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Hotel executives and architecture firms float ideas for what form hotels could take when the travel industry emerges from its pandemic-imposed chrysalis.

The travel sector continues to struggle, with hotel occupancy down 50% nationally and many hotels remaining closed. But the hospitality industry is working to adapt. New hotels are opening, either in expectation of a big travel rebound or due to contractual obligations, and hoteliers are laying plans. “The biggest thing right now is this focus on health and wellness and making sure people feel safe and confident going back into hotels,” said Tom Ito, Hospitality Leader and Principal at global architecture firm Gensler. “Anything that assures that now and in the long term is here to stay.”

To get an idea of how the hotel experience might change in the post-COVID world, and what changes are already being made beyond enhanced sanitation, The New York Times spoke to hotel executives, designers and suppliers. One certainty is that automation will increase. It has already begun to, with the expansion of contactless and touchless controls. Using a smartphone app, guests can make requests, ask questions, control room temperature and the like by voice command. This builds on earlier automation like self-check-out and keyless entry, which support social distancing.

Dining at hotels naturally needs a rethink, since capacity restrictions limit hotel restaurant revenue and open air dining is not always possible year-round. The hospitality experts suggest that any space in a hotel can be a pop-up dining area. Underutilized conference rooms and ballrooms can be repurposed. “This is meant to be an answer to how do you deconstruct the restaurant experience so you don’t have to eat in one small place,” said Ron Swidler, Chief Innovation Officer at The Gettys Group, a hotel design, development and consulting firm.

With outdoor spaces having taken on new importance, hotels with limited or none are bringing more greenery indoors to simulate nature’s calming effect, a trend called biophilic design. The Gettys Group envisions spaces with plants enhanced by digital projections simulating movements in nature, along with air filtration systems that produce a cross breeze, and germ-killing ultraviolet light, according to The New York Times. “A part of it is a physical signal to people to say that this inside space is safe,” said Swidler.

Another idea is to design guest rooms to more readily morph into private offices, dining rooms or gyms. “Before room service was not so nice, but now it’s an amenity people want and you can design guest rooms for great dining experiences in your room or on your terrace,” Ito said. Or, guest rooms can be separated from the traditional hotel concept entirely and dispersed into a fleet of RVs. Rental van companies like Cabana have already launched mobile hotel rooms. The future of travel could be more flexible and independent, offering highly personalized experiences.

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