— When Mitch Mounger goes on the road, he knows what he needs to get his work done: a clean, uncramped hotel room, a desk with ample work area, good lighting, a comfortable chair and plenty of outlets. “I hate fishing behind the TV for a plug” said Mounger, who travels several times a month as chief executive of Sunrise Identity, a promotional merchandise agency in the Seattle area. “I think a lot of places are getting better,” he said.
“I try to replicate what’s in my office” said Denis Lacerda, a partner for Rafael Cennamo, a fashion house, who commutes regularly between São Paulo, New York and Miami. Lacerda is currently a guest at the AKA Central Park, an extended-stay hotel that he says provides everything from office supplies and a printer/fax/copy machine to high-speed Internet and access to business TV channels. “All the important things you don’t think about but need to have,” he said.
Business travelers expect more
More business travelers work on the road and work longer hours. As a result, many hotels are improving the workspace in rooms, adding bigger desks, better lighting, more outlets and ergonomically correct chairs, experts say.
According to a survey released last month commissioned by Deloitte, roughly two-thirds of the 1,001 business travelers polled said they often work in their room (68 percent). They also expect a lot more from a hotel than just a clean room and comfortable bed (65 percent).
“It’s a little bit of an arms race,” said Jan Freitag, vice president of global development for STR, a hotel research company. He compares it to when Westin’s “Heavenly Bed” was introduced. “People laughed,” he said, “but there was buzz. Everybody wanted them. Suddenly, it was ‘the Bed Wars.’ ”
Perception and technology are driving the push to work more, said Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University.
“Companies are keenly aware of the public perception and do not want their employees to be seen as extravagant,” Hanson said. “It’s an image thing.” And in a climate of economic uncertainly, employees often feel the need for “extra strong performance” to keep jobs secure, and frequently there are fewer people to do the same amount of work.
The availability of high-speed Internet access has also caused working patterns to change. Business travelers used to finish work at 5:30 p.m., eat dinner and call it a day. Now, they typically work in the room for several hours before going to bed, Hanson said.
“With the Internet, e-mail, and cell phone, communication never stops,” said Bruce Ross, chief executive of Celebrity Fashion Group, a private label merchandising company. “You’ve got to work twice as hard today.”
Additionally, Hanson said, work areas “are one of the few capital improvements that are relatively inexpensive, but offer high visibility and high impact.”
Catering to business travelers
“Marriott was the first to build a workspace desk into a hotel room,” Matthew Von Ertfelda, vice president of insight, strategy and innovation for Marriott International, wrote in an e-mail. That was in 1957. Courtyard introduced larger desks in 1983, and ergonomic chairs were introduced in all Marriott brands in the 1990s.
“In the late ’90s, we added desks with wheels so guests could enjoy complete flexibility and use the desk whichever way was most comfortable for them,” Von Ertfelda added. Some guests pulled them out to view the TV, others pushed them toward the wall to make more space in the room.
“One of the key things is, hotels must appeal to everyone — from age 18 to 80,” said Alan Benjamin, president of Benjamin West, a company that supplies interior furnishings to major hotel brands and independent hotels internationally. As more people use mobile technology, hotels have increased outlets — and made them easily visible and more accessible — both at the desk and near the bed. Younger business travelers, he said, tend to work in bed, partly due to the fact that devices are smaller and lighter.
Sheraton recently redesigned its nightstand, with a power panel built into it. “It’s visible when you are in bed, but not in your face when you walk in the room,” said Erin Hoover, vice president for global brand design for Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ Sheraton and Westin brands. “People got tired of crawling around on their hands and knees looking for a place to plug in.”
But aging baby boomers tend to work at the desk, Benjamin said, so desks are now bigger and at the proper height. “No more under-scaled furniture; it’s got to be comfortable.” And because many older travelers have bad backs, ergonomically correct chairs have become more common, and lighting is more energy efficient, brighter, more color–corrected, and “better for work,” he said.
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts has a policy to keep desks free of clutter, “so guests don’t have to remove everything when they walk in,” said spokesperson Lori Holland. Fairmont also recently introduced connectivity media panels, so business travelers can display or listen to media content from laptops, cameras and iPods in the room. They can “see their presentations on the TV just like they might in a meeting room,” Holland said. About 25 percent of Fairmont hotels have installed the media panels this year. The remaining properties plan to roll out the feature throughout 2011.
The recently opened Elysian Hotel in Chicago enhances the work experience by focusing on service. Staff prepared a PowerPoint display for a guest unfamiliar with the technology who needed to make an unexpected presentation. The hotel also made up business cards for another business traveler when he realized that he left his at home in Europe.
Lobby as business center
Benjamin, the interior furnishings supplier, said a growing trend is for hotels to “reinvent” lobbies, transforming them into work and social areas that are more comfortable and offer more atmosphere than traditional business centers, as many business travelers favor working in communal areas rather than in their rooms. He said he sees the “walls coming down” in traditional business centers, which he believes will eventually be phased out.
Large communal tables as well as partitioned “cocoon”-type areas allow guests to work, hold impromptu meetings, and also be near lobby cafés, so they can grab a quick coffee or bite to eat.
Link@Sheraton, a lobby-based communications hub currently in about 95 percent of properties worldwide, is an example, Benjamin said.
“Business travelers want flexibility. They want to work where they want to work, when they want to work. Sitting in the middle of the lobby, or on their beds, they want to be able to work comfortably. They don't always want to rely on the desk,” said Von Ertfelda of Marriott, which offers lobby work areas in several brands. “This is a great way for guests to pursue ‘social business and relaxing work.’ ”
“Most of us can work anywhere,” said Brian S. Parish, president of IData, a technology consulting company for higher education, who carries everything he needs with him, including his own wireless Internet card. He favors hotel-room features like iPod docking stations. “Playing music when you work helps set the mood.”
“Really,” he said, business travelers “want to be comfortable. That’s, for me, what I need.”