Five Keys to Hotel Rooftop F&B Success
Expert designers talk blending breezes, beverages, and business.
For the clearest view on rooftop F&B venue design, it makes the most sense to start—ahem—at the top. A recent conversation with the designers of noteworthy high-rising restaurant and bar concepts yielded some hard-earned advice for hoteliers about top-level restaurants and bars as well as outdoor spaces in general.
New Zealand-native Danu Hassik, design director of Parts and Labor Design in New York City, drove the vibe of the 12-story, 224-room boutique Thompson Nashville (which opened in 2016 and made Condé Nast Traveler’s Hot List in 2017 as “the hippest design hotel in Nashville’s already hip Gulch neighborhood”) and its rooftop restaurant and bar L.A. Jackson. The latter hosts views of downtown with regional Southern brews, craft cocktails, and an eclectic wine program, and a menu of shareable small plates.
And Rob Polacek, chief creative officer of San Francisco-based Puccini Group, has honed his rooftop F&B venue acumen through projects such as the Conrad Chicago, whose top floor is home to bourbon-focused Baptiste & Bottle and Noyane (which means “hidden roof” in Japanese), a seasonal rooftop concept by Chef Richard Sandoval, featuring Japanese sakes, beers, and whiskeys.
The two shared with us some key do’s, don’ts, and considerations for hotels mulling the addition of a rooftop venue or improving an existing one.
1.Create an Identity/Experience
There’s more to impressing guests than hoisting them onto the roof for the view alone. Success is no longer about merely having a rooftop spot; it’s about making it a unique one.
“We want to create some kind of storyline that applies to the destination itself,” Polacek says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the hotel; the rooftop can have its own storyline. It’s great to have food and beverage on a rooftop, in order to create a concept and storyline behind that—and not overly complicate it with BOH capabilities. If you have a really limited BOH, you stick to a limited menu concept that’s easy to produce and maintain. If you don’t have a lot of BOH storage for beverage, the menu should reflect that.”
Crafting the right experience requires understanding guest needs. For the Conrad Chicago, Puccini did a great deal of research in Chicago and looked at a number of rooftop concepts at hotels and office buildings. “What we found was that the most successful ones had some kind of food component—not just a bar,” Polacek explains. “And the ones that didn’t have it regretted it. Usually the manager we would talk to would say that they’d get a group of people coming in after work, and the minute one person’s hungry, and you don’t have any food, everyone goes. We realized that rooftops are really popular with groups; the majority of people who go there are in a group of four to six. It’s usually the post-work or late-evening crowd. Food is always a factor. If one person is hungry, and there’s nothing to eat—even if it’s basic stuff—you lose customers.
Polacek says Puccini encourages clients who are looking at doing rooftops to have a full program and determine what they want to be known for. “If it’s just a rooftop bar, great, but the trend is moving more and more to get people outside, particularly in urban environments—to get people to eat and drink and have a great experience outdoors.”
For its rooftop work at the Thompson Nashville, a new-build hotel, Hassik says Parts & Labor wanted to create an experience with an essence of vacation feel—a departure from the aesthetics of the rest of the hotel and the Marsh House restaurant on the ground floor. The vibe is light-hearted, with pink flamingos and bright colors throughout. Garage doors open to the outdoor area, creating one space when open. The large racetrack bar in the center of the room is the focal point, “sending the message that it’s a place to have a good time,” Hassik says.
2. Re-Think Seating
Part of that great outdoor experience and making guests comfortable is a function of seating styles and settings.
“We always try to create different seating areas,” Hassik says. “No matter how often people come, there’s going to be a variety of different kinds of groups looking for different experiences. Some want to be at the bar, elevated slightly; some want more of an intimate setting and to have a conversation without being drowned out. When you walk into L.A. Jackson, there’s a lounge moment, which creates a nice pause to get your bearings and be greeted by the hostess and find your spot. The bar becomes the main focal point of the room, and then we’ve got perimeter banquettes and two-tops. It’s a nice area for people to have a slightly more intimate moment away from the rest of the room. We also have communal tables—one when you walk into the room and one on the opposite side of the room. Outside, we’ve got banquettes, two-tops, and lounge seating—as well as a couple picnic-style tables.”
3. Ingress/Egress is a Deal-Maker or -Breaker
Older hotels present issues with retrofitting existing elevator systems that may strain at the added traffic to get to the roof—or there may be no existing way to get up there at all.
