2013 Hospitality Market - May 2013

By Jessica Chevalier


The recession may be over, but the hospitality market has taken lessons learned in the downturn and incorporated them into its long-term approach. Today’s market isn’t as much about glitz as it is about providing the traveler with a respite that feels comfortable and caters to the conveniences of modern life. This change of thought is evidenced in material selection and design. 

The significant shift from soft surface to hard surface flooring continues in hospitality. This is happening throughout the market. Motel 6—a property recently acquired by Blackstone Real Estate Investment, which owns many hospitality brands including the Hilton Hotels Corporation, La Quinta Inns & Suites and Extended Stay America—is an economy market brand with 1,100 locations. After the acquisition, Blackstone decided to dress up Motel 6’s image, transitioning from carpet and laminate to LVT in guest rooms. With its ever-improving aesthetics, ease of installation and performance record, even in the presence of moisture, LVT is penetrating the low-end and mid-range hospitality market rapidly. Looks-wise, this mimics the trend toward hardwood and hardwood look ceramic tile at the higher end of the hospitality market. 

According to Jan Freitag, senior vice president of STR Global, which tracks supply and demand data for the hotel industry, “life is good” in the hospitality market. 

A continued increase in the number of rooms sold to guests outpaces the increases in new rooms, so the trend line is favoring the demand side of the equation. In 2012, 1.1 billion room nights were sold; that is more than ever before. Room rates increased around 4.5% last year, and the same growth is expected for 2013 and 2014. 

There is new construction in the works. But the slow uptick of jobs in the pipeline means that these new rooms won’t impact the market until 2014 or 2015, so, for now and for as long as demand outpaces supply, the hotels have pricing power. 

There are currently two factors at work contributing to the large number of renovations in the hospitality market and, therefore, high demand for flooring. 

During the recession, the average cycle of replacement for flooring materials was extended by two or three years. These replacement cycles were drawn out as many hotel brands waived their policies regarding capital improvements, which require facilities to make certain updates on a schedule. Today, some of those waivers are being reversed, so the facilities are being required to make improvements again. It is estimated that 800,000 of the country’s five million rooms are at a must-change point currently, and 2013 and 2014 should bring the flooring industry a significant bump due to pent-up demand. 

At the same time, the hospitality market is hoping to maintain those extended lifecycles with less trendy products that look good longer. For soft surface flooring, that means five to seven years for guest room carpet, and seven to ten years for public space flooring, about the same as hard surface flooring.

Additionally, many chains used the slowdown as an opportunity to reconceptualize their brands, so, today branded facilities have been delivered new property improvement plans and are in the process of implementing these. Flooring can be an integral part of the image that a brand conveys to a guest. For example, working with Gettys, a global firm that specializes in hospitality design, Homewood Suites, an upper scale extended-stay chain, did a brand improvement and determined that the arrival experience should include hard surface material rather than broadloom, as it had previously. This significant style change is being rolled out to all locations, which are required to implement the change. 

According to the schedule laid out by Freitag, once these renovations die down, the industry should start to see work in new facilities. 

Though many things have changed because of the recession, Meg Prendergast, principal at Gettys’ Chicago office, reminds us that some of the most important concepts in hospitality design have not. “While we love to be hospitable and welcoming in the hospitality industry, it is a return on investment based business,” Prendergast says. “It always has been and will continue to be so in these new economy days.” That investment plays an important role in where they position their design focus, targeting budget-friendly selections that will reinforce the image a location is trying to convey.

As a firm, Gettys works with three-star rated and higher hotels; however, Prendergast’s focus is on 4.5 star-plus facilities. She is based in Chicago and has been working at Gettys for over 17 years.

High-end hotels used to cater to the rich and famous, grooming an elite image that made them seem out of reach for those outside of the top tax brackets. That is no longer the fashion. Opulence has been replaced by approachability, now that the recession has reminded us all that a dollar spends the same, whether it comes from a platinum money clip or a wallet with a Velcro closure. 

It’s hard to say which is the chicken and which is the egg, but today’s on-line aggregators like Travelocity, Orbitz, Groupon and all the others are making high-end accommodations more readily available to the masses. The millionaire who paid full price for a night in room 203 may be the neighbor to a middle-class couple who scored room 205 through a 50% off deal on Living Social. With this more varied clientele has come a more relaxed feel. Whether customers pay $39.99 or $399.99, hotels want them to feel welcome and comfortable, hoping to build customer loyalty. 

