How COVID-19 Will Impact the Future of Hotels and Resorts’ Design and Functionality

By Rob Hutcheson

Guests do not just stay at hotels and resorts—they become part of them. The rhythms, systems, structures and spreads of each unique hospitality experience provide the backdrop for the services and amenities that people travel to enjoy. There was a time when all that guests needed to do to embrace a hotel or resort experience was to stride right in. My, how times have changed.

In the relative blink of an eye it took COVID-19 to sweep the planet, the hospitality industry was driven into lockdown. Now, with economies reopening across the country and the world, properties are beginning to book rooms again while taking necessary steps to protect the health and well-being of guests and employees alike.

While rigorous new cleanliness protocols are the first line of defense (get used to hand-sanitizer stations in lobbies and stickers testifying to the hygiene of everything from toilet seats to telephones), there is much more that new and existing properties will do to respond to the lingering risks of the coronavirus. Landscape architecture will be an enormous part of it.

Everyone can appreciate the splendor of a guestroom, yet hotel and resort guests spend most of their time elsewhere: from running to meetings to relaxing at the spa, sipping coffee with clients to lounging with the kids by the pool, letting the boss win (again) on the golf course to taking nature walks on the grounds. Through planning and implementation, landscape architecture can be employed to program, design and develop features and amenities that support the guest experience.

Among transformations sure to result from the pandemic are rethinking of arrival experiences and reconfigurations of space. Rather than letting guests waltz into the lobby and make their way to check-in, for instance, properties will likely adopt new traffic circulation patterns and rearrange interior and exterior furnishings to provide room for social distance straight from the entrance, en route to the elevators, inside restaurants and out on patios.

Touchless access could become a new norm to limit contact with public surfaces, such as granting access to the pool area through a gate that unlocks and opens via a wave of a key card or mobile key technology.

As anyone who has paid attention to safety recommendations trumpeted for COVID-19 knows, personal hygiene—including frequent handwashing—is key to containing the spread. I took a cruise in January before the lockdown on a fairly new cruise ship.  Among things that impressed me was the level of detail to ensure proper cleanliness and maintaining proper sanitation practices. The ship had touchless washing stations at every restaurant, in which everyone was required to pass through prior to entering the dining area. There were no complaints as the crew played it up as entertainment—“Time to washy-washy!” Try corralling hotel guests into restrooms before letting them access dining or meeting space and they might fuss, but tastefully implemented cleanliness procedures through thoughtful design and technology I could see becoming routine.

Of the many things to result from COVID-19 is recognition of the importance of the great outdoors in daily life. As a landscape architect, I believe strongly that healthy living and connections to the outdoors are necessary for personal well-being—particularly during times like these. Hotels and resorts can contribute by fashioning on-site environments that are authentic and experiential for guests.

I think back to work my firm did for high-end resorts prior to the pandemic. For instance, we designed the grounds of a luxury property tied to a major theme park, laying out 35 acres with amenities such as a five-acre waterpark and an adults-only pool. While there were many more features to go around, our focus was on maximizing the space so guests could access isolated pockets across the property to enjoy the open air as well as have fun without crowds. The property had much more open space per guestroom than that of a typical resort, which will serve them well for a quality post-COVID-19 design to help ensure proper distancing between guests at the amenity areas.

Many of the four- and five-star resorts that EDSA has designed over the years, such as the Four Seasons in Nevis, Lesser Antilles, break up pool amenity deck areas with landscape breaks along the pool edge to create a sense of privacy. Practices like these—along with increasing the ratio of exterior amenity space per guestroom—will provide guests with proper social distancing from other guests and increase a sense of safety. I could see many three-star resorts looking at the same type of methodology in the near future.

My personal and professional hope is that new and existing hotel and resort properties will consider expanding outdoor space by recapturing excessive parking facilities. Ride-share services to transport guests are much better for the environment and will give parking lots a much needed “diet” to make room for expanded pool amenity areas and experiences such as gardens, trails and picnic areas.

Among the prime enticements of hotel and resort properties—particularly those marketed as “all-inclusive”—is that they offer everything for guests to remain on site and have the time of their lives. The higher the occupancy, the better the bottom line. Yet with concerns over the coronavirus sure to linger, I think a real discussion will be needed within the industry on how to reduce occupancy to provide more space while remaining profitable.

Meanwhile, all-inclusive resorts may be inclined to rethink various aspects of their layout and services to provide guests with more personal space while maintaining the same appeal. For instance, the addition of balconies or terraces to rooms could provide guests with great views and a feeling of connectivity even as they keep to themselves. Programming of amenity time could be instituted with designated hours assigned to lessen crowding at popular features such as the pool or the tennis facility.

In the end, people’s habits are going to inform the hospitality industry as to what changes and enhancements will be required. New hotels and resorts will be able to position themselves for the current and post-pandemic world from the initial planning process, while established properties will have to retrofit.

Or, maybe they won’t. One only needs to look at widely disseminated images of the crowded pool party over Memorial Day weekend to recognize that people aren’t necessarily inclined to adhere to recommendations for their health and safety. My favorite shot from the scene was of shirtless revelers crowded at tables beneath a big sign on a balcony: “PLEASE PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING — 6 FT APART.”

Indeed, when I visited public areas during the pandemic lockdown, I saw a lot of people in masks being cautious, but others that had no concern. It got me thinking back to when public smoking and non-smoking sections first appeared and wondering if things will evolve to accommodate those people that don’t want to take a risk and those that don’t mind. With hotels, resorts and so much else now beginning to reopen, time will soon tell.

Rob Hutcheson is an associate principal at EDSA who designs transformational environments that invite exploration and interaction of people and place. Founded in 1960, EDSA is a planning, landscape architecture and urban design firm based in Fort Lauderdale, FL, with offices in Orlando, Baltimore, New York and Shanghai.

This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.