Hospitality and travel arguably have been the sectors hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Beset by fears of contagion, travel restrictions and mandated closures, hotels rushed to put strict health and safety protocols in place and revamp spaces to accommodate social distancing, hoping to revive custom, with only partial success.

Now, as they look ahead to next year and the promise that the virus will be brought under control, hoteliers are exploring what more they can do to lure travelers back to their properties. Among their top strategies are changes to design that will reassure guests that every effort has been taken to safeguard their health and wellness.

With hotel occupancy rates nearly one-third less than what they were a year ago, hoteliers are hoping that the availability of an effective vaccine early next year will give people confidence that it is safe to travel again. Folks whose plans were scuttled this year are eager to resume travel after months of confinement to home. Agencies are already advertising tours and other packages at attractive rates for the spring season.

The latest forecast from STR and Tourism Economics, reports Lodging magazine, predicts limited demand for hotel bookings until the second half of 2021, when more widespread containment of the virus is expected. A recent poll conducted by the Global Business Travel Association found that about half of companies surveyed anticipate renewing business travel and a return to in-person events in the first half of next year, mostly in the second quarter, and another quarter of companies are planning for a return to travel in the second half of the year.

Hotel managers want to be well-positioned to compete for those travelers’ business when they do return, and making design changes and improvements is one of the ways they are preparing themselves. Of late, hospitality media have been awash in articles about the future of hotel design in a post-COVID era.

Hotel Business Review, in fact, has dedicated its entire November issue to the topic. Recently, Hotelier Middle East streamed an online panel discussion featuring designers and hotel managers on the topic “Has hotel design changed forever?” An op-ed in Hotel Interiors pondered the question, “Hotels—What does the future hold?” And industry news website Hospitality Net proposed “Four Interior Design Trends for the Post-Pandemic Hotel.”

The gist of this coverage is that hotels are ready to move beyond the initial modifications of hand sanitizer stations, rearranging tables and chairs, cautionary signage, and touchless check-in to more fundamental design changes. Roughly, the authors’ insights and predictions fall into three sets of solutions.

The first set centers around the continuation and amplification of trends that were already becoming established in the industry prior to the pandemic. These include greater focus on wellness and WELL building standards; sustainability; and incorporation of nature/biophilia, including more natural lighting, artificial circadian lighting, indoor/outdoor spaces, natural materials, plants and natural views. In addition, the designers also see continued emphasis on a connection to authentic, local experiences, with designs that reflect and incorporate elements of the local culture, natural setting and landmarks.

The second set expands on steps taken so far to improve the health and safety conditions of properties. Designers expect that public spaces, such as lobbies and restaurants, will employ layouts that encourage the gathering of smaller groups and distanced zones for both social and work purposes.

Conference rooms and ballrooms, too, will be divided into smaller spaces, including co-working spaces. Touchless technology will be integrated into all aspects of hotel services and guest rooms. Antimicrobial surfaces and materials that are easy to clean and disinfect, as well as dividers and shields, will replace older furnishings in public areas.

The third set of solutions looks forward to changes that are being planned for the near future, and in some cases have already been incorporated into new properties. Redesigning guest rooms will be a major focus going forward. Reversing the trend of recent years, guest rooms will get larger to accommodate multiple activities, including work and fitness activities, and more homelike amenities, such as kitchenettes and suitable spaces for in-room dining.

Soft surfaces like carpets and draperies will be replaced with hard surfaces that are easier to maintain and can withstand repeated disinfecting. Opulence will be replaced with a preference for simple, clean lines and surfaces. Tubs will be removed in favor of showers and double sinks.

Whether and how these changes come about will vary. In the article for Hospitality Interiors, designer Alex Duncan notes that properties more or less adhere to three types: high-end luxury, middle tier, and budget. Each appeals to a different type of client for different reasons, and thus design solutions need to be appropriate to the clientele for each type. But whether exuding elegance or offering bare bones practicality, spaces above all will proclaim “you are safe here,” even after the virus ceases to be an immediate threat to guests.