According to Freitag, these changes start in the lobby, which is now more of a multipurpose area that is used as meeting space, workspace and social space rather than a formal entry and sitting parlor. When designing these areas, A&D needs to provide a variety of seating options: spaces for individual work, small tables for small meetings, larger tables to accommodate bigger groups. These spaces also need an abundance of outlets for travelers to use to charge their electronic devices. In these cases, flooring can be used to designate specific zones and create a feeling of intimacy in these public spaces. An area rug, for instance, under a table grouping feels like it is setting that small area apart from the rest, making it feel more like a meeting space. 

Just as the lobby must accommodate technology, so must the guest room. Says Herring, “A hotel has to be an office and a home. Providing technology is key.” 

According to Prendergast, design has to consider technology today and technology down the road. Consider how different things were five years ago, when designers had to accommodate hardwired devices that required clunky connection ports on desks. Today, thanks to wireless technology, guests can work anywhere. In five years, we can only imagine that technology will make us more mobile—and anticipating how that will impact a facility is an important part of the designer’s job. 

The changes brought about by mobile technology don’t only impact how guests work, but they also alter how hotels function. No longer does staff have to stand behind a counter in the lobby, pecking at their keyboards to find information or check in guests. Thanks to iPads and other mobile devices, hospitality workers can move out from behind the counter, creating more gracious interaction, as Prendergast describes it. This, of course, creates the opportunity for lobby design to be wholly different from what it has been, when the check-in desk was the hub of the space. 

There is another significant change in how brands and designers approach hospitality design. For many years, hospitality brands wanted their look to be consistent from property to property. In essence, the most important job of design was to reinforce the brand image so that, if you dropped a visitor in any location across the country, they would know which franchise they were in because of the finishes and décor. 

Today, that has changed dramatically. Brands want their facilities to reflect the areas in which they are situated, so that they feel more individual and less corporate, which is reflective of the larger local movement in American culture today.

Says Gale Nall, a project FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment) designer with Wilson Associates in Dallas, the new luxury accommodations are catering to a younger audience, and the experience is all about customer service. This new approach is, of course, communicated through design, and that design must start with the first step in the lobby and continue through every corridor and guest room. Nall often chooses hardwood for guest rooms and accents it with an area rug. This creates an inviting residential feel. In fact, today some hotels are making hardwood a part of their standard package for guest rooms for this reason. Nall’s experience in hospitality design extends beyond U.S. borders. She spent 12 years working in the luxury hospitality markets in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Establishing a warm, comfortable “home away from home” is key, says Jamie Herring, an interior designer with JPC Architects in Bellevue, Washington. She balances that approach with creating a space that offers a bit of escape. Hospitality patrons should feel “at home” but not necessarily that they are in their homes. 

Key to this is the idea of building the right space for the right audience. Says Prendergast, “Are we building a church for Easter Sunday, or are we building something that is appropriate? A location has to appeal to a specific demographic; that’s part of the fun of the design challenge. You can’t just design a palace and place it anywhere. You have to understand the context.”

Now that travel sites such as Travelocity and Orbitz are popular, Prendergast uses them as a tool in the design process. She does pre-design research on the brand and the location to see what users have to say about the current styling and branding. They also use the sites to self-critique recent installations. “It comes down to whether we are matching our design to the service model provided,” Prendergast says. “When we mesh well, that’s when we get good reviews.”

In designing for the hospitality market, the A&D community is prioritizing materials that offer durability. Hospitality environments endure a good deal of abuse under high heeled shoes, wheeled luggage and the set-up and take-down of chairs and tables used for special events like weddings and conferences. 

In fact, durability is the starting point for Herring. Materials that Herring is using frequently these days include carpet tile, cork, bamboo and concrete. “We are looking for innovative ways to provide durable and sustainable materials that cohesively tie into the design statement,” she says. “We are smarter now and consider the impact ten years down the road. In the past, we wasted lots of materials on flashy looks. Now we take a more simplistic approach, asking what this material says about the client and who they are.”

Herring, who has worked in many sectors on both coasts and serves as the graphics chair for the IIDA North Pacific Chapter, won a Vision Design Award for the renovation of the Chinese Room at The Smith Tower, an office building in Seattle. The Chinese Room is a historic hospitality space, originally furnished by the last Empress of China as a gift to the building’s owner, but over the years it had fallen into a slump with old broadloom and a worn, antiquated feel. The centerpiece of the space was and is the Wishing Chair, which carries the promise of marriage within a year for any single woman who sits in it.

