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Your hotel lobby is no longer just a waiting area

by April 14, 2016 General

The lobby of the Sofitel Sukhumvit in Bangkok. ― TODAY pixThe lobby of the Sofitel Sukhumvit in Bangkok. ― TODAY pixBANGKOK, April 14 ― Step into the lobby of the Sofitel Sukhumvit in Bangkok and you might forget you’re in a hotel at all. The French brand’s flagship property in South-east Asia has a bright, open foyer that feels more like a cool performance zone or art space, thanks to two rows of distorted images — 72 anamorphosis photos by Frenchman Charles Maze — set high up, giving it a certain avant-garde edge.

To the left is a hip little bar, and next to it is S Gallery, an art salon showcasing contemporary works by French and Thai artists. It is a marked contrast to what the lobby looked like a little more than a year ago — gleaming marble floors, muted lighting, some comfortable armchairs, pretty enough but nothing unexpected for a luxury hotel lobby.

Why the change? “I love art. That’s really what got the wheels turning,” said the hotel’s general manager William Haandrikman, who colluded with French art advisor Mertin Gerlier to invigorate the space. “I’ve always believed that a lobby is important. It should be a living space that is inviting and comfortable, and breeds an energetic and vibrant atmosphere. Too many lobbies are dull, or an afterthought or both. I saw an opportunity to give the lobby some character … a level of appeal that had the potential to be a talking point. Now, every two months at the S Gallery we unveil a new exhibition. It’s unique. Guests love it. Art enthusiasts love it. Everyone who works here loves it.”

More than a waiting area

Yes, hotels around the world have been coming to grips with what’s trending, with fads over the past decade including iPhone docking stations, pillow and bath menus, virtual concierges, oversized bathrooms, rooms with outdoor spaces or interior gardens, personalised mini-bars, and one-touch room controls.

This — the stylised hotel lobby — is the new evolutionary phase in this journey. Hoteliers and designers are placing greater emphasis on one-off lobbies created via painstaking design in a quest to establish or reinvent their identity, transform the space into something more utilitarian, and set themselves apart from their competitors.

First impressions do count and much more than the exteriors, the lobby is the quintessential first impression of a hotel (that’s when a guest is most likely to exclaim “wow” during any stay).

CItizen M New York's lobby is inspired by the living room. CItizen M New York’s lobby is inspired by the living room. Artyzen Hotel Group, which has the affordable-luxury citizenM and the upcoming apartment hotels Artyzen Habitat in its stable, acknowledges the lobby’s growing influence.

“The lobby is more than a transient or waiting area — it is a social space, a lifestyle space which defines what the hotel is about,” said Allan Yip, vice-president of marketing, distribution, and brands for the hotel group.

“It is first touch-point where the guest or customer can get a feel of the hotel, a prelude to the overall experience. We create lobbies that are more design–led and aesthetically pleasing than traditional hotel lobbies. The aim is to provide a complete, holistic and all-sensory experience for guests. The function of lobbies has evolved — they are a multi-functional space. We see a growing trend in both guests and locals utilising lobby areas as a versatile and flexible environment for business and leisure.”

Matthew Shang, principal at design firm Hassell, which worked on The Club Hotel on Ann Siang Street, and Ovolo Woolloomooloo in Sydney, said: “A lobby is a first peek into the personality of a hotel and it allows the opportunity to create a moment for the guest, a refuge for the traveller and a social hub for all. It also contextualises the hotel and really gives the guest a flavour of where they are in the world. For years, a grand hotel lobby was an empty, imposing marble monument, we now see these spaces divided and softened, more human in scale.”

At the Ovolo in Sydney, Hassell moved the lobby from an area adjacent to the entrance to the centre of the living zone, amid a series of newly created social spaces, such as a billiards area, bars, breakfast zones and other intimate nooks that guests can claim as their own. At The Club Hotel, Hassell reimagined the lobby from a small, white enclosure with a standard front desk into a warm living room, styled like friend’s home to make it more welcoming.

The changes are part of a wider trend with hoteliers recasting lobbies as active social zones, “so for more boutique brands, room facilities and sizes can potentially be reduced with facilities in the lobby compensating,” added Shang. “The influence of the co-working office comes into play as the lobby becomes a space that is used by the guest as a temporary office, meeting room and place to entertain.”