“If you think about the rooftop, it’s a final destination,” Polacek says. “It’s the ultimate goal, to get there. The guest rooftop experience starts at the street, and that includes proper ingress and egress. When clients come to us and say they have a great roof with a great view, we first ask what the circulation is like. If you’re sharing a two-elevator bay in a hotel, it gets tricky. Back-of-house services, including trash removal, that have to occupy the same elevators with the guests, don’t make for a great experience. When assessing an existing building, if it has grandfathered clauses, that’s usually a red flag that means it’s not going to happen.”
Having to add another elevator shaft, for instance, typically adds cost that outweighs the ROI proposition the rooftop venue might offer.
“We worked on a couple projects in San Francisco where we had to go in and do upgrades to the entire building,” Polacek says. “A client wanted to put a ballroom on the roof, but it wasn’t feasible. It’s harder with renovation; it’s a little easier with new builds, but only if the idea is there in the beginning of the planning stages and not an afterthought. If you think of it later in the construction, you can make the changes, but there’s more cost involved.”
4. Plan for the Unexpected
Weather can be unpredictable, so designers must plan for any kind of day. Design details such as convertible glass roofing, retractable canopies, or detailed fire pits can help to protect guests from the elements. Weather-proofing the bar can also extend the space’s use beyond the traditional rooftop season.
“At the Conrad Chicago, there was a budget, of course, but we felt there needed to be some kind of structural shade up there,” Polacek says. “We couldn’t do umbrellas, because of the wind. They said we couldn’t put umbrellas up there or chairs that weighed less than a certain weight, because they’d just blow off. We had to put the extra investment into a steel lid that would open and close, with canvas inserts. It allowed us to put in plug-in heating units, within that structure. So, we were able to extend the opportunity beyond the summer months, to the late spring and early fall, which helps the bottom line. That’s a big factor: making sure the guest feels comfortable enough, out of the sun and warm in the evening. Sometimes it’s hard to go back after the fact and put in gas lines or drag up heating units.
“We’ve done a couple rooftops where we’ve used a canopy system that’s more of a tensile structure—they almost look like sails and overlap a bit. With technology today, there’s a lot of great material out there that allows shade and shadow. Most of that material is actually military-grade that they use in the desert, so that’s always a great material to use instead of a hard structure. If the client can’t afford a hard structure, it’s easier and less expensive to put some posts around the space and string the tensile structure across that. And now there’s a lot of manufacturers that produce canopy umbrellas that you put on your deck, and they’re moving into this shade structure system that’s off the shelf and more attainable. We’re seeing that trend, from hard structures to more tensile structures.”
Puccini favors using natural planting as well for natural shading, both for comfort and aesthetics. “Large trees, potted plants—something that softens the space,” Polacek says. “A lot of times, with an existing property, the rooftop looks onto the top of another building or is next to mechanical units. We make sure there’s enough in the budget up front to add as much planting and landscape as we can to soften the edges and create this magical experience. You come all the way to the rooftop, and you’re in this beautiful, natural garden, in an urban environment. It takes the experience to the next level.”
5. Look Beyond—and Below—Rooftops
Circling back to the idea that the bird’s-eye view is only a small factor in the rooftop experience, remember that outdoor spaces in general, even at ground level, can cultivate a welcoming atmosphere for revenue to flow.
“We have some projects we’re working on that don’t have the opportunity for a rooftop, but we’ve noticed clients are putting more attention into developing outdoor space that’s previously been underutilized,” Polacek notes. “We’re working on the Portola Hotel & Spa in Monterey, California, where we recently completed the conversion of the lobby and restaurant into a newer concept. They have a lot of outdoor space; it’s a 1970s building that spiders, if you will, with many outdoor avenues and areas that are created by the way the building was designed. The client has asked us to look at a lot of those exterior spaces and come up with design concepts to liven up the spaces. Guests love to be outside for F&B. I’m seeing more spending to create better outdoor spaces.”
And even if you go up truly sky-high, it’s still more about the immediate setting than the view. For example, take Puccini’s current rooftop project in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for Kempinski Hotels, on the 60th floor of a property projected to open in 2021. Even at this highest rooftop concept to date, Polacek is still talking about the layout, not the sightlines, and the importance of examining the guest needs.
“Particularly in an Asian market, there’s an expectation of rooftops there, because of the climate,” says Polacek. “The most important design elements are the use of lighting, water, and landscaping.”