New focus on connection with outdoors

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us took our relationship and connection to our natural surroundings for granted. For example, living in a suburban neighborhood typically involved moving between your front door and your car door. After the initial shock of COVID, my husband and I began a routine of daily walks through our neighborhood, as did our neighbors. For the first time in 30 years, our sidewalks and streets were full of pedestrians.

The onset of COVID forced our world to slow down and completely changed how we viewed the outdoors. At first, walking through the neighborhood replaced going to the gym, provided relief from being stuck indoors and created an opportunity to connect with others. Out of necessity, the world continued to adapt to this new reality with creative alternatives to socializing outdoors. We witnessed the comeback of the drive-in movie theatre, the rediscovery of the bonfire, dining al fresco, drive-thru birthday parties, gathering on urban rooftops, and of course, the Italians uniting daily in song from their balconies.

This innate need to socialize continued into the winter months, inspiring us to reinvent our garages, add string lighting to our backyards, sit under propane heat lamps, and redefine BYOB (into “bring your own blanket”). Even during this most challenging of times, humanity found ways to adapt to whatever condition the location presented. Because of this, we have created memories that will be unique to this unprecedented time in history.

It ultimately took a pandemic to compel humankind to leave the comforts and protection of a climate-controlled environment. Out of necessity came the realization that a connection with the outdoors has a positive effect on our psyche.

This new era has opened our eyes to the potential of outdoor experiences that were, up until now, inconsequential. Uncontrollable elements like weather, intrusions by wildlife, sounds of traffic and sirens, and the dynamics of people passing by defined the location we were engaging with. Now we have learned to embrace the surprise elements that come with a less controlled environment and have seen how innovative new technologies can enhance and make our outdoor experiences more comfortable and safe. By simply venturing outside, we immersed ourselves into our new world and have enjoyed and benefited from the experiences that only the outdoors can offer.

Expanding the parameters of hospitality design

The future hospitality guest will bring this new appreciation for the outdoors to the locations they visit. In turn, these shifting guest expectations will provoke hospitality designers to push the parameters of the guest experience to extend to the outdoors. It is up to the designer to produce varied opportunities to draw in and celebrate the sounds, smells, and sights that each unique locale offers.

The potential of outdoor experiences is no longer limited to resort locations or temperate climates. Operators and designers will need to rethink how they prioritize the programming and development of potential outdoor offerings. The ability to transition between indoor and outdoor spaces more fluidly will give the guest an expanded sense of space and the opportunity to broaden the range of experiences within a particular location.

This layered approach can significantly enhance the connection that each guest makes to a property that is limited within the confines of the building envelope. Designers should embrace the challenges that come with this new opportunity of extending outward to the greater outdoors.

The incorporation of amphitheaters and learning stairs in hotel properties is one trend that is on the rise. These leveled steps can also provide another level of distance between users that is now desired. In outdoor conditions where space is more readily available, varying the depth of these steps can provide opportunities for experiences other than just sitting.

Platforms can be enlarged to accommodate a small group, individual dining platforms, an exercise space, or even sunbathing. In colder climates, these slabs could be oriented to absorb the sun and provide thermal heat throughout the day for those who dare to be outside. Technology has begun to transform the way we use outdoor spaces and the market will continue to respond to the demand and evolve with it. Perhaps outdoor seating will be designed to offer similar technology to heat or cool as the seating in our cars does. Rather than providing heating elements that hover above us, heating elements from below integrated into an outdoor flooring system would take advantage of the heat rising as it moves past the user.

Operators will benefit from a broader range of options in terms of programming space by extending their busy season and adapting to various climate conditions. Typically, destinations have focused on their surrounding natural assets to create dynamic and hospitable guest experiences that highlight a sense of place. Why must the limitations of the location constrain these experiences? The sunset behind a mountain range or a cityscape tells a uniquely different story, as do the spectacles of a starry sky or the dazzling lights on Broadway. The common thread is that these outdoor experiences fulfill the innate human desire to connect with their present condition.

Reimagining outdoor spaces

Once considered as unthinkable spaces for pedestrians, highway and bridge overpasses have become destination hot spots. They can act as a roof to provide shelter and define the space below, protecting an entertainment venue, outdoor art display, or market. The successful reimagining of these previously undesired and underutilized outdoor spaces should inspire designers and reinforce the potential for almost any outdoor condition.

The juxtaposition of typically undesirable characteristics and an unassociated pleasing activity can create an element of surprise and wonderment for the visitor. Acoustics can be considered an obstacle for outdoor functions at a hotel airport. But at the TWA Hotel, where the sights, sounds and vibrations of the airplane overhead are embraced and viewed while floating in a rooftop pool, the experience becomes exhilarating and memorable. Providing an unexpected rooftop ski slope in a location where cold is plentiful but changes in elevations are not likewise sparks excitement.

In response to the trials of the past year, the pace of the hospitality industry has slowed. There’s a general sense that we all have a lot of catching up to do. Family and friends are ready to be fully immersed in new locations and be unburdened by the “sameness” experienced daily this past year. It’s up to the hospitality industry to react to this desire and support the new appreciation of outdoor experiences that guests bring to the table.

This global phenomenon will silence the unnecessary “design noise” that distracts from authentic moments and increase focus on creating memories drawn from the qualities of the location. Ultimately, this deepened appreciation of the outdoors will drive the way operators and designers respond to the needs of the post-pandemic guest in the long term.

Contributed by Christine Faverio, senior associate/senior project designer, JCJ Architecture, New York City