“Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest,” went the slogan of Robert Owen, a 19th-century English campaigner for social change. The notion of a work/life balance with clearly defined boundaries has persisted ever since. The ideas that worked during the Industrial Revolution need an update in this era, when digital advances have made it possible to get the job done anywhere, anytime. Rising numbers of freelancers are changing the definition of ‘workplace’ to include coffee shops, co-working spaces and living-room couches; for offices, beige cubicles are out and on-site yoga is in. People want to take a more flexible, personalised approach to where and when they work, and, as a result, today’s mixture is becoming less of a balance and more of a blend.

This isn’t always reflected in business hotels, though. Even as research by OnePoll for IHG’s Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resorts last year found that 40% of British business travellers looked forward to work trips as a chance to get out of the office, they often found themselves heading into an environment in which the focus remained on working around the clock. Business hotels tend to take their design cues from offices: deliberately unobtrusive to minimise distraction, with perhaps some leather armchairs for a premium feel. Until recently, the Crowne Plaza brand belonged to this school, with a neutral colour palette occasionally accented with dark wood and liberal use of its understated, plum-coloured logo.

IHG began thinking about this in 2011 when it first engaged product and furniture design studio PearsonLloyd to come up with the WorkLife guest room for Crowne Plaza. The concept, which was rolled out in 2016, was meant to blur the lines between relaxation, sleep and work, creating a space with a fresh new aesthetic that welcomed all three. WorkLife rooms are now standard across the brand’s US footprint and, after the successful launch, IHG decided to take the concept further.

A new breed

Many of PearsonLloyd’s previous assignments have involved the new breed of co-working spaces, which did a lot to inform the final project. Providers such as WeWork have been doing their best to redefine how work is done, but the basic requirements of business travellers haven’t changed; they need a good night’s sleep, a chance to unwind, and an environment that promotes focus and collaboration.

“We started doing lots of work around how to reimagine the hotel room from the perspective of a business traveller,” says PearsonLloyd co-founder Tom Lloyd. “In order to perform well as a business person, you need to be well looked after, in terms of your human and emotional needs.”

PearsonLloyd became the developer of a new global design philosophy and aesthetic for Crowne Plaza, collaborating with NB Studio, which revamped the brand in partnership with advertising agency Ogilvy New York and brand consultancy EatBigFish. The updated look is fresh, young and modern, with a warm and confident tone in the branding materials, to appeal to business travellers looking for a touch of humanity.

“NB’s work was informed by Crowne Plaza’s research into the modern business traveller,” says Dan Radley, brand strategist at NB Studio. “In essence, it said business people have changed. The things that were once considered important – status, money, power [and] hierarchy – have been replaced with new values: empathy, collaboration, flexibility [and] creativity.”

The US roll-out began in 2017, but it was decided that the European launch needed a few tweaks. IHG engaged London-based designers Conran + Partners to put a different spin on the interior template for European Crowne Plaza properties. The results will be rolled out at the end of 2018, at the brand’s London Heathrow, Paris République and Hamburg City Alster properties, but attendees and owners at the International Hotel Investment Forum in Berlin in early March were able to preview the new look in a virtual-reality walkthrough.

“We did respect and acknowledge, and then evolve, some of the hallmarks that were within the US brand division,” says Simon Kincaid, director of Conran + Partners. “In the guest room, there is an angle to the bed, which creates a particular type of environment and a more social, dynamic space.”

According to Lloyd, the angled bed presents an ergonomic ‘magic triangle’ that gives the guest a clear line to the TV screen from either the bed or the multifunctional sofa. The latter is L-shaped to give the occupant plenty of options for positioning, whether they’re working on a laptop, or relaxing with a book or movie.

The brief from IHG emphasised the need to increase dwelltime in shared spaces and get away from “beigeness and blandness”. Each collaborating party had to re-examine its assumptions of what a business traveller truly needed.

“We challenged the desk a lot with the client. We said, ‘We think you should take away the desk completely,’ and there was a lot of shock,” Lloyd recalls.

The desk ended up staying, but with a makeover: it now features better lighting and mirrors to serve as a hair and make-up station, with plenty of space and electrical sockets, so guests can leave phones, tablets and laptops there to charge overnight.

