Editor checks in: lessons learned in hospitality design since Covid-19

It’s coming up to two and a half years since a deadly virus aggressively brought the hospitality and design industry to its knees. Rules, regulations and guidelines were sharply put in place, but did any of them stick – and have we emerged from the forced hibernation with a wider perspective? Editor Hamish Kilburn writes…

Editor Hamish Kilburn in front of a podcast microphone

Now that hospitality has, on the whole, re-opened for business, and the design industry has shown progressive signs of recovery with demand for travel igniting once more, Covid-19 is now considered a dirty word best left in the past. But as we creep past the two-year mark from when the world was placed into a temporary lockdown, which at times felt permanent, and when hard protocols were put in place to protect citizens while drastically limiting international travel, I wonder how many of those changes that were enforced in desperation have remained, and whether, long-term, the industry can perhaps even go as far to benefit from the lessons learned during those bleak times.

“Creativity on the whole in hotel design remains loud, proud and, above all, meaningful.” – Hamish Kilburn, Editor, Hotel Designs.

It was always going to be a challenge for a sector that thrives on human interaction to force boundaries between people to limit free movement. I remember checking in to a hotel during this time, and the building had, well, just lost its pulse. Instead of the lobby feeling warm, inviting and free-flowing – the way they are designed to feel – instead it felt clinical and disjointed – almost like a hospital ward, but without flowers.

decorative niches in the lobby at Pullman Doha display local artefacts and objects in an installation, taking the hospitality design to the next level

Image credit: Pullman Doha West

It’s reassuring to hear from designers and hotel experts, while considering Covid-19’s impact, that the way in which clients and studios are approaching new design concepts and renovations has remained unaffected. Aman New York, Ace Hotel Toronto, Pullman Doha West and Standard Bangkok Mahanakhon – all of which have been identified by the editorial desk here at Hotel Designs as the hottest hotel openings this month – are clear examples of this. Besides excavating space in the public areas for new co-working spaces and cleverly zoning areas in a way that feels cohesive, creativity on the whole in hotel design remains loud, proud and, above all, meaningful.

A minimalist approach to hospitality design. The Lounge area, muted design, inside Aman New york

Image credit: Aman New York

One tries not to cast my mind back to ‘that year’ too often, but when I mentally go back to 2020 [pause for a head-to-toe shiver] the painful memories of organising and hosting an online awards ceremony and too many virtual conferences are gratefully overshadowed. The strongest throwbacks for me were the simply heart-warming stories from people and businesses alike launching wonderful initiatives – Rosewood London, The Dorchester and Stock Exchange Hotel Manchester were just a handful of examples – to purely help those most in need.

While thinking bold and perhaps wider than ever before, I saw hard, perhaps once cold images of hospitality brands melt away. One conversation in particular, with Conor O’Leary, Managing Director of Gleneagles, hit a chord. “We used to have signs asking people to keep off the grass,” he said in one of our virtual roundtables. “We now have pop-up restaurants and bars on the lawn.” It was those ‘ah-ha’ moments that created new connections and allowed brands from all sectors to explore something new.

Speaking of F&B, it seems odd to think, now that restaurants are back to full capacity, that hotels were packaging up their meals in to-go containers to safely bend the strict lockdown measures to still offer past (or future) guests that sprinkle of indulgence in their day-to-day lives. It was a challenging time for all businesses in hospitality, but the innovative solutions – some grand and some small – fed the demands from regulars while at the same time opened the metaphorical doors to new demographics.

I remember having a powerful catch up with John Gardiner, Founder of Matetsi Victoria Falls during this time. He told me that, for the first time in Matetsi’s history, to keep a steady revenue stream flowing during the harshest days of the pandemic, the hotel dropped its prices to target more of a local audience. This, as well as keeping the luxury hotel in operation while keeping the entire workforce in employment, allowed the team to understand the local demands from his hotel. He was able to, in places, evolve his existing premium and personalised hospitality concept into something even more authentic that answered fluently to its location and culture.

Image credit: Matetsi Victoria Falls. Each suite includes an abstract art piece that when put together forms a map off the safari reserve the hotel sits on.

Image credit: Matetsi Victoria Falls

If Covid-19 taught the hospitality and hotel design industry anything it was for brands to be unique in their approach – go hard or go home. Consumers were largely empathetic to the brands that tried something new. Today, with the wellness ‘mega trend’ growing by the day – bringing with it a flood of travellers all demanding authentic experiences, which we will explore among other topics in the up-coming new series of DESIGN POD – now is the time to be bold in design and service to offer something unmatched.

From what I am seeing with the hotels that are opening in 2022, as well as those hotel development concepts that are on the boards, we’re changing direction – going off pisté in some instances. After all, hospitality design rarely travels in a straight line.

Main image credit: Hotel Designs