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Small Business Travelers Say Farewell to the Business Center

hotel business center
Rajesh Jantilal | AFP| Getty Images
hotel business center

The hotel business center is not what it used to be.

Gone are the days of the big separate room, often windowless, with a line of computers and printers. Instead, hotels across the price spectrum are increasingly shrinking their business centers or transforming them from quiet work spaces to lounge and meeting areas.

Some are turning sections of their lobbies into de facto business centers, while others are improving work spaces in guest rooms.

All that is left of many business centers is a small room with a few computers and printers, used mainly by travelers who have a document or boarding pass to print, or who need to check e-mail and do not have a laptop or smartphone. Guests usually get in and out quickly, rather than spending hours working there.

The Silver Cloud Hotel Seattle-Broadway, part of a 10-hotel chain in the Northwest, offers two workstations and two printers — “and business people barely use them,” said the hotel’s general manager, Chauncey DeVitis. Free Wi-Fi and the copy machine behind the front desk seem adequate for most business travelers these days, he said.

The needs of business travelers have “changed significantly in the past few years,” said Monika Nerger, Mandarin Oriental’s chief information officer. So while the hotel chain maintains its business centers, it also employs mobile “tech butlers” to help guests in lobbies and guest rooms, and keeps a supply of power cords and other items a guest might need.

Greg Schwartz, chief revenue officer of Zillow, said he stayed in hotels about 100 nights a year, and his favorite place to work on the road was in a comfortable lobby chair looking out at the street. When he needs to make a conference call, Mr. Schwartz said, he finds, “a nice quiet spot behind a potted plant.”

He says he rarely visits hotel business centers but has noticed they are more likely to offer just three or four computers, rather than a set of cubicles with 10 or 15 workspaces.

Business travelers do not want to go to a windowless business center, said Niki Leondakis, president and chief operating officer of the Kimpton hotel chain, but they do need to use their computers, make calls and print documents. She said Kimpton had refurbished many guest rooms to include bigger desks with improved lighting and an ergonomic rolling chair, rather than an armchair.

“It’s just about everything that used to be in a business center except the printer,” she said. Guests use their room for conference calls as well as individual work, she said.

At the Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo, guest rooms are equipped with fax and printing capabilities, and televisions that can connect to laptop computers. A business center in the basement houses three computer booths and a printer, and while an employee currently works there, the hotel is considering leaving it unstaffed because few guests use it.

The Four Seasons Hotel in Beirut has two computers in its business center, and provides translating services there — a feature offered by many international hotels.

As part of a large survey project, Holiday Inn gave guests a journal to record what they did in the hotel and where they spent their time. The company found that business travelers used the hotel’s high-speed Internet connections and printing to help them get work done, but did not want to leave the lobby.

“Guests are social,” said Verchele Wiggins, vice president of global brand management for Holiday Inn. “They want to be productive, but they like to be around other people.”

This spring, Holiday Inn removed the business center at its hotel in Atlanta and introduced “The Hub” to test the concept of a lobby that also acts as a business center, living room and place to eat. “Travelers are multitasking all the time,” Ms. Wiggins said. They may be checking their e-mail while they are drinking their morning cappuccino, or printing a boarding pass while waiting for a taxi to the airport.

The lobby offers free Wi-Fi, power outlets to charge computers and phones, and a small row of computers and wireless printing. A so-called eBar allows business people to meet over cocktails, surrounded by library shelves.

“It’s the environment they want,” Ms. Wiggins said.

While many of the new services for business travelers are inspired by research and surveys, others are serendipitous. As part of the Hub, Holiday Inn installed a Wii game console for families to use, but it found that business travelers were using it more than leisure travelers. “We had to install another Wii for the business people,” Ms. Wiggins said.

Franchise owners around the country have seen the concept and are requesting a Hub on their property, Ms. Wiggins said, and any property that gets one will have its business center removed.

Many new hotels are being designed with scaled-down business centers or none at all. The Four Seasons Hotel Denver, which opened in 2010, has a business center with three workstations and one printer. And the Hyatt Olive 8 in Seattle, which opened in 2009, has a kiosk for printing boarding passes in the lobby but no dedicated room with equipment. The coffee bar offers free Wi-Fi, and there is a laptop at the front desk that hotel guests can borrow.

Other hotels are also changing their idea of a business center. Mandarin Oriental has designed a business lounge in its new hotel in Milan. Currently under construction, it will be a place for business travelers to meet, get work done, borrow an iPad or play games on Microsoft surface tables. The space is designed to “reduce the sense of isolation that business travelers may feel when working alone in a hotel room,” Ms. Nerger said.

Shangri-La Hotels, which plans to build about 40 new luxury hotels over the next five years, mostly in Asia, is designing its new business centers with just a few computers and printers, and intends to offer more lounge spaces and small meeting rooms.

Mr. Schwartz of Zillow said he did not miss working in a traditional hotel business center. “Inevitably I’d be grinding though a strategy document and some guy in the next cubicle would be talking loudly on a call, and I couldn’t get away from it,” he said.

Now, Mr. Schwartz said, he just moves to another part of the lobby or behind a different potted plant.

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