Christina Jelski
Christina Jelski

Prior to the pandemic, the hallmark of a good hotel lobby largely revolved around its ability to function as a "third place."

Coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, a third place is a public space that is considered neither home (first place) nor work (second place), which hosts "the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals."

Oldenburg saw third places as playing a vital role within society, serving as a foundation for community-building and providing a much-needed interruption to what he called the "home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle."

Examples run the gamut from coffee shops and cafes to hair salons and bookstores, but over the past decade or so, hotel lobbies have certainly evolved to fit the bill.

Many modern hotels, particularly those in urban locations, have long prided themselves on their lobby's status as a social hot spot, using their ability to attract locals and travelers alike as a competitive advantage. Offering features like a coffee bar that transforms into a cocktail venue come nightfall, a communal coworking table or rotating art exhibitions and open mics highlighting local talent, hotel lobbies have been purpose-built to foster conversation and connection. 

And as a New Yorker, local hotel lobbies certainly played a vital role in my day-to-day life pre-pandemic. They've often functioned as the perfect venue to grab a last-minute drink or coffee with a friend, no reservation needed. They've been both a convenient spot for a quick work meeting or a place to tap free WiFi in between appointments.

They were also sometimes the only place to find a clean bathroom, where one could discretely switch out of walking shoes and put on a pair of heels before a formal event. 

With the onset of social distancing and the pandemic, however, the pendulum may be swinging in the opposite direction, with some hotels switching to a more exclusive, guest-only model.

Take New York's Plaza Hotel, which has gone guest-only amid Covid and expects to remain that way for the foreseeable future. A sign and a stretch of red velvet rope outside the main entrance informs passersby that the famed hotel is open to "Registered hotel guests and patrons only."

Several New York hotels have also implemented vaccinated-only policies for all guests, visitors and staff. While clearly centered around health and safety, the rule still adds a layer of gatekeeping that certainly makes one pause to consider the logistics of spontaneously popping in for a quick drink with a group.

Other properties may not have taken such a hard stance on keeping out nonguests or the unvaccinated, but even pre-pandemic, the idea of hotel spaces as more private and closed-off was already taking hold at the luxury end.

Take, for example, Auberge Resorts Collection's Austin, Texas-based Commodore Perry Estate, which made its debut in mid-2020. The hotel launched with a private social club capped at around 300 members, an idea that had been in the plans before the pandemic. Auberge CEO Craig Reid said that while the club isn't intended to be "too exclusive," membership is still "curated in a way that's complementary to the brand."

As we slog through the latest chapter of the pandemic, however, the need for third places seems more vital than ever. For many of us, our offices, or second places, have disappeared, permanently for some. We no longer need to fear the monotony of home-to-work-and-back-again but perhaps an even more limiting bedroom-to-home-office-and-back-again shuttle. 

The concept of hotel lobby as happening social hub isn't likely to disappear completely post-pandemic, but whether the trend will pick up exactly where it left off remains to be seen. 

I, for one, hope it does.

As Oldenburg wrote, it's no coincidence "that the joie de vivre cultures of the world are those in which third places are regarded as just as essential as home and work." 

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