The hotel lounge was once a simple affair, offering a television, perhaps, and a small buffet to its regular customers. But as business travel has started to pick up, and revenue along with it, a number of major hotel brands are once more turning to sprucing up their executive club lounges, making them more residential in feel and providing healthier food and improved technology like free Wi-Fi.
“The time is appropriate,” said Bjorn Hanson, dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. Upgrades were a priority from 2005 to 2007, but since then, many hotels have deferred investments, Hanson said. “Frankly, some of these facilities need to be refurbished and redesigned.”
Investing in lounges is smart, he said, because they attract travellers who are less cost-conscious. Lounges are generally areas set aside for premium customers to work and relax, far from the hotel’s lobby.
Sheraton Hotels & Resorts and the owners of its hotels are spending about $108 million to upgrade 120 club lounges around the world, said Hoyt H. Harper, global brand leader. Before the redesign, layouts were not well planned, televisions were outdated and Wi-Fi was not widely available, he said. Most new lounges will offer better views, upgraded services like manager’s receptions, wider food and beverage choices, free Wi-Fi, high-quality colour printers, flat-screen televisions, and even game tables.
The lounges will be open seven days a week and in some cases, 24 hours a day. “We found that our guests like having the lounge open on the weekend and into the night as well,” Harper said.
Erin Hoover, vice president for global brand design for Sheraton and Westin, said Sheraton was making design a priority in its lounges. “We’re creating spaces that are flexible, so business travellers can move between different zones for different activities,” Hoover said. “It’s very similar to how you set up your home.”
The design will be consistent, but layouts, colours and art will differ regionally. The Sheraton TriBeCa in New York City, for instance, has an outdoor terrace with a 180-degree view of downtown Manhattan and a small, intimate dining area. “It feels like I’m at my friend’s kitchen,” Hoover said. In Edinburgh, textiles, fabrics, wood and books create a cosy “almost library-like” feel to the media wall, she said.
Henry H. Harteveldt, travel industry analyst for Forrester Research, said he had seen “some lounges with all the ambiance of a dentist’s waiting room.” He added, “Design is very, very important, and it is much more integrated into daily life nowadays.” But, he said, lounges ideally combine “the aesthetic with the practical.”
J.W. Marriott Hotels is updating or planning new executive lounges for many of its properties. Some will have “vanishing bars,” custom furniture by day that opens in the evening for cocktails, said Mitzi Gaskins, vice president and global brand manager. Other lounges may be larger, perhaps with private meeting rooms within them, as in Asia, where they are often popular gathering places Dining and beverage offerings will focus on local and organic foods. And all will have a concierge, she said.
Hilton Hotels & Resorts is planning executive lounge improvements in many of its properties, including those in development, said Dave Horton, global head of the Hilton brand. “It’s a key focus.” The company was not ready to release details, but Horton said the lounges would use design, technology, food and beverages “to create an environment where our guests can connect with others, relax or be productive while travelling.”
At Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, there are plans to upgrade that could include things like lights that dim to change the mood to help travellers relax, said Clarence McLeod, corporate director of Fairmont Gold, the brand’s premium level. Other ideas include libraries with e-readers, and sound rooms with high-end equipment to listen to music. About 10 lounges already offer iPads, he said. The brand also plans to personalize arrivals and service, based on guests’ interests.
“It’s about giving guests options,” said Alan Benjamin, president of Benjamin West, a company that supplies interior furnishings to major hotel brands and independent hotels internationally. The redesign of lounges is similar to what happened with hotel lobbies, which have been transformed into work and social areas.
Benjamin said business travellers worked traditionally in their rooms, but now more favour communal areas. Lounges typically offer individual seating “for people who want to cocoon themselves,” he said, as well as large communal tables. Lounges are ideal for travellers who do not want to be secluded in their rooms, but who seek more privacy than possible in the lobby, he said.
Deborah Lloyd Forrest, principal of ForrestPerkins, an international architecture and design firm specialising in luxury hotels and resorts, said the first lounges “were designed to create a hotel within a hotel, a place of refuge for elite quests.”
Stephen Perkins, also a principal at ForrestPerkins, said, that “lounges became a distillation of the brand, a way to impart value through decor, art, acoustics, to encourage loyalty in its most important guests.”
Travel experts said it was a way for brands to stay competitive by differentiating themselves from others.
Joseph A. McInerney, chief executive of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a hotel industry trade group, said lounges evolved from designated executive floors, which often had their own elevators or keys, “to make regular business travellers feel special.” The industry followed the airlines, which provided different amenities depending on class of service.
“When you have a long day, it’s nice not to have to go downstairs,” said Rick LeBlanc, an executive from the Toronto area.
LeBlanc, who is a frequent guest at many of Sheraton’s executive club lounges, said he had already noticed the greater food diversity, improved decor and service at some. “They know my name. They know what I like to drink,” he said. “There’s just an energy that resonates with global travellers. It’s a major uplift.”