|By Hugo Martin, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 30, 2012--Welcome to the iHotel, where you can check in -- but there's no check-in counter.
At the Andaz West Hollywood, a host stands near the entrance to register guests on an iPad tablet.
The 239-room boutique hotel -- which also features free Wi-Fi and communal tables designed for laptop use in the lobby -- is just one of many hotels that have adapted their reception areas to be a better fit for the digital-savvy guest.
Because working alone in a hotel room seems as antiquated to young business travelers as typewriters, these hotels are going for a Wi-Fi coffee-shop atmosphere in their lobbies.
At the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells, electrical outlets have been installed on the surface of the lobby bar so guests can power their laptops and mobile devices 24 hours a day.
The Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel in Bel Air recently created a large common area by removing the walls between the lobby and the restaurant, which added snacks to the menu for patrons who want to munch while clicking away. The hotel also increased the wireless Internet speed in the lobby by 600%.
"The idea is to give them a comfortable place to work so they don't have to go to the Starbucks," said Efrem Harkham, founder of Luxe Hotels, which hopes to finish another lobby makeover -- at the Luxe Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills -- by April.
Perhaps most ambitious of all, approximately 250 hotels owned byMarriott International Inc.now have what the company calls "great rooms" that have been opened up to include adjacent restaurants and bars. The vast majority have Wi-Fi.
"It's a way to bring new life to our lobbies," said Marriott Chief Executive Arne Sorenson.
Joe McInerney, chief executive of the American Hotel & Lodging Assn., said the trend is not limited to the U.S.
"I was in Berlin two weeks ago for a conference and everyone was sitting around the lobby of the hotel, working on iPads and iPhones and computers," McInerney said.
A recent Deloitte survey found that 36% of business travelers ages 18 to 44 say they often work in a lobbies or other common areas in hotels, while just 17% of those 45 and older do the same.
"Many hotels have done a good job evolving these lobbies from the stuffy and uncomfortable marble spaces of yore," said Adam Weissenberg, vice chairman for global travel and hospitality at Deloitte.
The Andaz, once a favored hotel of traveling rock acts (both the Rolling Stones'Keith Richards and the Who's Keith Moon reportedly threw TVs out the windows of the place) used to have a standard lobby that was not particularly set up for working. Now, in addition to tables designed for laptop use, there are free computers for browsing the Web.
"It's very positive and less formal," said Philip Nicholson, a Belgium tourist who used the computers to search out local attractions. "It makes you feel more at home."
At the second-floor lounge, Serge Sarkis of Los Angeles held a design meeting with clients from England and Italy at a long table crowded with papers and laptops. "I think it's great," he said of the communal setting. "It makes it easy to sit down and meet with people."
Many major hotels still have business centers -- small rooms equipped with computers and printers -- but some hotel managers say they are rarely used and may eventually be phased out.
"Guests are more social today," said John Annicchiarico, marketing director for the Loews Coronado Bay Resort, where a lobby remodeling project scheduled to be finished in June will include several built-in iPads at the bar and nearby tables. "They want to be in the mix, but they want to be hooked up to their devices."
The upgrades don't come cheaply.
The Hyatt Grand Champions in Indian Wells spent about $2 million to upgrade its lobby, removing the check-in counter, clearing access to the bar and adding a high-speed fiber-optic Internet connection.
Los Angeles-based Luxe Hotels also spent about $2 million to remake the lobby, bar and restaurant at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard in Bel Air, where the Wi-Fi speed was boosted from 3 megabytes per second to 20, fast enough to watch streaming video.
Enhanced Wi-Fi bandwidth is getting to be de rigueur.
"Everyone has so many devices and they all want to log in at the same time," McInerney said.
The lobby makeover at the Andaz was part of a $40-million upgrade. The walls were removed between the lobby, bar and restaurant, creating a common area where guests can order food and drinks 24 hours a day.
Hotel operators say the investments are good business because they help boost hotel loyalty. Plus, guests who hang out in the lobby longer are likely to order more food and drinks.
The Luxe Sunset still offers a small business center, but it will likely be phased out, said Reginald Archambault, general manager of the hotel.
"The lobbies are becoming the living rooms for the hotels."
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