Experts shed light on using experiential hotel design to create a strong identity that differentiates their brand from the rest
What are the current design observations in the hotel sector?
Paola Mantello (PM), executive director for interior design, design and technical services, luxury - MEA, AccorHotels: One of the enduring trends that we are seeing in our industry, and where AccorHotels is setting the pace, is laidback luxury. A luxury hotel experience is no longer seen as being austere and rigid. There has been a shift in the meaning and promise of this concept, and one of those traits that Accor has correctly pointed out is laidback luxury and laidback living. The focus around this trend is to create a ‘home away from home’ feeling, especially around the guestrooms.
Gillian Blair (GB), senior interior designer, Design Worldwide Partnership: In the past, hotels strived for consistency within their brand. They wanted to create a familiar and reliable identity irrespective of location. However, thanks to the exponential growth of the internet, today’s guests are more informed and design savvy than the guests of yesteryears. They value the experience of the stay and want to explore and embrace their surroundings. Design-savvy hotels are responding to this change through a commitment to a strong and individual narrative, creating hotels which are carefully curated and culturally engaging with relevance to the local context.
Elie Choucair (EC), associate partner, Godwin Austen Johnson: Hotels have become travel destinations by themselves, and the biggest trend right now is the focus on personalising hotel experiences for guests. Through creative ideas and unique design solutions, developers and operators are focused on creating meaningful experiences for travellers. In the past, hotels in the region were focused on reflecting the local culture in their designs and creating a unique and authentic experience for guests. There has been a subtle shift away from this approach towards more flexible, technology-oriented concepts, with an emphasis on experimental interiors. Conventional space designs are changing, and open space concepts are being made to cater to tech-savvy and fashion-conscious customer expectations. Operators are looking at new ways to differentiate their brands, and this results in less design standardisation.
Do hotel guests focus on the design aspect when choosing a hotel?
PM: Our guests today are, by and far, well-travelled. This, combined with the endless flow of information, makes them well informed and assertive in their travel choices. As a hotel designer, my task is to really get behind the psychological and emotional aspects of the travel experience and ask the question — ‘how does a guest want to feel’ at a hotel. We also need to take into consideration the environment that we operate in, and cultural sensitivities as well. For example, if I was to design a lobby in Europe, what would come to mind is an open space, communal areas and décor whereas in the Middle East, I would design a lobby which balanced openness combined with separate seating areas to ensure guest privacy.
GB: Regardless of the consumer demographics or room rate paid, the outline of essential requirements remain non-negotiable for guests. These include a comfortable bed, controllable lighting and room temperature, warm powerful shower, sufficient vanity space, ample number of power outlets in useful locations for charging numerous personal devices. These elements don’t sacrifice design and aesthetics, but provide guests with the best of basic necessities they expect to be provided per price point. What we foresee is further defining of these basic pillars and offerings as the underlying hotel categories per hospitality brand.
Maria Erausquin (ME), senior interior designer, Godwin Austen Johnson: Guest standards are increasing and everyone seeks a distinctive experience. This is accomplished through design and tailored services. Designers have a responsibility to create hotels with a unique character. Selecting a hotel is no longer just about its aesthetics and location; it is about the philosophy of the brand which is, in essence, what customers buy into. This is the relevance of design within a greater spectrum. Interior design is a key component of the overall experience.
What are your views on designing interactive spaces such as Instagrammable areas in hotels?
PM: While a growing number of guests, millennials in particular, are looking for interesting and impactful areas in a hotel, I believe this is best accomplished through striking design, art display, interesting furniture and floral arrangements. It is more about creating an area or space worthy of a selfie than with selfie area in mind as that can undermine the flow and the synergy of the design. Some of our brands are in itself extremely ‘Instagrammable’.
It is important to note here the role that food and beverage plays when it comes to social media and digital platforms — food is one of the most photographed subjects today. I work closely with our food and beverage teams in a hotel to ensure that the design of restaurants also fit the brief when it comes to cuisine and culinary styles, which includes creative design backdrops to take the ultimate foodie photo.
Are designers becoming more open to mix and match colours in hotel guestrooms?
PM: Hotel designers are becoming more edgy and are moving away from the neutral colour trend from years ago. However, I would exercise some caution here to ensure that the overall design remains cohesive and is timeless, especially given that a hotel’s design lifespan is typically seven years. Colour trends, mix and matching, should only be considered if they tell or amplify the brand’s story and what feelings it should evoke. Another route to take is to mix and match guestroom accessories such as carpets and rugs, lighting and fixtures. This provides more scope for innovation and can stay current with the times given that these pieces can be replaced without undermining the overall design scheme.
