What Hospitality Can Teach Us About Turning Offices Into “Destinations”

by PlaceLabAug 19th, 2020

Imagine coming to work in the future and arriving in what seems like a luxury hotel lounge. You arrive in the building’s lobby with your laptop bag on your shoulder, and, in order to maintain a safe distance to protect your health in our post-quarantine world, you would go through a check-in process. Your group might arrive for a morning meeting, and another might come in the afternoon for a small team-building seminar. A friendly and well-dressed concierge would check you in, although the process will be touchless, and while you wait for your work time to begin, you have the option to plug in a laptop, make a serendipitous connection with a colleague over a coffee from the café, or step into a wellness lounge for some yoga stretches or a few minutes of meditation while you wait for your elevator time slot.

Architects and experience designers are increasingly drawing ideas from the hospitality industry to turn the office into a 'destination location.

This scenario may not be that far away. As we return to the workplace under dramatically different circumstances, we must reframe our notions about what a workspace culture is, does and can be. Many companies believe the office will continue to be an expression of their brand identity and the place where their culture is reinforced. But in the new normal, the role of the office has shifted. 

Creating a Hospitality Alchemy

In addition to brand and culture, it’s about providing organizational purpose. As people return to the workplace, it’s clear that most companies will adopt more flexible policies about the places where people can work (Work From Anywhere). In order to fill their buildings, owners and developers are increasingly laying on wellness services, cultural programs and beautifully designed lobbies with luxury restaurants comparable to hotels’. The idea is to connect the individual talent coming to work with a larger building community that not only makes them feel safe, but also inspires ideas, collaboration and workplace effectiveness. Hotels and restaurants are constantly turning over guests and are therefore experts in creating destinations that make their clientele want to return, over and over. Architects and experience designers are increasingly drawing ideas from the hospitality industry to turn the office into a “destination location.”

Spas like Canyon Ranch, where I used to work, have perfected the alchemy, creating a sense of joy and well-being for guests — from arrival to departure and every experience in between — to deliver a customer experience that ensures occupancy, said Lisa Picard, CEO of EQ Office.

PlaceLab recently spoke with a series of experts who are designing and thinking about  hospitality experiences, to learn key lessons for creating a post-quarantine workplace destination. In conversations with architects and experience designers, we uncovered four themes that they all agree are vital elements that draw people to a place (whether it’s a restaurant, hotel or building), and that show how these elements have changed in the pandemic.

It’s about humanizing the built environment, which is all in the details,' said Courtney Rossi, a retail experience designer with EQ Office who has deep experience in the hospitality industry. 'It's those experiences that make people want to come back. 

Connection to the Local Culture and Creation of Meaningful Community

It is human nature to build communities, and that is all the more true now, at a time when we are all missing our old life and in search of meaningful connections.  Many hotels and restaurants thrive by creating a brand image closely associated with their local culture, and use that to build community. 

“Having local inspiration is important, so guests can feel the connection to the destination,” said Bonnie Jin, a transactions and feasibility associate with BRE Hotels, which owns destination hotels that include the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, in Maui, Hawaii, and the South Seas Island Resort in Captiva, Florida. “You want to offer guests something they can’t find elsewhere, and this means connecting to the culture and history of the destination and making sure the design of the hotel fits the local aesthetics.” 

For example, the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, offers a calendar of events that allows guests to experience everything Kapalua has to offer. They are able to celebrate the arts, take hula lessons or hike along the Kapalua Coastal Trail. The hotel also has a partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, which introduces guests to Maui’s underwater riches and Cousteau’s ocean conservation efforts. 

Rossi has previously worked for such hotels and spas as the Canyon Ranch properties, and Acre in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Acre designed an artist residency program where the hotel gives guests a chance to connect with artists based in the area and learn more about the place they’re visiting. 

Six Senses, the wellness hotel group with properties around the world, thinks local at every level of designing a hotel, from integrating the land into the space to hiring hotel staff from the area.  Additionally, it is starting to host “unconferences,” smaller gatherings with wellness thought leaders. “A smaller group helps build relationships and community, and I think these kinds of relationships build safety and familiarity,” said Susie Arnett, the company’s director of programming. 

Turning Buildings into Community Destinations

EQ properties are now translating ideas into the office environment to boost community and ensure safety for returning talent. For example, Jeffrey Dunn, a senior project director at the architecture firm RIOS, and the lead designer at EQ’s Playa District, says that he and his team designed the property with a “relaxed Southern California vibe” in mind, by connecting the project to its surroundings, climate and local community. This included commissioning art installations from local artists and inviting in a restaurant run by Med Abrous and Marc Rose, two well-known Los Angeles restaurateurs, as well as carefully designing the larger framework of the layout of the campus. 

 “The boardwalk is a familiar idea in coastal environments, so we allowed that to be the central organizing feature,” said Dunn. “There is a ‘wild’ landscape on one side, for a sense of respite and relaxation, while a more curated landscape makes up the other side.”  

As people start returning to the office, Dunn is now thinking of this outdoor landscape less as a leisure area for lunch breaks, ping pong and fitness, and more as a safe outdoor meeting and working area. “The more heavily programmed outdoor spaces are intended for office work, with audio/video, conferencing capability, lighting and work surfaces,” he said. 

CANVAS, the EQ property in Costa Mesa, California, has a public art program committed to supporting local artists and creating a bridge between the building and the city, which is now dubbed the “City of the Arts.” Now, returning talent will be able to hold outdoor meetings, while enjoying murals by such artists as Aaron De La CruzCharmaine Olivia and Damin Lujan (aka Zao One).

