In many West African capitals, the hotels are the social centres and business hubs of the city. Look, for example, at the Hilton in Abuja, the Mövenpick in Accra, the Pullmans in Abidjan and Dakar. The lobbies are never idle, packed with informal business meetings, social encounters and, of course, guests of the hotel “chilling” together. Or alone.
Looking back in history in Europe and the USA, the origin of a hotel was as a social centre. Coffee (or more often chocolate) shops and inns became hostelries with beds in shared rooms, hostelries became hotels with ensuite rooms and suites. And the trend from social hub to a bed factory meant that the lobby, which was originally the same space as the bar and restaurant (“tavern”), became a place merely to process people as fast as possible and get them into their rooms. Job done. Lobbies became lifeless, sometimes filled with some strange art pieces (ever wondered whether that is a sculpture or a chair you can sit on?!), but not very, well, social.
The emphasis was on the room experience, the technological wizardry, the rain showers, the amazing bed, yours to buy for $1,500.
So, having “done” the rooms, the hotel chains are returning their attention to the lobby space. All that granite and marble, doing nothing for much of the day.
Hands-up who really wants to have to check in to a hotel? Stand at the barrier, sorry, front desk, in front of a staff member who considers the computer screen to be the main attraction, not you? OK, if you’re a first time visitor, you might need to go through this often-unsatisfactory experience which, in my experience, is most often occupied by the staff sorting out the mistakes that they have made on the reservation (or on check-out that they have made on the bill!). But we check in for a flight on-line, get our boarding pass and seat number on our mobile phone, and go direct to the gate. The technology is there for the airline industry, let’s see it used more in the hotel industry, and get rid of that barrier, sorry, front desk. Those without a smart phone can, well, have a little desk in the corner to wait at.
So what to do with this lobby space? Well, the intention is to make them into those hubs that I mentioned earlier, where there is constant activity and, most important for the owner, constant purchase of food, drink and other services. Sheraton have their Link@Sheraton facility, in Lagos it is right in the middle of the lobby, with computers and tables for people to meet and chat, enjoying free internet if you are staying at the hotel, but served coffee, drinks and snacks. Social activity does tend to be technologically-enabled, so people sit with their tablets, laptops and mobile phones multi-tasking – surfing, e-mailing, talking, eating, drinking, people-watching or just waiting.
Starwood’s aloft brand goes a step further, with pool tables, big-screen TVs and other leisure activities right there in the lobby. Don’t stay in your room, come down and be part of the activity, or sit and watch it in the comfort of the sidelines. Sometimes the bar is the central facility, in some cultures that is not felt to be appropriate, so it is to one side.
This activity needs to be monitored, and the spending encouraged(!). In the budget sector, from the front desk, which doubles as the bar. In the “hip” sector, the staff will circulate, perhaps showing off their tattoos and hairstyles, whilst in the upscale and deluxe sectors, the staff will be more “refined” (but please, not white gloves and tails, soooo pretentious!) – matched in each case to the customers’ expectations and aspirations.
The ambience of the lobby can be changed through the use of lighting and music. Bright lighting during the day, with soft background, for business meetings, turn down the lights and ramp up the music for the evening happenings.
An interesting facility in some hotels is the “grab-and-go” self -service food store. For apartment hotels such as Suite Novotel, which have microwaves in the rooms, the store will have heat-and-eat dishes. A microwave there in the store will enable a guest to heat and eat in the lobby. Chilled cabinets contain drinks, sandwiches and salads. Room service is another experience which can be entirely unsatisfactory, both for the guest and for the hotel (“well, how much longer will I have to wait? And you’re going to forget the ketchup again, aren’t you?”). So remove the service, and move it out of the room, to the lobby.
It’s not for everyone, and in somewhat conservative West Africa, we’re going to see these changes coming only quite slowly. Some guests want the solidity of the front desk, it’s what they are accustomed to, and don’t know what to do if it is not there. Make a guest, or potential guest, uncomfortable, and you’ve failed big time in my book.
Some guests are not in a hotel to socialise, they are there to get privacy, hide in their rooms, eat there, and perhaps hold business meetings and socialise there.
Hence the proliferation of brands from the international chains, so that they can please everyone, all of the time.
W Hospitality Group, Lagos