Dec. 10, 2011— -- Scott Riggs used to conduct meetings at restaurants or in his hotel room while on the road for business.
But since Courtyard by Marriott redesigned its lobbies with semi-private booths, better technology and a late-night food menu, he's been holding court there, instead.
"Meeting in rooms or a restaurant was awkward," says the chief operating officer of a computer software training company, who lives in Lee's Summit, Mo. "This concept makes it much more comfortable."
That's the kind of reaction hotel executives are banking on as they transform their once-sterile lobbies into multi-use spaces where people can eat, drink, work, socialize — or all of the above.
The investment, so far, is paying off: As revenues from in-room amenities such as pay-per-view movies and telephones dry up, hotels are reporting higher food and beverage sales in their public spaces.
"Until recently, hotel guests would just pass through the lobby," says Randall King, vice president of operations for the West Coast at the Dow Hotel Company. "The lobby was a dead space. Recently, we in the industry have made a concerted effort to bring the guest back to the lobby."
Populating the space
More than 50% of guests use the Link@Sheraton lobby/computer lounge during their stay, contributing to a 12% food and beverage sale increase in hotels that have them, Sheraton estimates. As a result, parent company Starwood is converting its lobbies at Le Méridien hotels into "hubs" with libraries, spaces for speakers to lead conversations, and a coffee/wine bar.
Since rolling out its "Refreshing Business Lobby" concept, food and beverage sales per occupied room, a benchmark for how much revenue is generated from a customer, have doubled at Courtyard by Marriott hotels, which Janis Milham, vice president and global brand manager for Courtyard, attributes to the lobby redesign. Since late 2007, 390 properties have had their lobbies renovated. By the end of this year, that will increase to more than 400 out of the brand's 800 in the United States, Milham says.
At the Holiday Inn Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga., where the company introduced the "social hub" in June, food sales per occupied room are up 20%, and beverage sales are up 50%, says Verchele Wiggins, global vice president for Holiday Inn brands.
Expect hotel lobbies to continue to evolve for a hipper, more technologically savvy crowd.
Earlier this year, Hilton Hotels & Resorts unveiled the lobby at the Hilton McLean in Virginia with more sofas, TVs and a technology lounge with a communal work table. Hilton Worldwide has also introduced different aspects of the design to its Hilton Garden Inns and Hampton Hotels.
Hyatt Hotels is converting all its extended-stay Summerfield Suites and Hotel Sierra properties into Hyatt Houses with lobbies resembling living rooms. The spaces will be functional for 18 to 20 hours a day, with the breakfast area turning into the H Bar at night. "We wanted to create a community where people are engaged to different degrees," says Gary Dollens, global head of franchise and select brands for Hyatt. "They feel like they're part of something because they don't want to sit in their room."
Happy or unhappy hour?
Drew Roberts, a banking industry executive who spends so much time on the road that he doesn't consider any one city his home, prefers to sit in his room after a long day of work.
"A hotel should be a hotel. If I go to the front desk, I should be able to check in without running the gamut of people who are transacting business that has nothing to do with a front desk function," says Roberts, a member of USA TODAY's Road Warrior panel. "Please go elsewhere to drink, socialize and make noise."
While checking into a W hotel in Newark, Calif., David Simonson, a computer consultant in Antioch, Tenn., couldn't hear the desk clerk over the noise from the lobby. "Moving a nightclub into the lobby is too much," he says.
Stephani Robson, senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, calls the lobbies a "double-edged sword" for that reason. "For some hotels, this is a little problematic," she says. "What happens is you get people coming and using it who aren't guests. … For the guests, that can sometimes be frustrating, because they can't use the space."
So far, Brian Matos, a director at a reverse logistics firm who lives in Frisco, Texas, has managed to find a way to use the space — and meet some pleasant people. Once, he happened to sit next to a representative for Jack Daniels at a hotel lobby bar. "He paid my tab for listening to the history of Jack Daniels. Thank you, Jack!" he says.
A stop for coffee in the lobby of a hotel a few months ago led to a fortuitous meeting for Lauren Fix, who splits her non-work time between New York and Buffalo. The automotive expert struck up a conversation with a fellow patron who had been reading a car magazine. It turns out he was restoring a Pontiac GTO. She gave him her business card, and the next day, he called the sales department of her tubing business, Classic Tube, to order car parts.
"I've met some really nice people," she says.
So has Ines Lormand, a second-language consultant for a publishing business in Houston who doesn't like dining alone. She doesn't mind spending a little more in the lobby, especially if it has a well-priced wine list. "Sometimes the weather is inclement or I am not really close to anything but chain restaurants, so I'd rather stay at the hotel."