Published by Hotel F&B Magazine 

By: Tad Wilkes

Turnover of seasonal menus and programming is ongoing, but the bigger picture is often put on the backburner. Capital-intensive renovations and design changes may not come as frequently, but trends in design and how it affects guest behavior never sleep.

Based in Chicago’s West Loop, O’Kelly Kasprak is a commercial architecture and interior design specializing in hotels and restaurants. Their work in the hotel world includes projects for Hilton, Homewood Suites by Hilton, Kimpton, Marriott, and Sheraton.

We touched base with partners Belinda O’Kelly and David Kasprak on design trends in hotel F&B, issues and challenges, and more.

HOTEL F&B: What key shifts or movements are you seeing in the hotel space lately?

Kasprak: One of the biggest things you’re going to see isn’t here yet but is coming and will make a huge impact on the future of how things are designed. It’s data-driven design. As technology develops, we’re going to gather more information about our guests and using it in a cashless way so that there are fewer barriers in terms of what the guest wants to purchase, how they order, and so on. That’s going to have a huge impact on how we design spaces and what they look like. How we monitor, secure and monetize all that that is the future. We don’t have anyone doing it 100%, but we do have some operators looking at it just for the F&B space, in terms of cashless systems. But it will happen throughout the lobby and public spaces. You’ll see this within the next five years in new hotels and renovations.

O’Kelly: One of the things we’re seeing at a small level of implementation is we’re working with the Sheraton brand on one of their new concepts. We just went through a deep-dive with them and went to New York to see a mock-up of the new Sheraton experience. One of the things they’re going to be implemented—which I don’t think has been implemented anywhere yet—is going to be the idea that your guest room unlocks a lot more than your room. You can secure things within the lobby and purchase things. It becomes your identity throughout the hotel. For example, you could be working on your laptop in the business center and use your room key to unlock a console in the business center, put your laptop in it, lock it, and leave and get lunch and come back to it.

What are you seeing in terms of themes, concepts, and looks?

Kasprak: In the ‘80s, ‘entertainment’ was the big word—this idea that you made these spaces over-the-top. If you were in an Italian restaurant, it had to look like you were in Italy in a farmhouse, and so forth. Then, we gravitated toward very architectural solutions over the next couple of decades. We went to where everyone was sleek, homogenized, and uniform. I think we’re bouncing back from that now. We’re not looking at literal interpretations like the entertainment era but more of the stylized use of materials, in homage to what you’re trying to convey. It’s more combination of materials.

In order to make a restaurant space in a hotel successful, you have to make it feel authentic. The more it feels like you’re in a hotel lobby, the more you’re going to capture the hotel guest. And if you want to draw people from the outside, you have to make it authentic so that it also stands on its own.

If it is going to be a hotel-run F&B outlet, we’re a lot more involved with the branding as part of the design. It’s not just about “Okay, this is the restaurant we’ve designed, and now we’ll come up with a name for it.” It’s much more of creating an identity for that space. It ties into the uniforms, place settings, lighting, and everything, to be authentic.

O’Kelly: We just finished doing the restaurant for Hotel Monaco here in Chicago, called Fisk & Co. It’s cool, because the hotel is in a building from 1914 that used to be a hat factory called D. B. Fisk. We worked with Kimpton to develop that restaurant, and it was interesting that it’s okay now to be local and specific, rather than F&B offering everything you can think of. It’s much more of a curated, chef-driven menu. You’re picking a few things you do really well, even if they do require expensive specialty equipment. For example, at Hotel Monaco, it’s a beer and mussel program. They have an extensive craft beer wall with a raw bar. Both of those things are kind of difficult and expensive to do. Just the raw bar alone uses a lot of specialty equipment. The idea of keeping 20 craft beers on tap is obviously not the way we’ve been taught efficient F&B works in hotels 20 years ago. It’s not just a restaurant anymore; it’s an extension of the hotel experience, so we look at how we guide the guest through the menu and experience.

How are meeting and event spaces evolving?

Kasprak: There’s more appetite on management’s part to make a commitment to redesign of meeting and banquet spaces. It used to be everything had to be totally neutral, so if you were doing a wedding, the bride could come in and do whatever color they wanted. Now, it’s about hotel brand identity—“This is our look, and this space is available to you.” It has its own personality that won’t be totally secondary, and that’s okay, if it’s done right.

O’Kelly: For banquet spaces, the biggest thing is flexibility. Twenty years ago, you did everything with moveable walls; you had big spaces you could make smaller or big. Now, we’re seeing a lot more creativity in using different parts of the hotel to cater to different styles of events. For example, we just finished renovating the Hilton Oak Brook Hills Resort (near Chicago). It’s a big resort, so it’s taken four or five years to work our way through the property. In that process, they were able to start expanding their space rentals to places like the lobby, the lobby terrace, the chef’s garden. We started to get creative with how people use spaces. You can have lunch meeting in a cool bar/restaurant environment by the pizza kitchen or a wedding reception or cocktail hour by the chef’s garden. Rather than building 12 more same-size meeting rooms that open up to each other, let’s get people out of those stuffy rooms and around the property, to add to the experience.

Hotel rooftops seem to be evolving, beyond just having one at all to developing a better, more revenue-centric vibe. What are you seeing on the roof?

Kasprak: Rooftops are climate-dependent, so in the Midwest you see some that have portions that are inside that can be opened up and a portion that’s totally outside. We do a lot of renovations, and people may say, “We’ve got a flat roof, we want to do a venue here.” But there are issues in older hotels such as accessibility—how you get guests and things up there. Is the roof really flat? Can the elevators carry the load? It’s not just as simple as throwing furniture up there. It has to look curated and really designed, rather than just extra space.

O’Kelly: What people like about the idea of a rooftop or outdoor areas is to treat it like a real, designed space. Unfortunately, a lot of hotels, when they do outdoor dining off a restaurant, they throw some tables and chairs outside and say, “Hey, you’re outside. Have fun.” People have started to treat the outdoor dining and rooftops as more of an extension of the experience, spending money on lighting and furniture. Smart operators are doing limited menus and things they can pull of really well. People are very accepting of a limited menu if you do it well. If you can’t braise great lamb shank on the roof, don’t.