Keen observers of the hospitality space are obsessed with Airbnb and every business move it makes. The strategy departments of traditional hotel groups are working overtime to figure out differentiation as many of their paying leisure customers have fled into the well designed, savvy millennial platform. And, with their new offering, Airbnb Plus, it is now catering to the needs of a well-heeled business traveler with claims of consistency night after night that is an often-cited need for the category.
But hotels have a beautifully simple, obvious answer as they frantically search for ways to fight back against the highly valued platform. And it is core to the essence of what they do.
I wrote earlier about the Japanese bookstore working with residential developers to create engaging, convivial spaces that people want to spend time. There’s magic in the right space that makes you want to linger and turn your brain from digitally distracted trance into a receptive and aware state of being.
The hotel lobby, when magically done, is a reason to eschew a rented apartment and choose a more traditional lodging option.
Airbnb can be isolating: you’re an island on your own. Arriving late at night into an unfamiliar apartment building that hopefully lives up to the stylized photos. With a good hotel, the lobby serves as an inviting welcome and the central nervous system of experience. Where even if you’re alone you can be around others in an ambient sense. We are humans, after all, and like being around others (though we may claim that we don’t). Atmosphere counts for a lot.
An excellent hotel lobby is like a coral reef, refreshed every day or even every hour with new and incredible fish. There’s magic in the anonymity of people watching, there’s serendipity, there’s socializing and there’s revelry.
Making this space as compelling as possible makes it a reason to stay. And hotels must double down and figure out how to keep making this space more and more compelling in every category, from Claridges to a Midwest Courtyard Inn.
Here are some of the secrets along with the properties that do it well:
1. Multi-use and day to night transitions
Though this space may not sit well with everyone, the Ace New York lobby transitions from a morning reading room to a vibrant workplace to a place for celebration throughout the day. When you’re coming through, there’s a sense of electricity and vibrancy that adds to your stay.
One of my favorite things about staying in the Middle East is the large, generous seating areas. Since not everyone is socializing around alcohol, more space is allocated to beautifully appointed areas to socialize and come together. The St. Regis in Abu Dhabi on the Corniche does this in particularly resplendent fashion.
Something about a perfectly polished lobby makes you want to stand up straighter. The Carlyle in New York and Le Bristol in Paris are two examples of beautiful lobbies where the great and the good convene.
4. The Intangibles
In my interview with Austin based hotelier Liz Lambert, she mentioned a quote that inspired her: “Let people be the color in the room”. When it comes to design, this is incredible guidance. Let the coral reef of compelling characters be the color, and the design of the space should support and frame this.
5. Versatile eating
Girandole at the Park Hyatt Tokyo is an incredible example of a perfect hotel lobby restaurant: it is elegant and can be dressed up or dressed down. It is the ideal place for a more formal evening meeting or a late Sunday breakfast. The service is polished and impeccable.
A lobby should be in service to its guests. Small details like bottles of cold water placed outside to welcome back the early morning runners and great local workout maps are a plus. The Peninsula Tokyo does this well.
7. Community and Intellect
The Upper House team in Hong Kong regularly puts on salons and conversations from the worlds of fashion, literature, design and beyond. They have a particularly well-heeled guest who can have what they want in life and the hotel rightly realizes that if it can make people smarter, curate a conversation or bring likeminded people together than that is incredibly constructive.
8. Pure Awe
Hotel lobbies can also be incredible showpieces that conjure up the real vibrancy and romance of travel. The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is a timeless and great example of this. You are unsure what time you are actually living in, in the best possible way, while surrounded by flowers, scents and interesting people from around the world. On the newly opened front, the entryway to the Middle House in Shanghai features a stunning chandelier that begs guests to stop, stare and linger for a moment before heading out into the day. A far cry from the arrival to a far-flung Airbnb.
As a side note, the systematic removal of print papers from properties around the globe has to stop. A great lobby is a place to savor a printed copy of the FT Weekend or South China Morning Post and not be distracted by notifications and disruptions from a device. No amount of efficiencies or PressReader apps can replace this.