The Dealmakers’ Ballroom: How to use a hotel lobby and not get caught

You’d figure that hotel management might be a tad irked by squatters. The entrepreneurs who take up space in hotel lobbies generally aren’t paying a dime, and there’s always the risk that they could get in the way of hotel operations or wandering guests. And, let’s get back to that part about not paying a dime. The entire reason a hotel exists is to turn a profit, and just about every aspect of a hotel is designed to engage you in the process.

Even with this notion of essentially robbing the hotel of a profit opportunity, entrepreneurs use lobbies all the time to conduct business. I never had a problem when I was a part of this scene, and at a recent meeting, I was told ahead of time to let the front desk know who I was and where I would be, to make it easier for my cohorts to find me. This goes beyond merely taking up space – it involves broadcasting our presence and engaging the staff to help us out. I opted not to take this step, preferring to roll the dice when it came to identification (and had no problem finding my contacts, thanks to Twitter profile pictures).

Back in my day, we weren’t so bold. In fact, we made an effort to blend in, even though simply being quiet and not bothering anybody would have been enough to keep us out of trouble. Those among us with paranoid streaks (including me) shared tips on how to stay below the radar.

So, if you’re thinking about getting a new business off the ground and need some cheap meeting space, here’s how you can use a hotel lobby without getting busted (not that anyone will really care about your presence anyway).1. Dress for success
If you look like a business person, you’ll probably be treated like one. You don’t have to don your best duds for the occasion, but you should at least step it up to business casual. Dress like you could be at the office of some Fortune 500 company. This increases the likelihood that you’ll be mistaken for a guest who is traveling on business.

2. Maintain a small footprint
Taking ownership of a large portion of table space or stretching out on the couch will invite unwanted attention. Remember: this isn’t your space – you really shouldn’t even be there at all. When your fellow business folks show up, keep your meeting contained. You don’t have to sit on each other’s laps, but you should avoid the temptation to sprawl out.

3. Use your inside voice
This is smart for two reasons. First, you don’t want to broadcast your strategy, particularly if (a) you actually have a good idea and (b) you’re in the early stages of developing it. Running your mouth at an inappropriate volume could effectively deliver your entire business to a would-be competitor. Also, you really don’t want anybody to know why you’re in the hotel lobby. Get loud, and an employee may decide that the hotel doesn’t need your non-revenue-generating presence.

4. Clean up after yourself
Again, you don’t want anyone to know what you’re working on – nobody needs a head-to-head competitor that’s seen his playbook. Also, a great spot is worth revisiting. If you plan to have meetings at a particular hotel lobby again, you need to show that you aren’t going to create work for the staff that isn’t being offset with money you spend.

5. Stay at the perimeter
Plant yourself as far out of the way as you can – out of sight, out of mind. Further, you won’t be taking prime real estate that a guest could want, which means you won’t be interfering with the hotel’s effort to make money. Simply not screwing things up for anyone else can buy you plenty of latitude from the staff. Don’t give anyone a reason to care, and they won’t.

6. Spend some cash every now and then
Give a little. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than rent, and the space is much less embarrassing than where you live (especially if you have roommates). Stop at the restaurant for lunch or the bar for a drink every now and then … and tip well. Don’t go into any details about why you’re choosing these venues; just spend some money and let the staff know that it’s appreciated.

7. Have a rotation
Show up at the same hotel lobby every day, and you’re bound to generate some suspicion. Mix up your routine. Test out several hotel lobbies, and vary your meting spots. You’ll undoubtedly have your favorites, but you don’t want the employees to know you by name.

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.