that’s Solo Travel Survey showed that 76 per cent of global consumers have either travelled alone already or are considering it.

Header and top: Monka Apartments in Toruń, Poland. Read more here. Photos: Znamy Się | Bottom: Locke at Broken Wharf in London, England. Read more here. Photo: Nicholas Worley

Accommodating these patrons requires the right infrastructure however. Restauranteurs might look to Japanese ramen chain Ichiran, which has long been renowned for its ‘low-interaction dining’ philosophy. The brand’s ‘flavour-concentration booths’ isolate the diner from fellow customers and servers, who deliver dishes via a curtained opening. The model translates to different markets as well, with the brand having successfully expanded to New York in 2016, opening its third and largest location in Time Square last year. It’s no longer an outlier, either. Gusto, another ramen chain, started installing its own single-seater booths last summer in response to a steady uptick in solo guests. While neither are notable from a design perspective, they do prove that dining-room density and elevated levels of separation between users can be compatible.

And it’s not only the restaurant industry that’s seen a growing demand for more individualized alternatives. The rise of aparthotels like London’s Locke Living and Toruń’s Monka Apartments show guests increasingly want to be able to pick and choose when to engage with the wider offer and when to be self-sufficient.  They succeed precisely because they combine the privacy and uniqueness you get from a short-term rental with the levels of design and service you get from a traditional hotel. This last point will again be key. True sharing-economy platforms like Airbnb stumble in having a consistency in standards, and that can result in guests having trust issues post-lockdown, particularly when it comes to cleanliness. Note that Hilton has just updated its procedures to include a paper seal being placed on room doors after changeover to prove that no staff have entered since disinfection. Travel industry analyst Skift notes in its 2020 mega-trends report that it ‘expects more convergence between hotels and short-term rentals as we move into the next decade.’

Top: Zoku Amsterdam's Lofts, home-office hybrids. Read more here. Photo: Courtesy of Zoku | Bottom: Sweets Hotel in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Read more here. Photo: Lotte Holterman

The pandemic has forced more traditional hotels to develop new protocols and packages that bring most of their on-site amenities to guests’ rooms. Many are offering long-stay discounts, free-upgrades and full-board room-service packages. Swiss hotel Le Bijou is even offering in-room spa treatments and nurse visits, while Zoku will rent you a room just to work in. Now and moving forward, hotel operators will know that interaction-adverse guests are likely to look more closely at what they get in-room, rather than property-wide. Wellness facilities are likely to be an even more fundamental part of what guests look for when booking, and brands are reacting. EVEN Hotels has already invested in stocking rooms with workout-friendly flooring, exercise equipment and virtual classes, and Westin has recently created a range of WestinWORKOUT rooms at 50 US locations, each of which feature Peloton bikes.

Brands have also been exploring what the hotel experience might look like when it’s not concentrated in one building that forces patrons into proximity, but expanded across several properties in a host community. Opened last August, Japan’s Hotel Nipponia describes itself as a ‘decentralized’ riff on the hotel theme. Properties are spread within the 700-person Kominato Genroku village, with the central building hosting only four rooms and a restaurant. Seventy further homes in the area will be renovated over coming seasons to slowly expand capacity. Amsterdam’s Sweets Hotel, a Frame Awards 2020 winner, operates on a similar model, described by jury member Howard Sullivan, founder of YourStudio, as ‘taking a hotel to pieces and scattering them around [the city]’.

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