Herring reports that, “Flooring played a significant role in achieving the design goals of the Chinese Room restoration. We chose a flooring to bring the room back to its rich history and create a timeless look.” To create this timeless look, it is interesting that Herring chose modern materials: Shaw’s Bloom carpet tile as well as the company’s City Maple engineered hardwood (a 5” handscraped look) in graphite. For a room that represents important memories and meaning—throughout Smith Tower are framed pictures and emails from people for whom the Wishing Chair has “worked,” and the room is often used for marriage proposals—the flooring creates a romantic and sophisticated feel while also standing up to the demands of the hospitality environment.

While it is ever more important for hospitality environments to reflect their locale, that doesn’t mean that designers are sticking only with traditional looks and flooring materials. Says Prendergast, “Project references are much more global now than they were five years ago. If we wanted to get inspiration for flooring in the past, we’d look at flooring inspiration shots, or we’d look at other regional work. Now, we don’t just look at Memphis when we’re doing Memphis work. We take inspiration from across the world, which may not even be related to flooring, and look at how to make it applicable. Virtually, we can get our fingertips into any inspirational bucket. The web helps us broaden our approach to how we apply design.”

And, at the same time, the best designs have a story all their own. Nall is currently at work on a J.W. Marriott location in Houston. The chain chose a building constructed in 1910 and is taking the building down to the studs and rebuilding it. The design team chose a modern look for the facility, which Nall characterizes as “really progressive for the U.S.” Says Nall, “The lobby is the first impression, so, regardless of the material used on the specification, the client is always going to want to tell a story, to make the guest feel a certain way. We look at all sides of the room and how they speak to one another. The vocabulary has to be cohesive throughout. The impression created in the lobby needs to continue through to the elevator lobby, corridors and guest rooms.” The space is a combination of wood, stone and Axminster carpet.

Often, hard surface flooring is paired with an area rug to create a zone and interject a softer feel. At the lower and mid levels, LVT is often balanced with a printed or tufted area rug. At the high end, more luxurious looking and feeling rugs are specified. 

Carpet tile’s penetration in the hospitality market is slower than LVT’s. It certainly provides benefits, especially with regard to its ease of replacement, but with its hard backing, it doesn’t provide the luxurious feeling that higher end properties require—and, with its higher price point, the upper end of the market is where it is best suited. Industry experts report that designs in public space hospitality flooring are becoming even larger in scale and more complex, so Axminster is still best suited to fulfill these needs. 

The hospitality market is setting aside its “throw away” mentality, prioritizing a smarter use of resources, financial and materials-wise. Herring says that her clients are looking to “make things cool but with products that are kinder to the environment, things that won’t be replaced in five years.” Companies have set aside flashiness and are now asking, how do we make our space functional, provide amenities and keep up with technology? The durability of products is key to specifications. 

The most sustainable material choice is, of course, the one that is already in use, and the flooring industry has made great advances to improve product quality with regard to durability, according to Prendergast. “The general quality is so much better today,” the designer says. Rather than having to go with a specific flooring material for its durability attributes, and putting design on the back burner, designers can basically achieve any look they want with the assurance that there is a durable product available to fit the bill. 

Prendergast points to wood-look ceramic tile as a great example. Wood, while beautiful, has maintenance and durability challenges for a location with high foot traffic. Wood-look ceramic tile, however, provides the same feel on a material that is well suited to the hospitality environment. She has noticed a significant increase in the use of both this material and carpet tile, which, she says, has improved significantly over the last few years as manufacturers have begun allowing designers to customize colors and patterns.

Prendergast also points to other long-lived flooring materials that have experienced a second life because new design has elevated them. In her design of Chicago’s Ronald McDonald House in Chicago, completed a year ago, Prendergast specified linoleum floor tiles for the kids’ club. The product provided excellent durability as well as the colorful, playful feel that was needed for the space. Cork is another example of a durable product that has found new life by being restyled. 

Across the country, there is significant variation regarding the level of sustainability that hospitality clients request of the designer. Prendergast explains that, in Chicago, where her office is, it is very easy for clients to choose sustainable building because the permitting restrictions are almost at a LEED level, so it only takes a couple of strategic specifications to reach the base level of LEED.

Nall reports that she has had success in steering clients toward sustainability as it relates to the overall architecture, grey and wastewater, and lighting. Materials are often a harder sell because the benefit doesn’t seem as comprehensive, and the payoff isn’t as tangible. 

While a sustainable approach to design may not extend across the board right now, Prendergast has no doubt that day will come. She points to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 as an example of how a concept, which at first may seem like an outlier, becomes standard operating procedure. Whereas it once took an act of Congress to make certain that those with differing abilities were accommodated for, today it’s de rigueur. The same, Prendergast believes, will happen with sustainable design. In a matter of years, it will simply be how business is done.

Copyright 2013 Floor Focus