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Home Stay or Hotel Room? Airbnb's Impact on Hotel Design

By David Ashen Principal and Founder, dash design

This article was published originally on Hotel Executive on August 19, 2018

One of my clients who owns about 80 hotels prefers to stay in an Airbnb when he's in New York City.

With leanings like that, it's no wonder that big hotel chains are starting to sweat. What is it about Airbnbs-those randomly available, short-term rented rooms, cottages, apartments or homes-that has even a successful hotelier, never mind the average business or luxury traveler, forgoing overnights in a full-service hotel for a paid room in a stranger's home or a space in a multi-unit residence absent of an onsite owner?

Blame the shift in many of today's business and recreation travelers' preferences-especially those of the influential millennial crowd-for intimate lodgings that reflect and even embrace the local vibe, which is just what so many Airbnb properties do. No longer satisfied with standard, neutral overnight rooms, a reported 2 million people around the world stay in an Airbnb-hosted rental on a given night. Of Airbnb's overnighters, 88 percent consist of groups of two to four people, while 7 percent are of solo guests. Moreover, Airbnb guests stayed longer in their rental than the average hotel guest did in his room/suite, with roughly half of Airbnb room-nights coming from trips of seven days or longer. 

Granted, that falls considerably short of the hotel industry's demand, which in October 2017 surpassed the 5.8 million U.S. hotel rooms already in service or under construction according to Statistica: The Statistics Portal. Then again, year-over revenue generated by Airbnb hosts almost doubled in 2016, making the interest in them not just a noticeable trend, but also one that has hoteliers on alert. Smart ones aren't just concerned. They're also taking steps to compete with the properties through small and sweeping changes to their brands' design and amenities. 

Lounge at Ground Level

Lounge at Ground Level

For one, the era of grand public spaces is gone. As modern hotel designs move their attention from expansive, impersonal spaces to the micro-scale, today's focus on meeting areas centers on more informal spaces that heighten familiarity, closeness and conversation. While there are some hotels that continue to offer large conference facilities for their clientele that need them, for the most part, as guests turn away from large, culturally devoid rooms dressed in neutral furnishings, the convention of the sterile hotel meeting room is over.

Consider the two Arlo Hotels in New York City, which have moved away from traditional meeting rooms to less typical environments. There, the public spaces are much more residential and private club-like than what's been available, conventionally. For instance, there are second-level public spaces that are divided into living room- and library-like areas which are rented as meeting spaces to corporate clients. There are no meeting rooms in the traditional ways we have come to know them; that is, big boxes devoid of personality, culture and warmth. Instead, there are a number of furnished spaces to choose from where one can have a private or not-so-private meeting.

Another example is the Freepoint, in Cambridge, MA and a dash design project. We reconfigured what was a traditional three-star, limited service property, which had a very small lobby, a rarely used breakfast room, and a meeting area into a much more dynamic public space. The goal was to create a lounge that was more residential, club-like in atmosphere for a millennial audience. A series of closed spaces was opened up to provide areas that can be transformed from one use to another. At the Freepoint, the breakfast area can convert to a lounge, where guests can hold informal meetings or play a game of pool. A 'lost' interior space was converted into a secret outdoor garden.

Brands like Marriott are launching new conference room programs that break down the conventional, expansive model into smaller, more intimate spaces, a likely response to the increasing popularity and demand for cozier accommodations. As hoteliers rethink their flexibility in terms of how the properties' rooms expand and contract, a swing from big and empty meeting rooms to conference areas with bars, lounges and breakout spaces is taking hold. Not only does that kind of agility accommodate the trending desire for informal meeting area, but it also gives brands a way to maximize their communal areas, creating a two-fold benefit for hotels and their guests.   

