How to Plan for and Design Hospital-Ready Hotels

By Steven Upchurch and Randy Guillot

What should normally be a robust conference and upcoming travel season with summer around the corner, finds the hospitality industry now scrambling to save itself amid the pandemic and beyond. According to STR, the top 25 urban hospitality markets show sharper declines in occupancy rate, from 74.7% to 19.4%, as of mid-April.

It’s clear the hospitality industry must reinvent itself if it is to survive in the emerging future. Our clients are asking how they can best design new properties or retrofit existing ones to better lend themselves to safely support business and leisure travel or be part of the medical solution by accommodating medical personnel or non-acute patients in the event of another surge or crisis.

The pandemic has proven that beyond temporary hospitals, hotels can play an essential role as recovery facilities for healthcare workers to rest, shower, eat and do laundry before they go home or provide temporary lodging for caregivers unable to go home due to distance or to minimize their contact with others.

While the path forward is unique to each property, following are some common topics that we’re currently discussing to help them understand how to best adapt in the face of these unprecedented challenges.

1.    Site selection for hotel to alternate care conversion
When evaluating a hotel property for its ability to support healthcare needs, consider four key factors:

  • Agility. What is the speed to market? Does it have adequate capacity? Can elevators and corridors accommodate stretchers?
  • Infectious Disease Control. Can you easily reconfigure ventilation for negative pressure? (Negative pressure is an isolation technique used in hospitals and medical centers to prevent cross-contamination from room to room.) Are there adequate staff support areas?
  • Integrated Continuum of Care. Is the site close to and/or connected to a medical facility? Can you host caregivers?
  • Supporting Broader Care. Can you support oxygen tubing into the rooms? Is there a possibility of quickly installing a generator? How can existing amenities such as food facilities, conference rooms, laundry, loading dock, and parking areas support care?

2.    Prioritization of proximity to medical facilities
When evaluating an existing portfolio or scouting new hotel properties, look for those close to hospitals or medical campuses. Hotels within walking distance of healthcare sites or connected via public transportation offer convenience and accessibility for patients, medical personnel and visitors.

The Dallas Medical Research Park repositioning project proposed is one such example. The master plan calls for two hotels within a visionary master plan surrounded by significant medical institutions, including the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and other specialty-care hospitals.

One hotel is planned with direct connectivity to one of the hospitals via an existing pedestrian bridge. The hotel will provide comfortable accommodations for the public and for families of patients, visiting doctors and nurses.

3.    Consideration of alternative revenue options and risks in a crisis
In the event of a regional or national disaster or another pandemic, properties must first consider how long normal operations will potentially be impacted by the crisis. While evaluating alternative revenue sources (governmental, construction or medical systems), clients must also look at the spaces being utilized, hard and soft goods impact, insurance coverage, indemnification obligations and the possible disruption to or slowdown of ongoing maintenance and operations.

As hotel operators are surveying renovation needs for older facilities or looking ahead to new-construction, they are turning to architecture and design firms for guidance as to how they can best redirect funds to address on-site health, safety and wellness priorities.

4.    Convertible conference rooms and guestrooms for care settings
Explore how conference and meeting spaces can be designed to quickly shift to a staging area for medical equipment, support area for caregivers or a tent hospital site. How can guestrooms be safely converted to accommodate non-acute patients?

At a minimum, be mindful of these factors in room conversions:

  • Contact surfaces. Minimize contact surfaces like door locks, and install wireless nurse call and cameras.
  • Double occupancy. In the case of a surge in capacity, install cleanable partitions to subdivide rooms, while avoiding curtains.
  • Mold and disruption. Consider replacing carpet or using a simple covering to mitigate disruption.
  • Protection for the care team. Beyond hand sanitizers, add sinks in the corridor or janitors’ closets, if possible. Delineate areas for putting on and removing protective gear in spaces near the elevators.
  • Ventilation. Look for direct room exhaust potential to accommodate negative pressure and HEPA filtering.

5.    Stewardship with food and beverage
The hotel food facilities are a tremendous resource that can nimbly be converted to support emerging needs in times of crisis. While hotel bars and restaurants may need to be shut down and cordoned off, provisions can be made to keep the back-of-the-house spaces and kitchens functioning. These areas can provide room service, serve healthcare workers and potentially support patients. Other options include opening kitchens to offer daily meals for hotel employees and local communities in need.

6.    A greater emphasis not only on wellness, but on health
As people return to hotels, they will expect much more attention paid to cleaning and hygiene routines, which is also critical for hotel employees to feel safe and comfortable. Leveraging mobile devices to manage check-in, room service, payments and access to rooms will become commonplace. Voice and motion-activated control systems to eliminate touching elevator buttons, doors, faucets and other surfaces will become the new standard.

Industry leaders, developers and designers should also consider using countertop, flooring and wall surface materials that can be effectively cleaned and sterilized. It’s also important to revisit mechanical systems to better understand how to improve air quality and circulation. Our clients continue to explore mechanical systems that help reduce contaminants in the breathing space and work to break down contaminants and pollutants.

Many owners and operators are turning to international advisory councils, such as the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, for guidance on operating and sanitation procedures with a focus on preparation, response, and recovery—drawing from those developed for airports, emergency medical services, law enforcement and school campuses.

7.    An opportunity for necessary improvements
Today’s low occupancy rates make for an unprecedented moment to move on building upgrades with marginal operational impact. Many are considering completing renovations usually delayed due to high occupancy. Getting ahead of the return of customer traffic means they can implement new management, MEP, and wellness systems into their reopening planning.

The hospitality industry cannot remain stagnant. Beyond the mandate to ensure health and wellness, this is an opportunity to reimagine hotel spaces and design them to be responsive in times of need. Guests and the broader community will continue to demand safe, healthy and trustworthy spaces.

Steven Upchurch is a principal and co-managing director of Gensler Dallas, bringing more than 33 years of experience in management, marketing and real estate development to the firm’s entertainment and hospitality practice. Randy Guillot is a principal and global health and wellness leader at Gensler’s Chicago office, having dedicated more than three decades to designing spaces that enhance access to healthy, dignified, optimistic and engaging environments for all.

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