Boutique Hotels Balance Connections, Experiences and Safety
Hoteliers, Designers Strive for Safety Without Sacrificing Segment's Key Selling Points
Boutique hotels are known for their smaller footprint, niche design and emphasis of personal connection to their communities. Hospitality designers and hoteliers are now working to safely reintroduce those themes as demand returns.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic putting a strain on personal connections, Adaeze Cadet, design director and principal at HKS Architects, said that’s something that won’t ever go away in boutique hotels.
“That’s something that gives boutique hotels that competitive edge,” she said.
But after a year of isolation, the question now becomes what that will look like in boutique hotels and how design can help bridge that together again.
Design Fixes Cadet said a balancing act will be needed between creating spaces that feel spacious and clean while not sacrificing personal connection.
She suggests creating personal zones for two to four people in public spaces. This can be achieved through implementing decorative screens or spacing furniture out in existing hotels to allow for some breathing room.
If possible, now is an ideal time to put extra furniture in storage, she said. Her team is also noticing an increased focus on connecting indoor and outdoor spaces. For boutique hotels with a courtyard, it’s ideal to think about how seating arrangements could look and how to keep that pathway open to return inside the hotel. Guests likely will want to spend more time in an outdoor space than inside a lobby, she said.
Biophilic design could be a solution that boutiques could incorporate indoors, Cadet said.
“There’s that natural connection and well-being angle, that adding more plants gives that confidence to the hotel guest that they have a clean space and relaxed vibe,” she said.
Some branded hotels have renovated suites into video-conferencing studios, but Cadet said that likely won’t be a permanent trend, and she hasn’t heard of any boutique hotel clients that are currently doing that.
However, with the flexible nature of independent hotels, she said that can easily be done without ruining the integrity of the property’s design or overreacting to “what’s been shopped around as the right response to COVID.”
It’s best to listen to the customer’s needs or pay attention to the hotel’s current demographic and adapt with them.
“Because boutique hotels are a little more tied to the community, they understand their traveler a bit more,” she said, adding to stay true to that and not necessarily follow the big, overarching trends.
Temporary solutions could include moving desks near a window so guests can have natural light on them during video calls.
She said she doesn’t expect check-in desks to be eliminated, but it’s possible they could serve more than one purpose in boutique hotels going forward — for example, the desk as a pick-up spot for grab-and-go meals or for displaying cocktails during a happy hour.
For lobby furniture, she suggests refreshing with materials that are easier to sanitize but still fit within the hotel’s individual style.
Belinda O’Kelly, principal at O’Kelly Kasprak Architecture and Design, said requests for proposals were slow through January but are starting to pick up now.
She said it’s best to think about renovations as soon as possible.
“Even a full cosmetic renovation, we probably need to start our documents a year in advance — especially to make sure you’re getting the best pricing and lead time,” she said.
Hotels are starting to benefit from pent-up demand, she said, adding that July through September will likely be high-demand periods for boutique hotels. Quick FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment) improvements should be done now.
Personalized Food and Beverage To Remain Before COVID-19, HKS began working on plans for the Robertson Lane Hotel project in West Hollywood, California, with its client Faring. Cadet said the project will focus on connecting the community. Adjacent to the hotel project will be another building, also owned by Faring, which is intended to become a food-and-beverage, gathering and retail space called the Birdcage. Between the two projects is a walking pathway.
The project’s team decided not to reduce the food and beverage component, knowing that the restaurant business will eventually return and it’s an important demand driver for smaller hotels, she said.
Steve Palmer, founder and managing partner of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which owns and operates restaurants and is growing a new division focused on third-party management of boutique and lifestyle hotels, said there was fear at the onset of the pandemic that food and beverage would permanently change.
He said it has been interesting to see how food service trends over the past decade have changed, such as with food delivery apps.
Palmer said boutique hotels have always done experiential food and beverage, which "is only achieved through human to human connection."
"We can build great spaces, we can have cool ideas but it really is the people that make the experience," he said. "I don't think a pandemic [or] technology ... will ever change that."
While his team did invest in things like HEPA filters and plexiglass dividers between tables, he said he continues to believe that humans crave intimate connection and socializing.
As news of more widespread vaccination against the virus picked up, he said “our sales were through the roof.” Indigo Road is putting more energy towards improving outdoor spaces, but there won’t be a dramatic change in his portfolio's proportion of outdoor spaces, Palmer said. While safety precautions like plexiglass dividers may remain in the short term, he hopes as more immunity occurs, those barriers can be taken down and people can interact again.