CHICAGO—Whether business travelers are tacking on extra days at the beginning or end of a work trip—making their travels a true bleisure experience—or merely fitting in a visit to a local museum, beach or baseball game around their busy work schedules, there’s one undeniable truth: Travelers want to stay in spaces that are reflective of this dual nature, places where they have the tools and resources they need to work, but which also give them a sense of place and the feeling that they’re connected to the locale in which they find themselves. And for Meg Prendergast, principal of Chicago-based The Gettys Group, the women who are driving this change in travel are also changing the way hotels are designed.
“It used to be a very nuts-and-bolts world. Hospitality at its core is a return on investment model of business, so our claim to fame at Gettys was that we could really make sure that the budget would result in a beautiful design, but also meet the return deliverables that the owner group was desirable for. That worked for many years,” Prendergast said.
But that’s changed. “Now, with the advent of so many influences—and one of those strongest ones being the advent of the very strong world of women travelers—we now design experiences,” she said.
What does that mean, exactly? “Everyone is responding to the things women have responded to over the course of millennia,” Prendergast explained. “We feel engaged by compelling spaces. We feel empowered when we are in places that make us feel good and reflect the way we operate our lives in a multitasking fashion. The way that people experience spaces, be it a lobby or a restaurant or a workspace or a hotel room, is really reflective of how women make their way through the world.”
For Prendergast, empowerment is key. “Women are driven by empowerment,” she said. “This is sometimes felt through decision-making and choices. Any time we can offer choice to the consumer in the hospitality world, that is something to be strongly considered. We do it in a variety of ways, be it in the flexibility in terms of furnishings, to flexibility in how these hotel spaces might be utilized over the course of the day.”
It’s a challenge that hospitality designers relish, but one that must be undertaken carefully. “There’s a lot of moving parts, so it’s more complicated, but the guest gets a richer result from port to port; they get these different rewarding experiences wherever they might go,” she said, noting that the old adage—that guests should feel like they’re arriving at a specific hotel type regardless of where they might be—has gone the way of the dinosaur.
“The way that people feel inside a space is very much different than it was 10-15 years ago,” she said. “Now, we want them to feel like they’ve arrived at a place that is representative of the city in which they are in, or the neighborhood in which they fit or even the block in which they might be. Think about the neighborhoods in New York City: You might do a different kind of environment in a hotel on the Lower East Side than you would develop for a hotel in Midtown. It can be very prescriptive to the area in which we might find ourselves.
“Additionally, people don’t want to feel like they’re in a hermetically sealed box; they want to feel like they’re part of the equation, like they’re getting some return on their experience in terms of travel,” she continued. “The notion of not feeling like just another number is very compelling to people, and I think that’s a women-centric thing to begin with—we want to feel counted and appreciated.”
How do the experts translate experience into design? “We look at our core design principles—what does this shape look like; how is this space appointed in terms of fit, finish, lighting, sound, smell; can you order a glass of wine; is this a great place to connect and get recharged; can you do a pop up meeting with some of your workmates?” she ticked off. “All of these things play into a feeling of connectedness, convenience and fluidity that make it a very natural place to hang out in and, hopefully, return to.”
Making a space that appeals to bleisure travelers—one in which they can feel comfortable grabbing a drink or hosting an impromptu meeting with a colleague—requires designers to think about how the space works operationally. “One of my key things to my design teams is to think about it from a macro to micro perspective,” Prendergast said. “You want to understand how the whole physical plant will be working operationally, so all of the things you’re thinking about in terms of these micro elements—the social media selfie locations you might weave into the final design, or the menus at the restaurant, the human touchpoints where people are going to interact on a very intimate level—all of that has to be tied back to a strong operational platform that we work with in tandem with our operations team so this is all running smoothly behind the scenes. If that operational element isn’t in place, then the seamless fluidity part of it doesn’t really work.”
Looking toward the future, Prendergast sees female travelers—business, leisure or bleisure—increasingly influencing hotel design. “One of the facts that we thought about is that more than 70% of solo travelers are women travelers; that’s only going to increase,” she said. “And that will factor in to all levels of travel, be it luxury down to eco solo traveling. People are going to expect a level of welcoming, of community, of connection and safety, just in terms of where they are and how they’re traveling around the world.”
And safety doesn’t just mean a lock on the door or a well-lit corridor. “It can be how public spaces are arranged away from the street, the process of getting from the front desk to your guestroom, how one feels inside a restaurant space,” she said. “A hotel can be a very welcoming place in a foreign land because it tends to have more infrastructure… Chambers of commerce are even looking at how cities and regions can be more welcoming to those women, independent travelers or business travelers to make sure they’re getting the best experience out of a visit.” HB