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Out of Office

Like everyone in our sector, we keep an eye on trends in hospitality. This is especially relevant now, given how much change and disruption has happened both in the industry and in life in general over the last couple of years. I’ve long said that the pandemic (and Brexit to a degree) has only accelerated changes that were already taking place, and what is interesting is how what were once several independent trends now seem to be manifesting as wider societal change. We had the massive adoption of remote and flexible working practices during the pandemic, which, while it doesn’t replace all aspects of the social workplace, has been positive for many. Then, the ‘Great Resignation’ where people, faced with a return to a pre-pandemic normal, decided that they quite simply didn’t want to. The latest evidence of these shifts is the rise in popularity of the four-day week, which is currently being trialled by over 3000 employees in 70 UK companies, which further points to fundamental shifts in the relationship between life, work and leisure in our lives.

There’s a lot of writing about this, but I read The Great Merging by Rafat Ali of Skift with great interest, as it comes on the back of more than a decade of observing these patterns from the specific perspective of hospitality and is a considered and in-depth analysis which ends with a series of fine-grained questions which unpick the practical implications (and possibilities) for the industry. We’re particularly interested in what this means for the buildings that we design and work on, which are confronting these questions in real time.

Our first two hotel projects, for the Relais Retreats group, have directly addressed these trends in different ways. The first, in Henley on Thames, is the conversion of a 560-year-old Grade II Listed coaching inn into a luxury boutique hotel with 40 bedrooms, increased from the previous 36 rooms through a series of consolidations and changes of use. It has been a visible presence in the riverside market town for centuries, and with its urban location is as much a community asset as it is a base for tourists to explore the surrounding countryside. Recognition of this duality in its character was fundamental to the design response, which restores a civic quality lost to the hotel over recent decades. It does this by enlarging the reception and the main restaurant, as well as reinstating a physical link (once a carriageway) between Hart Street and the hotel courtyard. This was no easy task in such a historic building, and required a flexible and adept planning response, designed to de-risk the fast-track refurbishment programme.

The hotel interiors, by Paris-based Pascal Allaman, draw on a wide range of historic and cultural references, but are fundamentally of a domestic character. This duality responds directly to an observation we made early on (as we worked on the hotel through the pandemic) that people who previously would ordinarily commute to London five days a week, might choose to work remotely for one or more of those days a week in the future. This is something that has been borne out since the hotel opening. The Palm Court is a comfortable lounge and co-working space, formed in what was once a temperance-era coffee lounge is now, along with the hotel’s Quarterdeck Bar, a place now regularly used to work near home, as opposed to work from home.

The second property is the refurbishment of the Cooden Beach Hotel near Bexhill-on-Sea into The Relais Cooden Beach, due to complete in the summer. This will provide 45 bedrooms (a 10% increase on the current provision within the existing building) and expansive public areas overlooking the East Sussex beach that it opens directly on to. This is a leisure destination which benefits from the patronage of a small but loyal community of residents, but the flex here is slightly different.

Following two years of restrictions on international travel, which looks to be facing a summer of discontent, the increased visibility of UK leisure destinations will hopefully lead them into a halcyon period in the medium term. Alongside this, changing attitudes to work mean that guests will be able to extend a leisure stay by a day either side of the weekend and make use of the extensive lounges and function spaces to work with an ocean view, something the hotel is already seeing. 

This presents certain operational challenges for the hotel, but architecturally this means that we must recognise that this demand does and will continue to exist and provide both the spaces and infrastructure to support it. This goes beyond suitable furniture and good connectivity (and bottomless cups of coffee), to space-planning, good acoustics and, especially in properties like these, understanding which parts of an existing building are best suited to and, more importantly, able to be well designed and adapted for flexible use in this way.

A final thought on this, and something I’ve spoken and written about at length over the years (here and here, for example), is how this blend of tourism and the idea of a hotel as a kind of community asset, answers the both the demand for authenticity from guests and the relevance or utility for its local community. As our work, life and leisure patterns continue to shift, this is a version of the hotel whose time has come, and it is great to be finally creating the spaces that we have been talking about for some time.

Out of Office

17 Jun 2022

Nicholas de Klerk

Routes and connections: The civic character of The Relais, Henley-on-Thames

A significant design intervention in the refurbishment of The Relais Henley (formerly The Red Lion Hotel) was the opening up of the corridor between the reception and what is now The Clipper Restaurant.

Hotels and Sustainability

Over the last fortnight, I have taken part in two panel discussions as part of the Festival of Hospitality, a month-long series of events in London put together by the team at Always Thinking.

Routes and connections: The civic character of The Relais, Henley-on-Thames

Over the last fortnight, I have taken part in two panel discussions as part of the Festival of Hospitality, a month-long series of events in London put together by the team at Always Thinking.

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