Hotels Get Savvy With 'Social Space'.
By Melanie Nayer ~ Exclusive Column
Wednesday, 18th May 2011
How often have you walked into a hotel and found a small lobby, a check-in stand and a concierge desk? No travelers, no guests, no conversation - It's not uncommon, actually.

Historically, hotels have bought into the concept that a traveler wants to check-in, head to their room, unpack and start their day - be it business or pleasure. But that traveler is changing.

Today's hotel guest is starting to look at the hotel as part of the destination, and not just a place to lay their bags. In an effort to accommodate and engage the social savvy traveler, hotels are starting to recreate their lobby and public areas to invite a more "social space" for guests, and the results are pretty positive.

Walking into the lobby at the Mandarin Oriental Washington DC is like walking into a public state of the union meeting. At any given time you'll find lobbyists, members of Congress, journalists, bloggers and yes, travelers, sitting in the same area - at the hotel's bar and lounge area located at the center of the lobby.

Guests are on their blackberries, iPads, Androids and laptops planning out their day's events, filing stories or updating speeches with only hours to spare. But it's the hotel's ambiance that keeps them here and brings them back. The effective "open space" created a social space - a place for anyone, regardless of why you're in the hotel, a reason to stay a little longer and linger.

"The term 'lobbyist' is a term we believe was coined at the lobby of Willard InterContinental Washington DC," said Charles Yap, Director, Global Brand Communications for InterContinental Hotels Group. "President Ulysses S. Grant, a frequent visitor to the Willard Hotel, allegedly coined the term 'lobbyist' when describing running into a gauntlet of political wheelers and dealers he preferred to avoid while hanging out in the lobby of The Willard Hotel. All he wanted to do was to enjoy a brandy and cigar in peace."

A sentiment we all feel once in a while (cigar, or no cigar).

At the InterContinental Boston, the hotel's Rumba bar is an immediate draw for travelers and guests. The bar sits in the center of the lobby, acting as a meeting place and bringing a new attitude to the typical hotel lobby ambiance. In the same lobby area, and just a few steps in the other direction, the Concierge Lounge gives guests the opportunity to use iPads to create their day's activities, and solicit ideas from other travelers and hotel employees.

The InterContinental Bangkok Concierge Lounge is a main feature of the hotel lobby and overlooks one of the capital's busiest shopping intersections. Here, guests and Concierge team members interact, share and exchange local knowledge.

"Hotel lobbies in key cities have always been international meeting places. You'll find people (guests and hotel employees) from numerous world nationalities," said Yap. "At InterContinental hotels in locations like New York, Washington DC and London, our hotel lobbies have the Concierge Lounge as the place for sharing and exchange of local knowledge. Our iPad equipped Concierges play host in these lounges, assisting guests with local recommendations and also encouraging conversations and interactions among guests. Everyone learns something new before they move on to their next appointment or activity."

Starwood's ultra-trendy brand Aloft helped set the curve for hotels entering the social space. Aloft embraced its social side by introducing a way for guests to converse with other Aloft guests via a blog and Facebook page. Once you have your Aloft reservation, you can access a private online area to see what other guests at the hotel are recommending and doing during their stay. The hotel plans to expand in China in the coming years (two in Zhengzhou this year, Guangzhou in 2012, and Dalian in 2013) and due to the restrictions of social media in China it will be interesting to see how Aloft gets on with its social enterprise.

In America and Europe, however, the concept continues to create conversation - both with guests and other hotels. The result: people chat, connect and conduct business over coffee and cocktails. The typical hotel lobby area suddenly transformed into a meet-and-greet environment, where business meetings are suddenly fun and leisure travelers are a little less antsy to get out of the hotel.

And in the end, isn't that the ultimate goal of hotels: to keep guests inside a little longer and give them a reason to come back? Amid the exceptional customer service, unique amenities and overall decor and design, the hotel should serve as a destination itself, not a stopping point along the way to final destination.

Creating a multifunction social space keeps the hotel more flexible to changing trends and, quite frankly, more residential. Guests feel more at home when they can plug in their laptops, enjoy conversations on couches and mingle around the kitchen (in the hotel's case, the bar).

While the social evolution is still emerging, hotels that continue to embrace the uprising trend in social elements will likely find fewer room vacancies, and a lot more activity.

Melanie Nayer is a hotel reviewer and expert on luxury travel around the world. She has covered all aspects of hotels including corporate restructures, re-branding initiatives, historical aspects and the best of the best in luxury hotels around the world.

Melanie writes a weekly exclusivecolumn for 4Hoteliers.com
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