by Frances Kiradjian
‘After the party, there’s the hotel lobby ….. And round about four you’ve got to clear the lobby,’ R. Kelly once sang in his hit ‘Ignition (Remix)’, painting a debauched picture of how hotel lobbies functioned at the start of the 21st century. But what are these things called lobbies and how have they changed over the years?
In actual fact the lobby’s origins couldn’t be further than R. Kelly’s bumping’n’grinding R’n’B entourage. It’s a term that originates in the chaste monasteries of the 16th century, where a lobbia signified a covered walkway or open arcade.
The first recorded printed instance of the word was on the lips of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who when asked the whereabouts of Polonius, pontificated, “In heaven. Send hither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i' th' other place yourself. But if indeed you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.”
In Hamlet’s case the word signified a connecting corridor as much as it did an entrance hall, but the latter meaning was the one that lasted, and gave birth to a political meaning too – as the large entrance halls of public buildings became centers for political debate in an 18th-century version of Plato’s forum.
Of course, the traditional hotel lobby as we know it has a rather calmer atmosphere than those hotspots of high-minded debate. Some of us grew up with our only experience of hotel lobbies being of tidy but glum no-man’s-lands of empty seats, shiny coffee tables and bland music.
But lately, changes are afoot in the world of the hotel lobby. As guests’ first experience of a hotel, this area is the perfect place to make a great impression, and new developments include using the lobby as a destination for food and drink, to create a new social space around dining and drinking rather than guests feeling confined to their rooms, such as the brasserie fare at London’s Zetter Hotel or high-class burgers in New York’s Roxy Hotel.
The lobby has also become a cultural hotspot, providing a space in which to install artworks, design pieces and show-stopping architecture. Look at Sydney’s QT Bondi with its Shaun Gladwell installation, or a Maciej Urbanek sculpture taking pride of place in the Mondrian London’s entrance hall.
Technology is also playing a starring role in the new wave of hotel lobbies. Free Wi-Fi is just the bare minimum, but hotels are introducing smart new ways to streamline and enhance the experience of this space – from ‘smart check-in’ desks to interactive information displays, touchscreen entertainment and gaming systems, restaurant and spa reservation databases and self-service package shipping, there seems almost no limit to the imaginative ways this area can be put to use.
So while you might not see either pious medieval monks or R. Kelly’s scantily clad clique in the hotel lobbies of tomorrow, there are plenty of reasons to expect the unexpected in this transitional space. A great entrance makes a lasting impression and by pulling out all the stops, you can create an experience that guests are bound to love.