The Dealmakers’ Ballroom: Understanding the hotel lobby phenomenon

Where will the future of our economy – from the global economy, even – come from? Forget about garages in Silicon Valley, illicit side projects in Manhattan cubicle farms and the online tinkering that happens in the Harvard dorms. Instead, take a look at hotels. Specifically, peek into the lobbies.

As travelers, we pass through the hotel lobby. The only reason to stick around is because you’re waiting to meet a local friend or your kid forgot something and had to run back up to the room. Sure, there are lobby bars that give you a reason to hang out for a while, but that’s not really the lobby. I’m talking about the couches and chairs that may be festooned with the day’s newspaper but don’t come with drink service or any other raison d’etre.

Yet, as hotel guests walk from the front door to the elevator bank, especially in major cities, there are always a few people lingering, alone or in groups. They talk in hushed tones, pluck away at laptop keys and occasionally shuffle papers. These transients look like any other business traveler … because they have trained themselves to blend in.

The reality is not what it seems.Hotel lobbies offer great places to meet. You can usually pick up a wi-fi connection, people come and go without asking questions and there’s plenty of traffic to conceal the fact that you don’t belong. And, you don’t. If you’re among these hotel-squatters, you’re not a guest of the hotel, and you probably shouldn’t be availing yourself of the free meeting space. Nonetheless, it happens all the time – and good things come from it.

Cash-strapped entrepreneurs have been using free spaces to meet for years. I first saw (and took part in) the practice in late 2001, when the Boston area was reeling from the dual pressures of the dotcom market’s implosion and the economic effects of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. I was starting a business at the time, and I was meeting with other entrepreneurs to discuss potential partnerships. Though we met in Starbucks locations, train stations and any number of public places, hotel lobbies were always the most comfortable.

And of course, I didn’t want to bring any potential business partner to my apartment (or my neighborhood, for that matter).

All that was almost a decade ago, and I haven’t spent a whole lot of time meeting in hotel lobbies since then – until this year. In the past few months, I’ve already been to two business meetings at the W Hotel Union Square in New York to talk to entrepreneurs with grand dreams and carefully managed execution plans. It occurred to me that the ashes of the financial crisis are awaiting their Phoenix, and I may have met it.

Hotel lobbies do serve a purpose, even if not for the hotel or its guests. This week, we’ll take a look at how entrepreneurs use these vast, free spaces to take their shots at becoming your next employer.

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.