By David Kasprak and Belinda O’Kelly
The entire hospitality industry is built around satisfying the need to gather and facilitate human contact. The industry has spent decades breaking down barriers between staff and guests. It’s replaced long, imposing check-in counters with pods and kiosks, improved lobbies and added lounge areas, business centers, convenience stores, bars and restaurants, all designed around the concept of encouraging interaction.
Enter COVID-19. Suddenly, we live in a world where public safety requires us to stay at arm’s length. In come the stanchions, stickers on the floor and the Plexiglas partitions. Yes, we have addressed safety, but at what cost? We are now seeing hotels looking for solutions that provide safe distancing without screaming, “Stay away!” The biggest challenge of designers and operators is rethinking how space is best allocated to protect health while creating a welcoming environment. It’s time to re-evaluate how to provide safety without losing that welcoming feeling.
Bringing Back the Welcoming Experience
The personal interaction with the concierge and the desk staff—a smile, a warm greeting—all take place behind barriers or at a distance, leading to a watered-down guest experience. It’s time to rethink and bring back an upgraded experience.
Let’s start with check-in. Rather than building vertical protective barriers at the reception counters, create space across the transaction area. This can be done by adding counter depth, introducing decorative elements in front of the transaction area or offsetting the staff and guest across the transaction area to create extra distance.
While stanchions may work to maintain organized queuing, properties can open the space back up using floor patterns and textures to define aisles. This can be as simple as a seamed area rug or as elaborate as a tile inlay. Adding interruption tables, decorative planters and ornamental screens in key locations diverts traffic flow and encourages distancing while avoiding the theme-park experience.
Using kiosks and touchless technology at check-in can be a good alternative where space is available and the system fits the long-term operational needs. Position kiosks in locations visible to existing reception, concierge or bell staff. The goal is to provide elevated attention without adding to the staff load.
Creating Natural Separation
Many of the design tools used to direct guests to dense people areas can be used equally effectively to define spaces and reduce density. The magic is in reorganizing areas to maintain social distancing without making the space look empty and uninviting. One of the most effective tools for enhancing natural social distancing is furniture arrangement. Done well, furnishings can create natural barriers where guests will spread out within the space.
Work with the operations team to develop two plans, one with furniture groupings arranged in a pre-COVID-19 manner and a second “social-distancing plan’’ with smaller seating groups separated by larger spaces. Introduce and mix in seating pieces with higher backs or sides that wrap the guest. These high elements can provide a sense of enclosure as well as some personality and variety to the space.
Furniture pieces are chosen for flexibility and the ability to be reconfigured as circumstance changes. Seating arrangements should allow for interaction while maintaining social distance. Try to treat the space between seating groups as a design opportunity. Rather than six feet of empty space, source tables, freestanding screens, vases and other furnishing elements that can provide a sense of privacy and personality.
Community tables can still have a place in a property’s long-term plans provided that they are sized effectively. A community table that accommodates four stools per side at 24-in. centers will accommodate two seats per side at 6-ft. centers. As this moment passes, the table can return to use at full capacity.
Return of Indoor Dining
Arguably one of the biggest design challenges is re-creating the high-quality restaurant and bar experience. Properties have been taking advantage of outdoor spaces, adding patio areas, tents and extra seating areas to offset loss of indoor seats. As winter approaches, work on strategies to increase indoor density while maintaining safe distancing.
Booth seating has long been popular with diners. It’s also a great tool to increase seating density. Many booth designs use benches with legs to give the booths a sofa feel while also making them easier to relocate. To increase separation, scale the backs up or, in retrofit circumstances, introduce decorative screens between booth backs.
Screens can also be used between tables to create separation. While guidance continues to change as we learn more about transmission, screening between both booths and tables will need to be a minimum of 72-in. high to satisfy most health departments.
Regardless of the type of property, guests are generally accommodating provided they feel positive effort is being made. The hospitality industry must continue to show guests that we are striving to improve safety and create inviting environments, all while navigating this strange time.
David Kasprak and Belinda O’Kelly are principals of architecture, interior design and project management firm O’Kelly Kasprak.
This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by industry professionals. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individuals.