The retro-futurist Klapsons in Tanjong Pagar used a number of lobby quirks to stand out from the crowd, including a stainless steel orb as a check-in desk. “We wanted the lobby to be unique, serve as an inspirational refuge, as well as an urban oasis from the outside world and bustle of the work environment,” revealed its general manager, Alex Loh. “The lobby was to serve as a social gathering place not just for our corporate and leisure stayers, but also for the office tower occupants to share and indulge in the space. The contemporary design, the stainless-steel orb check-in counter, carefully curated interior pieces and the lit organic forms in the high ceiling all add to this effect. Everyone who walks through our doors responds similarly with a ‘wow!’, even seven years after opening.”

New ideas for engaging spaces

The idea of revamping the lobby arrived in June 2011 with the announcement by Le Meridien that it would introduce Le Meridien Hub, and reinterpret the hotels’ lobbies as “social gathering places for creative people to converse, debate and exchange” in a space with contemporary, curated artwork.

Today, that sense of a lobby acting as a social nexus is stronger than ever. Neqta Hotels, a joint venture launched in January 2016, between Fairmont Raffles Hotels International and China’s Jiangsu Golden Land Group, will open a batch of upper mid-scale hotels across China (the first already opened in Shanghai’s Xuhui district) with the lobby playing a key role in the guest experience. Known as the Hive, the open, stylish lobby will be a multi-transferable space — a cafe/restaurant by day and a bar at night.

“This is where the (guests) will gather, network, connect and commune,” said Joseph Soh, managing director for Neqta Hotels. “A group of ‘honey bees’ (or staff) adds a cheerful and friendly vibe to the service.”

Hilton Worldwide will unveil Tru by Hilton, a chain of midscale hotels in the United States and Canada, by the end of the year. A vital cog of the new brand will be the space also called The Hive. Portrayed as “more than a lobby”, it will be an open space divided into four zones (lounging, working, eating and playing) that enable guests to spend time alone or engage with others.

In South-east Asia, the idea of the non-traditional lobby — visually, thematically, socially — is gathering steam. Ho Chi Minh City’s The Reverie opened last year after more than US$500 million was invested. It drips in opulence, with a seventh-floor foyer that delivers “a lasting first impression” upon arrival, with its aerie design, splendid decor and views looking out on to the pool terrace and the Saigon river beyond. Said chief architect Kent Lui: “It’s the most iconic space in the entire building.”

Marquee pieces include a grandiose, five-metre Colombostile sofa custom-made with purple ostrich leather and gilded trim, and an emerald green, three-metre Baldi Monumental clock that weighs almost one tonne and promises precise atomic time.

The lobby of Alila Solo in Indonesia.The lobby of Alila Solo in Indonesia.The new Alila Solo in Indonesia has a 50m floating batik sculpture of thin aluminium plates with canvas paintings depicting Javanese wayang characters in the lobby. “Hotel lobbies nowadays are more communal spaces which are inviting, defining in terms of design and function,” noted general manager Eleonore Petin.

For the Unlisted Collection, which counts Hotel 1929 and Wanderlust among its properties, a lobby is a place to showcase the collection of vintage chairs belonging to the company’s founder, Loh Lik Peng, as well as showcase art, products and designs of local partners.

“In the case of New Majestic Hotel, the emphasis is on history blended with modernity, international design with local inspiration,” explained Loh. “It’s contemporary yet very traditional in a lot of aspects. This translates into the rest of the guests’ experience during their stay and the service rendered.”

In the last two years, the New Majestic has worked with the contemporary art gallery Flaneur Gallery and Singapore Instagram (#SGIG) to revitalise the space.

Elsewhere in Singapore, the new Vagabond Hotel has a brass rhino reception desk inspired by French artist duo Les Lalanne. The Philippe Starck-designed South Beach, which soft-opened last year, showcases the French designer’s trademark postmodern whimsy (check out the ground-floor chairs that are part of a giant tree trunk) but also has a lobby fronted by a radical giant video wall displaying vibrant, animated graphics. Further in is the Global Village, seven desks that represent societies from around the world and the cosmopolitan people that will come to the hotel, including Europeans, Peranakans, Chinese, and North Americans.

Nearby, the Richard Meier-designed Patina, which will debut later this year at the historic Capitol Building, will have a lobby that is “very much like a living room in a private residence,” said General Manager Tracy Lowe, thanks to warm colours, plush furnishings, Travertine limestone and the absence of traditional concierge or reception desks.

So, the next time you enter a hotel lobby, take a moment to acknowledge the thought, planning, and work that went into it, and appreciate that it’s more than just a pause between the outside world and your room. ― TODAY