Making hotel lobby a place to see, be seen

Associated PressSeptember 4, 2013 

— Hotels want you to stay a while – in their lobbies.

Long treated as dead spaces that hotel guests raced through on the way to the elevator, lobbies are being transformed into places to work, surf the Web or meet friends for a drink.

Large, traditional hotels are spending billions in renovations to try to mimic the style and financial success of luxury and boutique hotels, which have always drawn free-spending crowds to their lobbies.

Walls are being torn down to make lobbies feel less confined. Communal tables are popping up. Wine lists are being upgraded. And quiet nooks are being carved out that give business travelers space to work but still be near the action.

Companies like Marriott, Hyatt and Starwood are betting that more vibrant lobbies will leave guests – especially younger ones – with a better feeling about their stay, even if their room is bland. Hotel owners say the investments are beginning to pay off, not just in alcohol sales, but in their ability to charge higher room rates.

“People want to go where people are,” says Michael Slosser, managing director of operations for Destination Hotels and Resorts, a group of 40 hotels in the U.S. “They want to go to be seen, to relax and to people watch.”

The changes are meant to attract travelers like Michael Coscetta, a 31-year-old consultant from Wantagh, N.Y., who spends about 90 nights a year on the road.

“Working in a hotel room feels claustrophobic,” says Coscetta, who instead takes his laptop and heads to the lobby or a nearby coffee shop.

Steve Carvell, associate dean for academic affairs at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, says younger guests “very much want that sense of not feeling alone, even though they are.”

U.S. hotels are forecast to spend $5.6 billion on capital improvements this year, up 10 percent from 2012 and more than double the $2.7 billion spent in 2010, according to a study by Bjorn Hanson, dean of New York University’s hospitality school. The bulk of that money pays for new beds, showers and other room improvements. But Hanson says a “proportionally record amount” of money is going to reconfiguring lobbies.

Lobbies go swank

Marriott International is freshening up lobbies in its namesake brand with “Great Rooms” that feature free Wi-Fi, comfortable seats and menus stocked with small dishes and local craft beers. The concept was first tested in 2007 and is expected to be in 70 percent of the 550 Marriott hotels worldwide by the end of the year.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide – the company behind trendy W Hotels – launched a $4 billion lobby revitalization of its Sheraton brand in 2009. Nearly half of the 427 Sheratons worldwide have lobbies with communal areas, modern rugs, improved lighting and flat-screen TVs at the bar.

Additionally, Sheraton has tried to inject a bit of pizazz to all its lobbies by adding upscale wine lists, each rated by Wine Spectator magazine.

Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services at consulting firm PKF Hospitality Research, says the changes are “very much guest driven.”

“It isn’t fun being one of 20 business people sitting by yourself in a hotel restaurant reading a magazine, eating the $19.95 steak special,” Mandelbaum says.

While overall hotel food and beverage revenue has fallen 27 percent in the last five years, sales in hotel bars have grown 5 percent, according to Mandelbaum.

A delicate balance

Revamping lobbies is a delicate balancing act: Attract younger road warriors, but don’t turn away baby boomers with loud, thumping music.

Sheraton’s first lobby modernization came in 2006 when it partnered with Microsoft to provide free computers. Soon it was selling Starbucks to lingering guests. “As people spent more time in the lobby, they were more willing to purchase food and beverages,” says Hoyt Harper, the senior vice president in charge of Sheraton.

Nearly 15.1 million – or half of – Sheraton guests use the computers each year. Just 5.8 million use the gym.

Pushing through costly renovations isn’t easy. Most chain hotels are owned by smaller companies that must meet the larger brand’s standards in exchange for using the Sheraton, Marriott or Hyatt name. Some need convincing to understand the benefits of spending millions on a lobby revamp.

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