Meet you in the lobby

Meet you in the lobby

The very American phrase, “You have arrived,” when applied to your life rather than your location, has connotations of satisfaction and success, intimating in essence that your American Dream has come true. Even a physical arrival at a destination implies some sense of achievement, so to succeed it must live up to, if not exceed, expectations.

Our arrival at home is ensconced in the familiar; the more personal attributes, the more it feels like home. Symbolically, it is the hearth that is the center, and it is the soft, worn living room chair that receives our body. Can arrival at any other place be as satisfying? Can a hotel lobby be a great place, like a great room of a house, or a great space of the public realm?

Clearly the comparison of hotel to home and lobby to living room is a relationship between essentially dissimilar realms. But the qualitative relationship between the two is relevant because the better a hotel compares to one’s own home, the more likely those guest will return and send others. And repeat visitors may associate that hotel with aspects of home, as this “home away from home” becomes more and more familiar.

Hotel lobbies of a century ago were noble places, like the ballrooms of palaces. The grandness was elevating and essential to the hotel experience. The inns of olde had impressive but cozy living room style lobbies, appropriately arranged around a huge fireplace. The carefully provided sense of arrival imparted a sense of success, of being in a better place than where you came from.

Hotel lobbies today are rarely conceived this way. As hotels adapted to serve the middle class, the grand lobby became a budget issue, and the lobby became more process than product, a functional event devoted to getting a guest to his room as quickly as possible.

Hotel check-in can be like waiting on line at the bank, even when efficiently managed. But when the Sunday morning check out onslaught occurs, even the optimal system backs up, and a good first impression upon arrival may be undercut by the parting memory of a long wait in a luggage-filled lobby.

Brands have responded to the need to make a inviting lobby, in particular by accommodating today’s digital lifestyle. Previously, an efficient but lackluster lobby all too successfully dispatched guests to their rooms, leaving a barren space, only to occasionally overflow like a washing machine at peak moments. Now, with comfy couches, cues of home, work counters with electric outlets, and WiFi everywhere, the lobby has become a populated place with a caf? ambiance.

Today’s lobbies seem liberated from strict functionality, thanks in part to the outr? style of the boutiques. One seminal design was Philippe Starck’s Royalton Hotel in New York City. Suddenly here was a lobby that people flocked to, both hotel guests and non-guests. The long red carpet (actually blue) functioned like a fashion runway, the hidden vodka bar was deliciously exclusive and the transgressive bathrooms were hot conversation fare; the lobby had become pure theater. Here was a worthy successor to the grand hotel, a public space that ennobled its occupants, making them feel even bigger and more important than in their home castle.

Ironically, this modern innovation succeeded despite approaching the lobby in an opposite way from that other great lobby conception of modern times, the atrium. Conceived by John Portman and providing the signature Hyatt image, the atrium lobby provided maximum wow factor, but at a major cost premium, and with its vast scale sometimes overwhelming rather than supporting the guest experience.

Just as the hallmark atriums spread around the globe one generation earlier, a flood of boutiques proliferated during the recent boom years, each cranking the design thermostat up a little bit higher. Starck’s exploration of the boutique hotel, moving from one grand conception to another, illustrated the global stylistic move from chic to outrageous to comfortable, coming full circle, and brown started to replace black and white. As the number of unique lobbies proliferated, so uniqueness was hard to distinguish from sameness, and as the years rolled by, turning hot into old hat, the mantle passed from boutique to brand. 

As new brands rolled out, and as established brands received makeovers to meet new expectations, the functional lobby was superseded by the grand room. Neither atrium, nor the theatrical “see and be seen” boutique lobby, the new brand lobby is an evolved space, more akin to a lodge of past years, with the comforts of a living room expanded in scale and purpose, and  the cafe concept eventually was literally reinforced by the lobby barista.

Assuming that serving our guests means appealing to their sensibilities as well as providing toothpaste and pillows, the perfect lobby design has to choose between two metaphors, home and castle; living room on the former hand and throne room on the latter. The image of home, heavily prevalent in bed-and-breakfasts and inns, for obvious reasons of scale and former use, gives immediate and powerful response to our craving for the familiar, our home away from home. The latter is a move into the world of entertainment, the effort to provide some place better than home. If the first is a version of a man’s home is his castle, the second might be termed a place where a man’s castle is his home.

The laptop and latte lobby hews heavily in the direction of home, but references the castle aspirations. Eschewing the millions needed for atriums or designer showcases, the new brand lobby is more about people than pizzazz, and there is much to recommend it. Recognizing the fundamental shift in both private experience and public persona from face-to-face to Facebook, the user friendly environment allows the traveler a place outside of his room to enjoy the comforts of home without having to book a suite.

This is the paradoxical benefit of the good lobby; it is appreciated in reverse proportion to the enjoyment of the room, the lobby seeming greater as the room is less, and the lobby being less important as the room improves. This inverse relationship between room and lobby is now being capitalized on by the new breed of designer budget hotels, with minute rooms and expansive public space, such as Mama Shelter in Paris (Starck, again!) and CitizenM in Amsterdam.

Conversely, among the latest of opulent hotels, the lobby experience is vitiated, such as at the new Peace Hotel in Shanghai, whose impeccably restored grand lobby doesn’t have a single stick of furniture, or the Aman resorts, whose private villas dispense with the lobby concept nearly altogether. This moves us from the home realm to the gated community concept, this private elite enclave, already the new home norm, becoming the new hotel norm as well. 


In this context, “you have arrived” delivers both meanings.Opening the front door and stepping inside means both the end of a physical journey and the dream-like ending of a life goal. Offering both of these to our guest, literally and symbolically, the lobby is a repository of images of both home and castle. That some more modest venues offer a version of the castle, compensating for a lesser version of home upstairs, and that some more opulent operations nearly dispense with lobby altogether to heighten the sense of home, is perhaps a fitting arrival for today’s traveler, who has departed cyberspace and arrived at a real destination, where impact must measure up to virtual experience.