Sonja Fisher, a sales engineer at the software company ParAccel, is among them. “I’ve worked in Starbucks, apartment building conference rooms, restaurants, libraries,” she said. “Hotel lobbies have become very convenient.”
Ms. Fisher said that paying to guarantee use of a suitable work space would be a worthwhile trade-off. “I could see myself using it or even my company taking advantage of it. We’re a small company and we have limited conference space,” she said. “I can see where they’d be O.K. with expensing that.”
Julie Germany, vice president for digital strategy at the DCI Group, a public affairs consulting company, said she preferred lobbies and other hotel public spaces to conference rooms for networking and collaboration. “It’s a more casual setting,” she said. “It’s a much more outgoing atmosphere. People are more open to talking.”
That informality can be a double-edged sword, though. Travelers have no way of knowing beforehand if a couch, table or nook will be available, and the amount of traffic passing through — especially when the hotel bar is nearby — may make serious or confidential discussion difficult.
Nancy Butler, a speaker and business coach, has used hotels to meet clients after giving up her physical office, she said, but privacy is always her top consideration. “We need to be able to speak without everybody around us overhearing,” Ms. Butler said. When picking a place to meet, she said, “it has to provide for confidentiality, so I will not choose a place where I don’t have a good sense of what it’s like.”
The second element on Ms. Butler’s wish list, after privacy, is table space for putting out paperwork and taking notes. “If I have to do that in my lap, that’s tough,” she said.
Mark Gilbreath, chief executive of LiquidSpace, an online booking platform that offers short-term work spaces by reservation using a business model resembling the one used by car-sharing companies, said he had found that “people are increasingly leaving work to get work done.” Hotel space makes up about 10 percent of his inventory, Mr. Gilbreath said, and is the fastest-growing category in the 250 cities across the United States the site serves.
Marriott offers what it calls Workspace on Demand at roughly three dozen Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Renaissance Hotels and Courtyard by Marriott hotels, primarily in the San Francisco and Washington areas. The spaces include high-top tables, alcoves in the lobbies and small meeting spaces intended for gatherings of 10 or fewer people.
“The way people work is changing,” said Peggy Roe, vice president for global operations at Marriott International. “Work is more social and mobile.”
Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ Westin brand has introduced a similar concept of small-scale, nontraditional work space at two American hotels, in Boston and Arlington, Va., and at a hotel in Germany, in Munich. In Arlington, the company took what had been the hotel’s business center and turned it into a more modern, free-form work area with Wi-Fi, couches and Xbox video game console in addition to more typical conference room accessories like videoconferencing equipment and dry-erase boards.
“It’s not about reinventing the business center, but when we looked for real estate in the hotel, we came to the conclusion pretty quickly that the old business center is pretty irrelevant for today’s traveler,” said Brian Povinelli, senior vice president and global brand leader at Westin
“You don’t need the built-in technology as much as you used to,” he said. “That’s less of an issue today because you’re working off a tablet or something.” Westin plans to add this kind of work space at more of its hotels.
Both Marriott’s and Starwood’s work spaces can be booked via LiquidSpace.
Aside from wireless Internet and a casual atmosphere, the appeal of these spaces is that they are available on demand. Most reservations are made within 48 hours, Ms. Roe said, although some are made less than an hour beforehand.
Some spaces at the various Marriott brands — like a lobby table or alcove — are free to reserve, and prices for the more enclosed spaces with high-tech amenities are considerably lower than typical meeting room rental costs, with most topping out at about $200 for a half-day, Ms. Roe said. Starwood’s two work spaces in the United States are rented for $50 an hour.
Hotels benefit even when travelers book free work spaces, since many of them end up buying food or drinks. And LiquidSpace takes a cut of the fee users pay to rent the space.
Although most of the earlier users have been hotel guests, Ms. Roe said, she expects future bookings to come from local business people seeking a place to work or meet, as well as travelers. Mr. Povinelli of Westin said he anticipated use by local people to represent 25 to 30 percent of bookings. “In the two pilots in North America, we’re seeing a good uptick in local business,” he said.
“The best case is if travelers think of our hotels as a place to work even when they’re at home,” Ms. Roe said. Strengthening ties in the local area also helps hotels insulate themselves against downturns in business travel.
The use of spaces like hotels is increasing, with corporations cutting office sizes as more employees work remotely, said Richard Kadzis, spokesman for CoreNet Global, an association for corporate real estate professionals. In a survey last year of 500 North American companies, CoreNet found that 40 percent expected to allot 100 square feet or less per worker in five years. In 2010, the average was 225 square feet per worker.
“Fifty percent of the time, assigned space sits empty,” Mr. Kadzis said. “We don’t need as much square footage per person in the traditional office environment anymore.”