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Socially Distant Design in Social Spaces

COVID-19 is affecting the way guests experience a space—and that’s certainly true for social businesses like casinos, hotels and resorts. JCJ Architecture’s Rick Marencic, design principal, interiors, and Bob Gdowski, principal, director of hospitality design, share their thoughts on the changing landscape, what it means for F&B and wellness-minded design.

Casinos have an inherently social business model. How will COVID-19 affect the way visitors experience them—and what can entertainment-goers expect as doors begin to open? 

Bob Gdowski: As a social business, the emotional side of the guest experience is at the core of a property’s success. Creating a sense of place has always been dependent upon a property’s ability to embrace their guests. While a successful outcome of this is based on emotion, the act itself is often physical. Be it human interaction or one’s physical relationship with the built environment, this concept is largely tactile. We connect with things that we can touch. Touchpoints are moments throughout a property that look to define and reinforce the intended guest experience, to memorably impart the property’s identity or brand.

So, how do we create that emotional high of personal engagement in a touch-sensitive society? This is not a new challenge, as it has been pored over by those in the industry that have looked to drive artificial intelligence and robotics into the hospitality space. With a pandemic at hand, the necessity of creating touchless touchpoints is now inevitable. Standing in for the preverbal handshake, design must demand of itself the ability to communicate the sense of human touch, the ability to emotionally and individually embrace a guest. What were once very tactile experiences are going to have to shift the focus to speaking to people through their other senses: sight, sound, smell, taste. This type of fully immersive experience is not new, but rather something we need to continue to refine as we look toward the casino of the future.

As we ride this roller coaster of properties opening and closing again in response to waves of the pandemic, it has become clear that there is still a tremendous amount to learn. The issue we thought we were all confronting is one that has continued to reinvent itself again and again. It’s not necessarily the virus that has been changing, but rather our understanding of how this virus operates, and probably even more influential is how guests are operating within the pandemic. At this point we are not necessarily focused on what the casino of the future looks like, but rather what it takes to get through the current battle. What guests experience today is unlikely to have a long-term shelf-life, but rather is a reflection of our industry pivoting very quickly to insure the safety of our patrons and staff. Once the target stops moving, and we all have a more thorough comprehension of what this pandemic and future pandemics mean, we will be collectively strategizing about what that future of entertainment begins to look like.

F&B, in particular, has been in the spotlight with regard to social distancing. How do you foresee these spaces evolving, particularly in the casino-hotel space? What are some of the design trends you predict will occur?

Bob Gdowski: Success moving forward is going to be dependent on changing our spatial model in an effort to create social spaces that are safe in post-pandemic times. One of the best resources we all have at hand is to better understand the experiential tendencies of millennials. This is a generation that is arguably more socially connected than any preceding generation, while at the same time having a notable indifference toward face-to-face interactions. As an industry we have been trying to interpret this behavioral model by creating “social” spaces that allow people to be together, but alone. The shift that we are now looking at is how do we create spaces that allow people to be alone, but together. Success of this will be dependent on our ability to reconstruct the physical space to accommodate this. There is a social connectedness that this generation has nailed, while generally having the ability to be remaining at a safe distance from each other. Within the casino-hotel space, we have the benefit of traditionally having a lot of generosity built into the footprint. We are going to be taking back some of that generosity, and we are going to get more creative in how we utilize floorspace, as well as how these spaces can be multiprogrammed. At the core of this is flexibility and how thresholds disappear without diminishing or compromising the guest experience.

Rick Marencic: Given the new paradigm of social distancing, the designer must now embrace different space planning scenarios. Previously, we were concerned with maximizing the efficiency of seating in food and beverage venues, planning the precise dimensions to limit the use of expensive space and maximize the return on investment. Now, we are concerned with public safety, adhering to minimum dimensions between people to maintain a healthy and safe environment with respect for others while still creating a sense of place. Another consideration is the desire for people to want to gather in groups. Thought needs to be given to creating more private dining spaces where a family, a couple, or a group of friends can choose to dine together without affecting others within the context of the local and federal regulations.

Now, on the other hand, to me, the biggest trend we see happening right now, whether it’s an opportunity with an existing client or a new potential client, is the transformation of the buffet. We are seeing a desire for a food hall or food market-style offering within this footprint. Food halls today mimic the original models of how farmers got food to cities before grocery store chains. Some of these markets are still active today, including the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia and Pike Place in Seattle. Now, the emphasis is less about the logistics and the transaction, and more about having the opportunity to explore a wide variety of prepared food options. Like the buffet, this type of space gives you a similar sense of collective activity and exciting energy, except food is served individually. The major benefit here is that casinos are avoiding the waste and possible contamination of food that people traditionally associate with buffets, and customers stay safe.