Unique Experiences and Amenities that Evoke an Emotional Response 

In an era of social distancing, making an emotional connection is the new way of recreating an intimate atmosphere.

In an era of social distancing, making an emotional connection is the new way of recreating an intimate atmosphere. Arnett of Six Senses refers to what Neil Jacobs, the CEO of the hotel group, calls “emotional hospitality.” This idea is vital to every part of the guest experience, from the food to the amenities, but it’s also about how the brand’s holistic experience makes a guest feel. “Everybody has a beautiful view; everybody has an amazing room,” said Arnett. “But what Six Senses does that is unique is to create experiences in all the touch points: from the language the front desk hosts use, to an emotional connection that is replacing high touch.” For example, at Six Senses, sound is an important part of the experience at check-in. Guests are greeted by the sound of a singing bowl, which helps to welcome and ground them.

Buildings That Feel Like Home

Future office designers might consider what Thomas Vecchione’s firm, Vocon, calls “the homebody economy.

Thomas Vecchione, a principal architect of Vocon, which specializes in commercial real estate projects, is starting to think more about hospitality in workplace culture. As he considers future design projects, he knows that a variety of emotional touch points will make the difference between the choice of whether to come into the office or to work from another location. 

These designs include focusing on the lobby lounge and creating office spaces that evoke the feeling of being at home, to appeal to the rise of what his firm calls the “homebody economy.”  Because people have been shut inside during the pandemic, Vecchione believes that the offices of the future will need to include designs that look more like homes, complete with mudrooms where you can leave your sneakers after a run in the park, and with libraries, meeting parlors and seating options that remind you of your own kitchen table. “The casualness of coming in the back door or through the kitchen allows for a blended moment between work and lifestyle,” he said. “Cubbies to store your gym bag, shelves for sneakers and yoga mats, plus a refresh station to clean off a bicycle commute, are now part of the everyday workday.”

Connection to the Natural Environment and Focus on Sustainability

Many hotels create a draw by assuring their customers that they are providing an environmentally responsible product, which means using energy-saving practices, supporting local businesses, saving water and reducing their carbon footprint. As an architectural bonus, buildings can also be designed to blend into the natural environment.

Six Senses has a VP of sustainability whose task is to ensure that each property is built using local materials, and that 0.5 percent of all profits goes to a sustainability program in the region that the hotel group supports. For example, at its property in the Maldive Islands, the hotel supports 10 marine biologists who are working on marine conservation and live on the property year round. At its property in Yao Noi, in Thailand, the hotel invested in a water filtration systems project that gave 10,000 people on the island access to clean drinking water, thanks to reverse-osmosis filters. Every Sixth Sense property also has an “Earth Lab,” which tells the property’s sustainability story. “That's part of the experience. Guests can go visit and learn about the projects of the region,” said Arnett.

Building in Sustainability Standards

EQ buildings are now focusing on strong sustainability standards, from the renovation process through tenant occupancy. These include a focus on using locally sourced materials and working with vendors and contractors who share high standards for protecting the environment. Each EQ property is also committed to recycling, adopting clean energy and reducing the volume of water consumed. 

To maintain these standards and support tenants and their employees, all EQ properties will host regular educational events about topics such as reusable products, waste and energy reduction — and even beekeeping!  It’s well known that up to 75% of the world’s fruit and seed crops are believed to depend, at least in part, on the work of pollinators to sustain production, yield and quality. The beekeeping project at EQ’s 350 North Orleans building in Chicago supports pollinator-friendly plants on the building’s rooftop and also educates tenants about bees and sustainability.  As well as setting up some helpful signs to assuage visitors’ fears that they might get stung, EQ has coordinated a series of workshops. It also sells to tenants a portion of the honey that’s collected and donates the proceeds to a bee-friendly organization in the Chicago area.

A Well-Rounded Health and Wellness Programs

Millennials and Generation Z crave balance and wellness in all their experiences, from travel to their workplace, and this doesn’t just mean yoga rooms or spa and massage options. These generations crave wellness as a holistic experience that embraces physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being.

The Six Senses hotel brand is not just about hotel-wide experiences, like yoga on the beach and healthy food. We design spaces for a holistic wellness experience,” said Arnett. “Every design question is answered with: How do we help the people who will be inhabiting this space be healthier?”  For example, the team spent a year designing a program called Sleep With Six Senses, in which they picked the perfect pillow and sheets, and considered the way that light and air move through the rooms for optimal sleep. All the properties also have an employee wellness program.

Wellness 2.0 for Building Tenants 

A holistic approach to wellness to support employees and tenants is now an integral part of all EQ properties. Each property prioritizes indoor air quality through the use of outdoor air, increased air filtration and humidity control. For EQ Playa’s Property, Dunn of RIOS says that connecting people to the natural environment on a regular basis also supports wellness, because it helps people feel more calm and grounded. “This has all kinds of impacts on sociability, productivity and general well-being,” he says. “Designing spaces with wellness as a starting point seems like an obvious decision to make people want to come to work.”

Additionally, EQ properties, from Playa to Willis Tower, host yoga and meditation programs. During quarantine, EQ has offered all its employees free access to the meditation app Headspace, and TONE fitness in Willis Tower has put all its fitness classes online, for tenants who are working from home. 

Moving into the future, these aspects of creating a destination will become increasingly important. As workplaces are transformed, everyone involved in designing the work experience will contribute to this new alchemy.