In light of the worldwide pandemic and the impact it has had on the travel industry Tom Bishop, Director and Head of Project Management for Bruceshaw, explores whether or not the modern definition of hotels and how they’re built are forever changed as a result.

The announcement that hotels can open and the implementation of air bridges between the UK and certain countries to allow travel without quarantine was a boost for the hotel and tourism industry, enabling the first tentative steps on the road to recovery.

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact, the challenges ahead are many and will require innovative solutions, some of which may change and benefit the sector for the longer term.

Hotels have evolved in recent years, extending their range of functions. Budget hotels have made more destinations accessible to more people, offering minimal services and amenities. Meanwhile, city hotels have created social spaces with lobbies and café bars that are magnets for casual working, meetings, or as a destination for a night out. They have become places co-joined to work and lifestyle. But the COVID crisis means a reset. Hotels are re-opening as if new, building a customer base from people whose habits and priorities have changed. Hotel design and build have a big role to play in this new landscape.

Wings may have been clipped by the travel ban during the pandemic but the desire to travel and see new horizons hasn’t gone away. When the government announced it was planning to set up air bridges online enquiries for holidays surged.

Building confidence around health and safety will be paramount to getting customers back. In the short term, there is likely to be renewed interest in staycations, getting away from it all but without getting on a plane – with the added attraction of supporting UK-based businesses.

Custom from business travel will be a challenge. We have rapidly adapted to video calls and online meetings and seen the benefit of time savings and travel costs. But lockdown has also highlighted the need and benefits of face to face interaction. Social space may have taken on a new meaning emphasising distance and safety but humans are still social creatures who thrive in company. Could hotels offer businesses additional safe space outside of their office?

Marrying safety and socialising successfully is going to take invention and those hotels that will come out of this crisis stronger will be the ones that rise to the challenge. Terraces, balconies and outdoor space are already prime assets and will continue to be so.

Sustainability has risen up the agenda. While greener buildings became a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must-have’ after the 2008 financial crash, the world has moved on since then. During the lockdown, health and well-being have become intrinsically linked with the environment – the dramatic improvement in air quality from travel being limited has been plain to see.

So what does all this mean for the design and development of hotels?

There will inevitably be a drive towards value and efficiency to reduce costs whether that is in the operation of the hotel or in how it is built.

Space and design will need to reflect new concerns about safety and sustainability and will be paramount in attracting and building a customer base. Health and well-being will become the new currency, not just for hotels but the entire hospitality and entertainment sector.

Cleanliness will need to be more visible as customer and client expectations will be different – could we see the return of staff in white gloves calling a lift, even temporarily? Simpler design with easy to clean surfaces will help reduce the time and cost of extra cleaning and services. And there will be a move to minimise visits to and from rooms such as more in-room dining, which may require a re-configuration of space to accommodate a suitable table.

Self-contained space such as that offered by apart-hotels will inevitably become more desirable while hotel restaurants will need to accommodate at-seat service rather than a buffet-style food offer.

The use of technology for guest and staff functions will accelerate. Already some hotels allow you to check-in online and download an electronic room key to your phone so that you can go straight to your room. Such applications can help to reduce crowding and queues in reception areas. Similarly, heating and lighting in rooms can be controlled by a phone app to reduce the need to touch switches.

Less will be more. For a time at least…

Communal areas will need to allow space for social distancing and places that can introduce discreet, well-designed safety measures such as shielding screens and hand sanitisers will no doubt be winners, particularly for higher-end hotels.

The drive to increase energy efficiency and reduce waste will make environmental concerns and the need to reduce costs in the longer-term good bedfellows.

Modern methods of construction (MMC) will no doubt prove pivotal for new builds. The construction industry has long been a creature of habit, slow to evolve, but this is the most convincing catalyst for change in more than a century and hotels will benefit.

Swift construction of a hotel is necessary so that operators can start getting a return on their investment and also respond to demand. Imagine cities with a ‘creaking’ hotel infrastructure who have won a bid to host a major event e.g. summer or winter Olympics that will attract people from all over the world, with only a few years to prepare. Over that time period, only a few conventionally constructed hotels would be completed, but with an offsite construction plan, many more will be built, leading to a far more successful build schedule and event for all involved.

The goal is to save time and money and, of course, time translates into money. This saving also allows operators to offer customers a product of excellence at a lower price. Thanks to the factory production of rooms, operators are able to offer up to a four-star hotel at a much more reasonable price. This method saves a lot of time when building a hotel. Development time can be reduced by 35% – this will off-set the increased time in traditional construction methods, which contractors are reporting are +35% due to social distancing measures.

You could argue that much that is changing during this period will be temporary – how long will reception staff need to be behind Perspex? Social distancing will relax in time, but lessons will be learned and businesses will be better prepared should there be another pandemic in the future.

What this period will do is accelerate changes that were already starting to happen and this is a prime opportunity for both hotel design and construction to adapt, become more efficient and resilient.