From an operational standpoint, we’re also likely to see a lot more contactless F&B—grab-and-go, takeout, etc. How can good design help facilitate that?

Rick Marencic: Over the last ten years, we have witnessed the growth of grab-and-go, especially in airports. Notably, many fine-dining establishments have created scaled down versions of their restaurant menus and operations, specifically for aviation environments. This may be one path for restaurants to survive given the current milieu. By nature, grab-and-go operations are very efficient and deliver a high sales volume for a small footprint. Naturally, the spatial configuration of a typical grab-and-go allows for a separation between customer and host, which can be easily configured to meet the current standards for distancing and public safety. Since these venues can be less expensive to operate, they will proliferate given the lack of competition due to safe delivery methods and lower build-out cost.

In the casino environment, the grab-and-go will not have small seating areas. By contrast, many guests will dine in the privacy of their rooms, either by purchasing at the grab-and-go, ordering room service or ordering out. Consequently, hotel rooms will need to be reconfigured to allow for more than two guests to easily gather and dine together. Therefore, suites will become more common and connecting rooms will likely become more prevalent for guests who want to visit with friends.

Kiosks may also be another trend in casinos, once their use has become more refined. We see them everywhere in airports, but they are often congested with lines of patrons. These will become increasingly beneficial, if food is prepackaged and customers are able to scan their items themselves to speed up the process to create less crowds.

How does JCJ Architecture approach wellness-minded design?

Bob Gdowski: While wellness-minded design has always been an inherent part of the firm’s DNA, the lens we look through today is exponentially more comprehensive and more sophisticated than it has ever been when it comes to wellness. Design worth talking about not only supports wellness, but catalyzes it. For too long we lived in an industry where wellness has been positioned as being primarily physiological, skimming over emotion and desire, which are also at the core of wellness. We look at wellness as a trifecta: the journey, the immersion and the physical. The journey is driven by desire; it is feeding the mind inspiration. The immersion is driven by emotion, it is feeding the mind experiences. The physical is just that, it is addressing the physical body. We are passionate believers that design has the ability to have a lasting impact on people. While design rarely has a destructive impact on people, it is often inconsequential in how it touches people, and that can be just as unfortunate. As a team of designers, our goal is to bring products to market that positively impact people, ensuring that we are focusing on physical and emotional wellness.

Additionally, the pandemic is going to make us more acutely aware of the health of the building as well as our own health and physical limitations. As our customers and end users become more aware, they want to feel safe, and it’s all about figuring how to get that message across. One idea we have implemented, which is a great example of this concept, is natural light. Adding natural light to a gaming floor allows us to perceive that we’re more connected to the natural environment, and as a result are making healthier choices.

Tell me a little bit about some of the projects you’re working on now.

Bob Gdowski: As you might imagine, there is a sense of urgency for many of our clients to address F&B spaces right now. We’ve recently teamed up with a third-party developer and former casino industry executive to help clients to reimagine casino F&B spaces in response to today’s climate, but in ways that are flexible enough to work for the long term. It’s ideal because clients have the option to follow one of two models depending on their unique needs: simple lease & build-out, or complete development and management. This type of business model is one of lease and sublease, meaning the developer will lease the property from the casino/owner and provide the necessary utility and mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) connections. The space will then be carved into venues with footprints ranging from 500 to 2,000 sq. ft. in order for food service vendors to sublease the venue area. This way, clients with widespread resources can get the assistance that they need to get up and running or, on the flip side, those who require more comprehensive services have the option to lean on our team for full-blown, “soup to nuts” food & beverage solutions.

Rick Marencic: Additionally, we are in an ongoing dialogue with most of our clients about both short- and long-term F&B design services. We have a wide range of projects underway currently––from a large-scale 1,000 key gaming resort expansion currently under construction in Oklahoma, which in and of itself includes eight new F&B venues, to several ground-up destination gaming resorts from coast to coast. We are also working in partnership with Rockwell Group on a new TAO Restaurant, which is coming to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, as well as the addition of several new sports books, breweries and signature restaurant projects. In today’s climate and for all of these upcoming projects, it is important for us to be nimble and serve as an effective resource for our clients. We are doing everything we can to help our friends in the industry get up and running smoothly and safely, without ever losing sight of the importance of guest safety with the overall guest experience.

Photo: LOLO American Kitchen at the MSP International Airport (Credit: John Abernathy)