Avoid distress

Conran + Partners also had some no-go design elements in mind; the distressed finishes and bare metal of the industrial ‘shabby chic’ aesthetic used by brands like Ace Hotels and Soho House.

“They're already owning that look, and we wanted to avoid that. [We] wanted it to look more upscale, integrated [and] refined – also a little more feminine,” Kincaid says.

Business is leaning towards a less male-dominated atmosphere, and making the hotel experience less overtly masculine was a goal for both design studios. PearsonLloyd focused on creating a more welcoming atmosphere for female travellers, with solo seats in common areas where women travelling on their own wouldn’t feel singled out or pressured to interact. The European vision applied the idea to the overall feel of the interior. Kincaid and his team leaned towards copper finishes, desaturated oak and a few marble touches.

“We felt the design ought to have a fashionable edge to it – something premium,” Kincaid explains. “What that did was avoid things being oversized. It gave things more of a refinement – just having things slimmer, more elegant, softer on the palette [and perhaps] more delicate in the material specification.”

For the European lobby concept, Kincaid was inspired by the brand's eponymous plaza. “The plaza is a place where people come together; people meet, business happens and people relax as well,” he explains. “We used two different interpretations of that – one is more upscale, more like a retail gallery, like you may have in mainland Europe. Then there's a more casual plaza, which is a large open space for markets and people to gather.”

Crowne Plaza properties span urban, transit and resort locations, so the aesthetic was built around ‘hallmarks’, signature elements that each property could use in its own configuration while preserving a sense of place. The hallmark of the Plaza WorkSpace is a three-sided bar against one wall. Scattered around the rest of the space are a variety of seating options, some with built-in touchscreens, including a co-working-style ‘sharing table’; booths for six to eight people; ‘huddles’ of chairs and two-seater sofas; ‘nooks’ or low-top booths designed for one or two people; and solo workspaces along the wall. Its lines are clean and angular, but a palette of browns, light greys, dark teal and pops of coppery red adds softness and warmth.

The design features two other signature spaces for meetings and collaborations. The Forum, with tiered ‘Spanish steps’ along one wall, can function as an informal hangout spot with couches and a pool table, or can be booked as a venue for guest speakers and presentations. The Studio is similarly multifunctional, intended for workshops or private dining, with high-top seating, as well as a huddle set-up.

“If you can find somewhere that you will feel comfortable, you'll spend more time and increase your productivity, and feel welcomed, like you're part of something,” says Kincaid.

On message

Tone and messaging had to evolve along with Crowne Plaza’s look. NB Studio was called in to deliver a ‘refreshed visual identity’ for the brand globally, including iconography, photography, illustrations and a new voice. There was one caveat: IHG wanted to keep the original logo, featuring three ribbons flying inside a horizontal oval in a signature plum colour.

The studio’s response was to tone down some things and play up others. The ribbons became a repeated ‘wave’ motif in the background of brochures and served as a starting point for creating new icons, while the plum shade is used as an accent to create impact.

“Our starting ambition was to break the convention of over-branding in hotels. We figure that once you’re in a Crowne Plaza hotel, you know you’re in it,” says NB Studio’s Radley.

The language has become more playful; a notepad urges, “Make mistakes,” while a poster declares, “If business travel turns you on, get a room.” The photography in the branding materials has a candid and vulnerable feel to it. Well-groomed professionals have given way to pictures of guests just waking up or heading to the gym with hair in a messy bun.

“Business travel should be a getaway to something more restorative, more inspiring,” says Radley “Working away from home can be lonely, pressurised and exhausting. Business people are just people; the first job of design is to bring humanity to the experience. Brand language is a vital tool in establishing empathy in professional situations, showing emotional intelligence at important moments or simply surprising guests with warmth and wit.”

Doing away with the boundaries between work and leisure sometimes prompts fears that work will take over completely – after all, that was the point of introducing the separation in the first place. In a business-hotel context, where work can feel impossible to escape, it’s even more important to emphasise the need for downtime. It makes sure guests are functioning at their best in work hours, but it’s also about something simpler, more human and integral to hospitality: whether they genuinely enjoyed their stay.