The seeds of economic recovery will be sewn in the travel industry. No, it will not be the hotels that pump new jobs out onto the market, and it certainly won’t be the airlines, which seem locked in perpetual battle against any positive influence the economy can have on them. Rather, the future will come from inside the hotels – specifically their lobbies. Historically, this venue has been the den of entrepreneurs with high hopes, small starts and an opportunity to pitch their wares. When lobby action heats up, you can forget about the unemployment rate or the value of the dollar against the euro – the economy will begin to come back.
As I mentioned yesterday, I spent most of the past decade not paying too much attention to hotel lobbies and the people in them … you know, like every other traveler does. Lobbies constituted a space between the present and the goal, whether you were entering the hotel or leaving it. To me, they were nothing more than a space to be traversed. My perspective changed this year, and I haven’t been able to get out of my head that every time I walk to my guestroom, I might be passing my next boss.
Hotel lobbies are an obvious choice for business professionals and startup jockeys. They tend to be large, have plenty of seating and afford a considerable degree of anonymity. People come and go all the time, and they generally mind their own business. Even the hotel staff will leave you alone, as long as you stay as unnoticeable as possible and don’t disrupt the guests (it also doesn’t hurt to buy a drink at the bar every now and then). The confluence of these factors means that the entrepreneur can flip open his laptop and walk a potential client or investor through his hopes and dreams, all crisply and clearly detailed in a PowerPoint presentation.I have been to my share of hotel lobbies. My most recent experience came only a few weeks ago, at the Union Square W Hotel. A friend of mine (no names, it’s still early in the proces), invited me to discuss with her and her partner a new business venture they were exploring. On the corner of E 17th St. and Park Avenue South, I dropped my cigar to the street and nudged it softly with my toe through the sewer grate underfoot. With that one fluid motion, my mind raced back to Boston, almost a decade earlier.
The carnage from the collapse of the dotcom economy was still visible back then. Two years after the NASDAQ took its initial plunge and a year after Enron hit the skids, the tech industry up there was in disarray. Networking events held by the Massachusetts eCommerce Association had become job-hunting dens, populated only with buyers – there were no sellers to be found. Of course, entrepreneurship is born of economic woe, as bright minds unable to find a paycheck from someone else are forced to turn to the dreams they’ve nurtured quietly for years – decades, even.
It was against this backdrop that I let my cigar butt fall to the ground where Dartmouth, St. James and Huntington converge and pushed through the revolving doors to the Westin Copley Place Hotel. I met a familiar face in the lobby at the top o f the escalator. No names, of course, even this far down the road – but, he was tall, a tad gaunt and had the obvious look of the academic he had once been. Doc, I’ll call him, had developed an unusual and interesting bit of software – the kind of thing that would have mattered only to a relatively small community of people with deep pockets – that he was trying to peddle in a market that didn’t favor anything with a price tag.
I joined Doc on the couch in the Westin lobby, which was buzzing with the activity of tourists and locals milling around the adjacent Grettacole salon and spa, and he began to discuss his appreciation for hotel lobbies. They offered plenty of space at the right price, and the comings and goings of people who aren’t permanent provided a sufficient screen behind which to hide from employees. He’d held meetings in countless lobbies, he explained, and had no plans to abandon the practice.
I was in no position to criticize. Having just started a consulting firm of my own, I’d done the same thing on a few occasions. My partners and I routinely met in public spaces, including the Amtrak/commuter rail station on Route 128, but none compared to hotel lobbies, which were closer to home, far more comfortable and within stumbling distance of an endless list of restaurants and bars. If the conversation went well in a hotel lobby, you could always go celebrate with a drink afterward.
Doc and I used the same hotel lobby regularly for more than a year, sometimes to meet with each other, and often to pursue our own separate agendas. I ran into other entrepreneurs there, as well. So, I wasn’t surprised when I was summoned to the W at Union Square this year – twice (by two different entrepreneurs).
When I strode into the lobby this year, in the comfortable position of being pitched rather than doing the pitching, I took a look around. The couches weren’t packed, but you certainly wouldn’t get one of your own if you wanted to sit for a moment. There were individuals working alone, fixated on computer screens and scribbling on notepads. I also saw a few groups, huddled around glowing screens, looking over each other’s shoulders and whispering ideas. They could have been business travelers and guests of the hotel, putting their heads together for a quick strategy session before dashing off to see a client, but I sensed otherwise. Memories don’t fade all that easily.
Finally, I saw a hand wave and quickly made my way to the meeting I was about to attend. In a strange way, it felt like home. Within seconds, I was tete-a-tete-a-tete with two people ready to change the world. I felt 30 pounds lighter, nine years younger and almost like I had a full head of hair again.
If you feel down about the current state of our economy, stroll through a big city’s hotel lobby. It might be hard to feel better, but you can be sure a few people in there are working on the cure for what ails you.
This is a week-long series from the writer of White Collar Travel about the role hotels will play not only in the recovery of our economy, but in giving an early home to the businesses that will define tomorrow.