What are the new principles in lobby design?
PM: Lobby design looks a lot less traditional than ever before. While relaxation and cosiness are fitting moods to create, it goes beyond that to a communal space, emanating softness and fluidity. We are also seeing a shift from some of the traditional materials that are being used; for instance, the shift from marble to warmer materials such as wood and stone. Also wherever possible, the line between indoor lobby space and outdoor is becoming blurred with the use of greenery inside and out to create a linear progression. Same goes for outdoor furniture that has the same look and feel as indoor furniture but is more durable for seasonal weather.
GB: Lobbies are no longer a transient space for check-ins and passing greetings. Now, they are viewed as an annex of the now smaller guestrooms. Today’s millennial traveller is informal by nature, so we are now taking the reception desk barrier down, and completely changing the purpose of this area to ‘anything goes’. These large, open, multi-functional living-space lobbies are the social epicentre of the hotel, abundant with power outlets for charging personal devices and a 24-hour coffee supply, where guests will spend most of their downtime, with a hotel team member on standby with an iPad in-hand.
EC: Often, a guest’s first impression of a hotel is the lobby and so it is important that it reflects the identity of the hotel. You only get one chance to create a good impression and we believe that the designer’s main efforts should be focused on transforming the public areas into warm, distinctive and memorable spaces. Hotel lobbies today take a multifunctional approach with creative space segmentation and flexible furniture arrangements designed to create an open and welcoming social or business environment for socialising, working or networking with colleagues.
What are the things designers look at while working with outdoor spaces?
PM: Crucial to the health and well-being movement in design is the ability for guests to connect with nature. In order to achieve this, it is about looking at ways to bring the outdoors in and vice versa. Outdoor spaces can be transformed into living room spaces; indoor furniture can be anchored with outdoor rugs; outdoor lighting can be made to mimic indoor lighting to create a seamless space; and opera windows can be used to create that flow between the outside and the indoors. In addition to this melding of the indoors and out, there is considerable momentum towards performance landscapes, including outdoor working areas with external Wi-Fi points as well as initiatives for private member terraces for local community integration.
How has technology and Internet of Things affected design in hotels?
EC: Technology and the introduction of innovative products and materials have certainly had a hand in today’s design shift with the hotel design approach shifting to a more technology-driven concept — particularly in the public areas which are increasingly taking on greater significance as they become the venue for casual business meetings and a place to hang out. Hotel design will be guided principally by this change with hotels continuing to embrace technology within the design approach.
PM: Emerging technologies play a more prominent role in the guest experience. Smart devices have made design a lot simpler and aesthetic with the introduction of fine finishes available on lighting controls and power outlets. The introduction of wireless and bluetooth technology components as well as wireless tablet controls have made guestrooms, meeting rooms and conference rooms a lot cleaner from a design perspective as controls can now be put anywhere in the area without the need for conduits or wiring and fixed switches.
What kind of materials are being strongly favoured by designers?
PM: The use of natural materials is on the increase due to guest preference. Nature has always been a key element for the design of the interiors, and new technologies have enabled designers more scope to use natural finishes. For instance, new lacquers allow a timber finish to become more durable and suitable for commercial projects. Without altering the aesthetic, this allow us to maintain a sense of integrity, while respecting these natural materials. Wood flooring in heavy traffic area is another example. Typically, wood would be avoided as durability was questionable, especially in a high traffic area. However, there are new wood floor products and materials that are both durable and robust. If chosen well, they can also be environmentally ethical and sometimes, surprisingly cost-effective.
How does lighting contribute to hotels?
PM: Lighting plays an important role in designing hospitality spaces. The main consideration is to ensure the perfect balance between decoration and functionality. Technically, LED circadian lighting is the preferred lighting choice from a sustainability view. Lighting control systems can also mirror the variations in intensity and colour that are intrinsic in the sun’s daily cycle and can deliver different types of light at the right time in the day, which in turn supports the internal clock of the human body, offering a healthier and less disruptive alternative to the traditionally built environment. Lighting design has evolved considerably with an emphasis today on creating various atmospheres and moods through flexible lighting.
What is the next big thing in hotel design?
PM: Well-being will take a more prominent role in hotel design moving forward as we continue to embrace environmental responsibility, new technology and holistic design. This will lead to unique, authentic and memorable experiences. Hotel design will move beyond just being visual to an emotional experience — how one feels in a particular space.