How COVID-19 Has Changed Hotel, Airport, and Restaurant Design

From contactless technology to mini offices in hotel rooms

DMAC Airport Rendering

Courtesy of DMAC Architecture

We’re dedicating our August features to architecture and design. After spending an unprecedented amount of time at home, we’ve never been more ready to check into a dreamy new hoteldiscover hidden architectural gems, or hit the road in luxury. Now, we’re excited to celebrate the shapes and structures that make our world beautiful with an inspiring story of how one city is restoring its most sacred monuments, a look at how historic hotels are prioritizing accessibility, an examination of how architecture could be changing the way we travel in cities, and a rundown of the most architecturally significant buildings in every state.

Imagine arriving at the Singapore Changi Airport, full of anxiety about touching surfaces before stepping into an elevator with your luggage. As you look for the ground floor button, a sticker above the buttons says: “Contactless: Point finger towards button.”

With infrared technology, these elevators read your hand movements, so you don’t have to touch anything: Just hover your finger over the button. Even in theory, it's anxiety-reducing, is it not?

This is just one example of how design is changing at airports, hotels, and restaurants due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s more than just contactless technology—from spacious walkways to mini offices in hotel rooms, COVID has changed how crowds are managed, even down to the nitty gritty of the two-seater restaurant table.

Singapore Changi Airport

Courtesy of Changi Airport Group

Airport Design: The Rise in Contactless Tech

Ever since the pandemic hit in March 2020, airports have been implementing self-check-ins with apps, QR codes, e-gates, facial recognition tech, and spaced-out lineups for a smoother, contactless experience. In waiting areas, many airports space out rowed seating with “Do Not Sit” signs for social distancing purposes. Plastic furniture is easier to disinfect as well.

“Gone are the days of ‘warehousing’ people in a sea of grey armchairs and loud, over-lit spaces in airports,” said Dwayne MacEwen, Founder and Creative Director of DMAC Architecture, which specializes in hospitality design. “Place making and being connected to a place is important; this will become the differentiator for the travel experience as we come out of the pandemic."

Touch-less tech is a growing trend in airport design, and Singapore’s Changi Airport is ahead of the curve when it comes to elevators and doors, airport cleaning, bag drop machines, and bathrooms. For example, the bag-drop machines have infrared proximity sensors, so travelers can avoid touching any screens. For those who touch an elevator button by accident, the buttons have an antimicrobial coating to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

U.S. travelers can soon expect to find contactless tech when flying domestically. "At a time when travelers are more aware of sanitation, we are working with the TSA to implement touch-free experiences throughout airports,” said James Knight, the project manager of MHTN Architects, which recently redeveloped Salt Lake City International Airport.

Eating at airports is changing, too. Sit-down restaurants are being replaced with food halls, according to Griz Dwight, the principal and owner of GrizForm Design Architects. “More and more flyers are looking to grab something quick and find a cozy area away from high traffic zones,” said Dwight. “Creating a strategic floor plan to accommodate various group sizes will be crucial, as steady travel reemerges.”

More than anything, wellness remains a top priority. San Francisco International Airport recently started their “quiet airport” program to lower background noise, adding calming music in waiting areas and using flooring that reduces the sound of heel clacking.

Microtel by Wyndham

Microtel by Wyndham / TPG Architecture

Hotel Design: Open, Flexible, and Remote Work-Friendly

Hotel design, too, is changing. The clear plastic paneling between customer and employee will continue, as will contactless transactions, automatic doors, and hand sanitizing stations.

One company, Stylex, creates what they call Still Screens, which are upholstered privacy walls to separate groups of people dining, drinking, or having meetings. A step above the clear acrylic variety, they're made of a wooden frame with acoustic insulation to absorb noise and are available in oak or walnut finishes.

The new Microtel Moda by Wyndham Hotels, designed by TPG Architecture, is a hotel prototype that can be rebuilt at most locations to accommodate post-pandemic travel. It's designed with "more open and less crowded" communal areas to "reinforce an emphasis on guest safety and wellbeing," said Shay Lam, the studio creative director at TPG Architecture. “The hospitality industry has endured a lot throughout the pandemic, and design needs to follow function and operational changes."

Other hotels are redesigning larger suites to accommodate nomadic workers. For example, travelers can expect to see mini offices set up in rooms at the Mandarin Oriental.

“We are seeing hotel owners put more priority into designing flexible spaces, rooms that can accommodate remote working, open plan lobbies, and more emphasis on outdoor spaces,” said AnaTracey Hawkins, senior vice president of strategic growth at the development company CNY Group in New York. “One main focus is hard flooring, easily-cleanable bathrooms, and anti-bacterial materials.”

For those who don’t feel comfortable walking into a hotel lobby, there's the first-ever "hotel room on wheels." Called Moliving Units, these one-room cabins have been rolled out at the Hurley House resort in Hudson Valley. According to Jordan Bem, Moliving’s CEO, the aim is flexible design and “the desire to roam freely, helping the industry to embrace the nomadic, adventure-seeking traveler who still wants all the benefits of the traditional five-star accommodation.”

In terms of style, hotel design is making a turn towards homey accents; ambient, colored lamps; and wooden furniture and sofas for hotel lobbies. It's as if you were in a friend’s living room. “If you look at branded boutique hotels, they use polished wood or matte-finished wood, so the look is different—and cleaner,” said Vijay Dandapani, president and CEO of the Hotel Association of New York City.

Delilah Restaurant

Courtesy of Wynn Las Vegas

Restaurant Design: Outdoor Dining and Nostalgic Influences

Probably the quickest adjustments during the pandemic have been made to restaurants. Outdoor dining has taken over sidewalks and streets in cities across the country with makeshift cabanas, which use parking lots and curbs for dining space. They’ve become so much more valuable for restaurants in the age of outdoor dining.

However, they clearly have their critics. In Boston, safety and sanitation have become an issue for dining in the North End neighborhood. Meanwhile, in New York City’s East Village, the community board is complaining of extra trash and lost sleep due to excessive noise; the city recently halted the construction of a two-story, roofless dining shed after neighbors complained that it was "insane."

Besides outdoor dining, the new wave of restaurant design offers nods to the past. Many are dressing up their dining rooms with retro-inspired travel themes that are perfect for Instagram selfies, tapping into our deep-seated need for travel. Nostalgia marketing for those seduced by palm tree patterns, tropical pastels, and wicker chairs, the new Cafe Banacado in Stockholm opts for a neat Wes Anderson aesthetic, while the Marigold restaurant at Resorts World in Las Vegas teleports us back to Miami in the 1950s.

Other restaurants are taking us further back in time—roughly a hundred years. A new crop of restaurants are jumping on the Roaring Twenties theme, taking a style nod from the Prohibition-era speakeasies. The new Delilah restaurant at the Wynn Las Vegas looks like something out of "The Great Gatsby," adorned with Art Nouveau lights, pink pillars, and swirly patterned carpets.

Others tapping into this glamorous style—which calls to mind the Golden Age of Hollywood—include the West Hollywood EDITION Hotel’s Ardor restaurant and the new Ace Hotel in Brooklyn. Both are created in sepia tones of browns and oranges, with their common spaces and restaurants lit softly, calling to mind a 1920s jazz club.

So, going to restaurants in and of itself has become a form of travel—it's become more of an experience by design. “Maybe you won’t go as far as you flew before in the past,” said hospitality designer Thierry Gaugain. “But you’ll still discover places."