Lounge & Bar at Ground Level

Lounge & Bar at Ground Level

Don't be surprised to see more changes in larger hotels' typical floorplans in the future, including the divide of large public spaces into more communal ones for people to share experiences in a more personal way. As brands work to create more options for guests to meet and socialize, in the offing are gathering rooms on guest floors, complete with living and kitchen areas where blocks of friends can mingle. In addition, ganging rooms in unusual ways will allow friends to grab a group of rooms at the end of a hall and gang them together to create a more apartment-like experience. It's all about providing opportunities for the guest to connect with others in real, personal ways. 

A short while ago I stayed in a boutique hotel in West Hollywood called The Charlie that consisted of 10 bungalows. Quaint in design and well-equipped, the accommodations included complimentary maid services, kitchens, washers and dryers, living rooms and other amenities. Beyond that, the bungalows were conveniently located within walking-distance to restaurants and shops. That kind of change from the big-box model to smaller, more intimate hotel complexes and neighborhoods is on the rise because it answers the guest's desire for accommodations that are local, intimate and residential. That's a hard sensibility to achieve in a big box environment. Consider the growing popularity of hotels like Moxy, where local food is available and there's an emphasis on public spaces, providing guests with a setting akin to a big playroom. There's also Arlo in New York City, which has forgone big meeting spaces for smaller, library areas with food brought in. Or guests can meet at the property's bar.

The trend for places that are local, personal and feel like home is here. Consider the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, where meeting rooms don't look like conventional meeting rooms, with their conference-room style table-and-chair set up. Instead, in addition to a first-floor lobby that transforms into a great bar area, the hotel's gathering areas also include the 1 Rooftop, an outdoor area with an expansive view of Manhattan's skyline; an on-the-water patio with pool; two upper-floor bars plus a hospitality suite with those great views; a screening room and a ballroom for larger events. Among the hotel's mealtime and snack options is a daily market stand stocked with fresh fruit, nuts and other provisions.

With hotels adapting to the popularity of Airbnbs and changing perceptions of what makes overnight accommodations great, hosts of Airbnbs would do well to reflect on the effect those adaptions are having on their properties. For instance, in Kingston, New York, the new owner of five buildings in the city's downtown plans to transform each one into a unique, six-room hotel, all under the same brand. Unlike typical Airbnb stays, the big plus with accommodations like these offer full-service amenities, like meals and laundry facilities, as well as a local vibe. They bridge the divide between service and intimacy.

There's also a movement in some communities to push against Airbnbs, and steps are being taken toward stricter regulations around them, including in New York City, which recently imposed rulings that prohibit stand-alone Airbnbs. The small village of Rhinebeck, New York, where I live, is rumored to be considering passing a restriction on the number of days a year a homeowner can rent his or her house as an Airbnb. As a resident of this village, which is a tourist destination, I have experienced first-hand the problems associated with multiple cars parked on my street and noisy visitors invading my typically peaceful evenings. Apparently, other residents have noticed the disruptions, too, and are getting fed up with the annoyances. Now they're demanding that limits on Airbnb stays be imposed. And in Los Angeles, approval is pending on an ordinance to legalize short-term rentals in the city through Airbnb and other rental sites, including restrictions on the number of days a year a home can be rented, rentals that aren't the host's primary residence and other limitations, as reported by Business Insider.

It's not a stretch to see a trend in this reaction to Airbnbs in other places, too, in the near future. Even so, local resistance to transitory renters, potentially could lead to innovative solutions on the part of Airbnbs that ease residents' concerns about short-term renters' stays in town while continuing to provide alternative overnight accommodations. For instance, two ways that Airbnb is fostering neighborhood relationships and working with government regulators are through its Community Compact and Tool Chest, including establishing partnerships, promoting cities, responsible tax liability,  transparent accountability and more. 

More intimacy, local color, and cultural awareness. As the hospitality industry adjusts to the modern traveler's desire for heightened experiences, traditional hotel designs and amenities that are big on expansive spaces and nondescript stylings are giving way to brands with a scaled-back ambience and neighborhood vibe. Airbnbs, take note.  

The Secret Garden at Ground Level

The Secret Garden at Ground Level