Designing Warm Outdoor Spaces for Winter 2020

Fire pit / hotel outdoor spaces

As temperatures drop in the Northern Hemisphere, many people are eyeing winter with trepidation. Outdoor spaces have provided physical and mental respite from the pandemic—a chance for people to stretch their legs, chat with friends from a safe distance, and stare at something other than four walls. Summertime propped up patio dining and the “streetery” scene, poolside lounging, and road trips to nearby destinations—outings that brought people joy and kept the tourism industry afloat.

But now that the days are growing shorter and colder in many areas across the United States, hoteliers are left wondering whether people will still want to spend time outdoors. They likely will if rooftops, terraces, and lawns radiate warmth. The same ingenuity that spurred creative and safe solutions to relax and socialize during the early days of the pandemic can kindle workable and inspired outdoor experiences for locals and visitors this winter.

Just as guests will need to bundle up in layers to venture outside in the cold, winterizing outdoor spaces involves curating layers of design and programming choices that add up to a winter wonderland.

Furniture and Fixtures

Heat and shelter are first on the checklist for winterizing outdoor spaces. A shelter should embrace the outdoors rather than cover it up. Think about appropriately distanced “pods” where individual groups or families can sit together—whether umbrellas, tents, yurts, transparent geodesic domes, or even ski gondolas.


There are also numerous options for heating elements: fire pits, heating lamps, and freestanding electric or propane heaters that are already common in the restaurant industry. Depending on the available resources, properties can offer freshly laundered blankets to guests spending time outdoors or invite guests to bring their own. Where possible, there is nothing like the hypnotic quality of a crackling wood fire and the aromatic scents of pinon and cedar to keep guests enchanted.

No one enjoys sitting on cold metal or wood. Add cushions in cleanable fabrics to outdoor furniture that will keep guests cozy and comfortable. As for tabletops, opt for non-porous materials; the absence of cracks and crevices will make it easier for staff to wipe them clean.

Food and Beverage

If the property has a restaurant, tailor the menu to reinforce the coziness of the outdoor environment—think roasting marshmallows over the campfire to make s’mores or a steaming cup of hot cocoa. Make dining a main event and invite guests to participate to distract them from any lingering chill. For added warmth, enjoy imaginative interpretations of fondue around the traditional hot pot, or have guests build their own pizzas to be cooked in wood-fired ovens. Outdoor display cooking will keep guests excited and provide another heat source. Of course, creative cocktails (e.g., boozy hot cocoa, mulled wine, and hot toddies) inspired by the cold will generate plenty of internal warmth and conviviality.

But restaurant meals are not the only way to entice guests. Look to Santa Fe’s Canyon Road Farolito Walk on Christmas Eve for inspiration. This holiday tradition lights up gardens, courtyards, and the exterior walls of historic buildings with paper lanterns, drawing residents and visitors for a stroll and Christmas carols as they sip on mulled cider and nibble on biscochitos—the buttery, cinnamon-dusted cookies that are traditional in New Mexico.

Memories and Ambiance

People want to escape the doom and gloom. Hotels can step in by offering low-risk ways to break from the routine and enjoy the company of others outside.

Place candle lanterns throughout outdoor spaces and add festival lights everywhere. The sparkle is magnetic and intoxicating and adds that perfect touch of cozy hygge that the Danish culture has mastered to fend off the darkness of a long cold winter.

Hotels will need every ounce of creativity to get through this. Efforts are as much about staying in business as they are about lifting people’s spirits during trying times. But reinventing outdoor spaces and offerings under restrictive circumstances does not mean guests have to settle for inferior experiences. Hotels can still make magic happen.


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Mary Alice Palmer is a principal and director of hospitality interiors at HKS. She has a unique understanding of the creative process, stemming from her experience designing handbags, luxury goods, and Hollywood film sets. She is a recognized voice in the industry and was a college roommate of fashion icon Tom Ford.