Spokane-based Red Lion Hotels is launching its new Hotel RL lifestyle brand in Maryland on August 1, positioned as the first “upscale three-star” property developed for design-conscious, socially-minded travelers on a budget.

Beginning with the Hotel RL Baltimore Inner Harbor, the properties will be designed to be a platform for knowledge sharing with TED Talks-style programming in the lobbies, complemented with unique social and cultural partnerships in the destination.

Each hotel lobby will have a large stage and tiered seating like you see at many hostels today. There won’t be any traditional restaurants. Instead, there’s a large central bar serving food for diners to eat in various styles of casual lobby seating. The highly communal lobby spaces are configured to invite local intellectuals, artists with social causes, and other cultural influencers to share their wisdom from the stage.

Red Lion is then planning to create online content programming so people can watch live presentations at any of the Hotel RL properties from either their in-room TV or their devices.

This TED-inspired experience is an emerging hospitality trend where hotels are being developed as media platforms for social discourse. Our recent story on 1Hotels is similar. For years, high quality F&B created by popular regional chefs was a primary way for hotels to engage with locals so locals could engage with hotel guests. At Hotel RL however, instead of talking about a grass-fed beef burger with truffle fries, the hotel guests and locals can discuss things like the rise of homelessness in American cities.

According to this Washington Post story in December, the number of homeless in 25 U.S. cities polled rose an average of 1% last year, while the rise of homeless families rose 3%. This alarming rise in the country’s destitute population during a growing economy speaks volumes about rising inequality in America, and it’s something that Hotel RL wants to shed light on in Baltimore.

To do that, it contracted NYC-based fine art photographer Ian Tong to profile the city’s downtrodden with imagery that combines stark reality, quiet pathos and a sympathetic contextualization of the city’s distressed neighborhoods. Those photos are showcased at the standalone Project Wake Up Call website where people can learn more about the state of homelessness, learn about the photography, and donate to the local Health Care for the Homeless charity. All of the photography developed for each new Hotel RL will be located on the Project Wake Up Call site.

When visitors donate $100 or more, Red Lion will offer a free room night valid from August 1 to October 31. Presently, advertised room rates start at $144.

We spoke with Greg Mount, president/CEO of Red Lion Hotels Corporation, to learn more about the hotel experience and social responsibility initiative. The official announcement introducing Hotel RL is tomorrow.

Skift: What is Hotel RL?

Greg Mount: Hotel RL is an upscale, three-star space. It’s DNA is really going to follow a little bit of the nuance of the independent and boutique hotel feel, with more of a Pacific Northwest ethos in and around the brand. The brand is going to focus on things such as a non-traditional lobby designed and built to be a place where people can collaborate and gather, similar to a town center in a community.

We’re designing that without a specific restaurant but with the ability to serve food and beverage throughout the entire lobby. We’re going to create places for people to basically gather, eat and talk, whether that’s someone who’s staying at the hotel or a local using the location to meet someone. We’re going to work very hard to make that conducive to both guests and locals.

We’re also putting a live stage in each of the hotel lobbies, and that stage will be programmed similar to what you might expect like a TED Talk. We will be bringing in local and regional guest speakers to authentically animate the lobby and make it feel like a good place to gather.

Skift: What is interesting about the hotel services?

Mount: For services in the hotel, and we also looked at this from an owner’s perspective, we wanted to eliminate things that guests don’t really see as important, so were focusing on a great bed, a great shower, great Wi-Fi, great TV. We’ve done away with room service but we’ll have a really great to-go alternative. We’re installing a coffee cafe similar to what one might expect at Starbucks but with a more local feel, where you can get a French press to take back to your room or sip in the lobby.

We’re basically going to have a bar with food with a few seats and tables around the bar, but for the most part, the seating for food and beverage will be the lobby. We’ll also have an element that we’re calling our “Steps,” which is similar to bleacher seating, near the live stage that’s a great place to be alone yet not feel alone to sit and work or drink your cappuccino.

Skift: The photos on your website depict a hotel design narrative that has a sort of woodsy, organic Northwest vibe, so will that be a brand standard?

Mount: We’re going to create the design ethos based on the location of the hotel, so the room graphics in Baltimore are going to be more of a city orientation versus a mountain or lakes orientation. The graphics are going to be based on the location, but a lot of the fit and feel of the room is really more of that Pacific Northwest narrative where we’re using warm colors with woods and reclaimed products.

Skift: Based on the price point, does Hotel RL democratize the boutique hotel experience for more people in more markets?

Mount: I think no one has really ever brought the independent boutique feel to the three-star space, because a lot of what you see today with independent boutique hotels belongs more in the luxury tier. So we’re really focusing on being a better alternative for that well located, three-star upscale hotel versus that sort of commoditized Radisson or Crown Plaza or Wyndham. We’re bringing a little more of a design orientation and aspirational feel to both the customer and the owner, and at the same time creating a place for people who are coming to explore and extend themselves versus just staying in a hotel.

Skift: In terms of the programming on the stage, is this a case where the Hotel RL experience is being designed as a platform for knowledge sharing and debate about important civic issues?

Mount: Exactly. We’re really not interested in people getting up there and playing a musical instrument. We’re interested in people who are going to create a dynamic of thought-provoking challenges to our guests. It may not be something a guest necessarily agrees with but it’s going to be something that provokes a reaction and some kind of interaction. We’re really looking to do this authentically and bring in many different types of speakers, so as we build out more hotels through the year, which we will be doing, they will be linked with this content. Which means, if you’re a guest staying in Spokane you’ll be able to turn on the TV and see a live presentation in Baltimore.

We’re looking to integrate that in a way that hasn’t been done before. We’ll publish that on the hotel websites and on YouTube, so it’s just like going to see a TED Talk to learn what people are talking about.

Skift: Can you explain the motivation behind developing the Project Wake Up Call portal?

Mount: Project Wake Up Call is something we’re all really excited about and very passionate about. We feel it assimilates itself well as to who we are and what our ethos is about, and we wanted to be able to show the beauty of the city from a different perspective through he eyes of the homeless. This is an opportunity to bring the community and ourselves together to help to improve that situation.

At the grand opening for each hotel, we’ll then put the art up for sale and all of the proceeds will go to the local charity. Every hotel we open going forward will have the same thing. You’ll start to see a large organically grown website at Project Wake Up Call that will be funding these kind of things and showing all of this amazing imagery of a city when a hotel goes into it.

Skift: So this, in effect, is a new way to deliver a local destination experience, because guests will have the chance to experience a city and talk with locals about social issues in the city?

Mount: That’s exactly right. We wanted to develop something that was important to the cities, and we felt this was a great way to not only introduce the community to our hotel, but at the same time, let them view their own city in a new way and help them understand, like many cities, that they have a challenge and we all need to address it. And that’s what we love about the photography. It really creates a catalyst for discussion, because while there is a tragic element to this, people can also appreciate their city in a new light, which is how we wanted to approach our engagement with the local communities.

Greg Oates covers tourism and hospitality development.

Photo Credit: The Hotel RL design ethos is derived from the Pacific Northwest, where Red Lion Hotels is based. Red Lion Hotel Corporation