Rubbing shoulders: the hotel as social hub

Innovative hotels have begun to reimagine what’s possible with the lobby area, eschewing bland tradition in favour of a communal atmosphere that invites locals and guests to work and play in the same space. Chris Lo Reports. 

Image courtesy of Stephen Kent Johnson

Any half-seasoned traveller knows the stereotype of the hotel lobby: the reception and concierge desks, the quiet sitting areas, few sounds beyond perhaps the tinkle of sensible piano pieces drifting from the bar or the chiming of elevator doors opening and closing. For decades this has been the image cultivated as the public face of hotels the world over, and for many guests, it’s a timeless tradition that isn’t broken and doesn’t need fixing.

But for a new generation of hospitality businesses, the staid atmosphere of the traditional hotel lobby is no longer relevant. With the rise of co-working spaces and the advent of the so-called ‘digital nomad’, a growing number of hotels are moving past the hotel lobby designs of yesteryear to throw open their doors and offer communal spaces targeted as much at local audiences as hotel guests. Rather than jealously guarding their Wi-Fi passwords and facilities from non-guests, many of these hotels are actively inviting the outside world in, whether it’s to work, socialise or dine.

“The lobby is the new public square,” said White Space founder and president Aytan Litwin in a December 2018 interview with the New York Times. While Litwin’s words might have been geared more towards a memorable quote than strict accuracy, there’s no denying that the previously impenetrable cocoon of the hotel lobby is increasingly being breached.

“Gone are the times when you could afford to have a dead hotel lobby that’s empty for the rest of the day; it needs to be vibrant all the time,” citizenM managing director of development Menno Hilberts told Gensler’s Dialogue magazine. “We’ll see further integration between office, residential, and hospitality — asset classes that in my view are outdated. These boundaries will blur quickly, because urban users demand a seamless experience between where they work, live, and travel; it should all be part of one ecosystem.”

And it’s not only boutique properties that are embracing the community feel; major players have seen the benefits too, as demonstrated by the success of Marriott’s laid-back, millennial-targeting Moxy Hotels brand. But where did the modern concept of the hotel as social hub come from, and where is it going? Below are four examples of hotels at the cutting edge of this growing trend.

Image courtesy of Stephen Kent Johnson

Ace Hotel New York: the early trailblazer

While the Ace Hotel brand this year celebrates its 20th year of catering to the young creative demographic in cities around the US and elsewhere, Ace Hotel New York in Midtown Manhattan has been credited with popularising the idea that hotel common areas can be just as appealing to locals as they are to visiting guests.

Opened in 2009, Ace Hotel New York is a redesign (carried out by Roman and Williams) of the former Hotel Breslin. The team reconfigured the interior of the early 20th century building with large communal tables, plentiful electrical outlets and hipster café staples including the popular Stumptown Coffee franchise.

Indeed, by emulating the comforting hallmarks of the coffee shop – already the world’s unofficial co-working space – Ace Hotel New York has created a more vibrant ground-floor atmosphere with hotel guests mingling with New Yorkers at work or play. Since the opening of the New York branch, other Ace Hotel hubs have sprung up in hot spots such as London, Panama City, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Chicago, with Ace Hotel Kyoto set to open in 2020.

“ They are seen as a quirky and trendy place to stay, while still providing the same benefit – a cheap bed to sleep in. ”

Image courtesy of Zoku Amsterdam

Zoku Amsterdam: the home/office hybrid

Zoku Amsterdam opened in 2016 with an ambitious goal: to be a home/office hybrid that also incorporates the service of a hotel. The brand launched as the official base for international attendees of Startup Fest Europe, a partnership that has set the tone for what the hotel – which offers co-working and social space alongside 133 Zoku Loft services apartments – is aiming to achieve.

Working space includes a flexible top-floor event space for up to 175 people, as well as eight meeting rooms. Socially, the hotel offers communal dinners and a casual café diner, not to mention a games room and a music room where users can simply pick instruments off the wall.

“Our objective is for Zoku to connect thinkers from various industries, and facilitate the emergence of a new hub where talented international travellers mingle with locals,” Zoku co-founder and managing director told Hospitality Net.

Eaton Hong Kong: the countercultural space

Eaton Hong Kong: the countercul-tural space

The esteemed Eaton Hotel in Hong Kong was opened in 1990 by Great Eagle Holdings, but underwent a complete reinvention when Great Eagle heiress, filmmaker Katherine Lo, assumed responsibility in 2013 and created the Eaton Workshop brand. Lo, a committed social and environmental activist, wanted to create a hotel that not only had welcoming communal spaces and activities, but also supports artists and marginalised local communities.

The warm, earth-tone feel of the hotel’s communal areas was created in collaboration with design studio AvroKO, and incorporates creative spaces in every nook and cranny, from artist residency rooms to an in-house radio station and a screening room that hosts an annual feminist film festival.

Eaton HK has set up spaces and events to support the LGBT community, and has been one of the only hotels in Hong Kong to throw its support behind protestors in the ongoing demonstrations that, at the time of writing, continue to escalate in violence and police brutality. The Eaton Workshop brand has a second location in downtown Washington DC (already dubbed the ‘anti-Trump hotel’) and has plans to open new hotels in San Francisco, Seattle and Toronto.

“Eaton House Hong Kong has become a place where the city’s outliers can come to truly be themselves, be free and open in a shared community, and collaborate on meaningful projects with like-minded people,” Lo told InDesignLive last year.

Link Hotel and Hub, Tel Aviv: the tech-enhanced social hub

Innovative hoteliers are continually dialling in to the changing priorities of young travellers and how best to cater to their needs. For leading Israeli hospitality firm Dan Hotels, which opened the new LINK Hotel & Hub in Tel Aviv last year, the assessment was that younger guests are happy to trade a smaller guestroom for larger communal spaces and a location that’s closer to the action, and respond well to the smart application of technology.

“Young people today are increasingly willing to live in much smaller apartments close to the social, cultural and entertainment spots of the city centre, rather than living in bigger apartments that are out in the suburbs,” Dan Hotels vice chairman Ami Federmann told Sleeper magazine. “We believe that when it comes to hotel accommodation, younger guests today are willing to make a similar trade-off: smaller guestrooms and bigger common spaces.”

The LINK Hotel & Hub is the perfect case study of selective priorities. While the guestrooms are smaller than usual, the 55-inch smart TVs inside them are far bigger than the industry standard, reflecting the brand’s investment in features they believe matter most to young tourists. The large shared areas, meanwhile, feature common work desks, private meeting rooms, a casual diner serving meat-free meals until late, and a range of games.

The hotel’s use of tech is also laser-targeted at the hipper end of the travel market, with the traditional check-in process replaced with the mobile LinkApp on customer’s phones, allowing tech-savvy guests to do it themselves and freeing hotel staff to concentrate on more personable tasks.

“We have eliminated many procedures typical of traditional hotels,” said LINK development lead Ron Federmann. “We don’t accept old-fashioned cash. There’s no reception desk. We don’t have bellboys or a concierge. What we do have is a multi-task 24/7 service create that operates on an ‘everyone does everything’ principle.”

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Cover image credit: Hilton Hotels and Resorts