Away from Home: Designing the Hotel Experience

March 15, 2019

For over 35 years, Principal Patrick Burke, AIA has led Michael Graves Architecture & Design to create unique hospitality experiences for hotel operators and travelers around the globe, in Asia, Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East.

As the hospitality industry has shifted — from making travelers feel at home while away to providing more dynamic experiences — boutique hotels have evolved to create hyper-local, immersive environments. Our firm has both witnessed and contributed to this movement. More and more, I am convinced that authentic character that draws on the local physical and social context is a key ingredient in creating compelling hospitality experiences. Valuing the local environment also supports our ever-increasing emphasis on wellness and sustainability.

Designing Interesting Experiences

Interesting guest experiences continue to drive hotel trends. We’ve seen this for years in the food industry as our everyday encounters with food have become wider and more global. Food and beverages that were once sought-out specialties are now widespread. The experience became more than the coffee, the croissant or the sushi, hence the coffee shop, the patisserie, the sushi bar. They are remembered as places, specially designed places that stimulate the senses.

Our firm, like some other designers in the hospitality field, has been working for years on reimagining and customizing guest experiences. Despite all that’s changed, we have consistently found that savvy travelers value memorable experiences unique to the places they visit. They value destinations that embody a sense of place and resonate with history, the environment, and local culture and cuisine. What differentiates these places is the power of architecture and design to create experience.

This expectation of having an “experience” wasn’t always the case.

Overcoming Sameness: the Rise of the Boutique Hotel and the Signature Restaurant

Sameness used to dominate the hospitality industry, in both interiors and services. When we started designing hotels and resorts in the 1980s, hotel chains — like fast food chains — thought consistency of product was paramount. Clearly, there are tremendous business efficiencies to be gained, straight to the bottom line. The industry’s business experts famously characterized hotels as money-making machines, operating with precision, cookie-cutter style. Public relations promoted the value of consistency: the guest experience would be the same no matter where in the United States or abroad, a predictable comfort to weary travelers. Brand loyalty surged. Frequent traveler points became popular. Design was secondary to brand standards. The guest experience was rarely unique since it wasn’t supposed to be.

At that time, hotel operators sought to deliver a sense of being at home while away. That has evolved dramatically. Many of today’s travelers are looking to get away from home. They seek new living, working and dining experiences they don’t have at home, whether traveling for business or pleasure. People want to be surprised. They crave opportunities for new experiences.

Signature Japanese restaurant Kimonos, located at the Walt Disney Dolphin and Swan — by Michael Graves Architecture and Design

Unique travel experiences took hold when exciting interior designs for boutique hotels and themed interiors were pioneered in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At first, there were just a few eccentric examples. Before long, everyone in the hospitality industry was influenced by boutique hotels and the industry was transformed. Bold and customized designs were much more attractive than standard ones. This phenomenon occurred not only in hotels but also in signature restaurants and affected both the design and the services.

Where Consistency Matters: Services and Details

In the digital age, the physical environment does not have to be predictable, but robust Wi-Fi and reliable cell phone coverage are absolute requirements. Today’s travelers appreciate environments geared to wellness, good food, and concierge services — from pet-friendly services to Zip Cars. There is an explosion of these ideas to the point that the diversity of choices is remarkable. What an opportunity for developers, operators and designers!

I also find that travelers appreciate attention to thoughtful details, especially in guestrooms and their bathrooms. How light falls on the mirror, where to store toiletries neatly, furniture that works with portable technology all matter, down to inches. When those details are done well, we have a better experience.

A Few Examples

I would like to give four very different examples, each of which addresses authenticity and sustainability, and encourages meaningful interaction between people and place, largely as a result of their character and response to context:

· Early work that contributed to the rise of boutique hotels;

· An immersive Egyptian seaside experience that draws on the local architectural and landscape context;

· A modern, engaging and highly sustainable resort in Singapore; and

· An urban hotel in Cairo opening in 2019 that balances modernity with traditional motifs to create a luxury experience.

Boutique Experience Writ Large: The Dolphin and the Swan

Character is important in architecture and interior design, especially in hospitality projects, because it communicates the identity of a place, its personality. Character might be inspired by the history and physical context, but it can also be inspired by a fabricated experience, which coincidentally may be no less authentic.

Walt Disney Dolphin and Swan exterior

An example of the latter is the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. For its time, it created an interactive and immersive experience. Children could jump from beach blanket to beach blanket along the guestroom corridor carpet. Conventioneers passed through groves of artificial palm trees to enter ballrooms filled with gigantic flower motifs. The hotels surprised everyone who expected a standard large-scale complex with over 2,000 keys and the fifth largest convention complex in the Southeast operated by standard flags.

Instead, these hotels were associated with an entertainment company that saw value in entertainment architecture. They were meant to provoke fun and delight. Boutique hotels and themed restaurants were just being conceived at this time and our designs became a large-scale version of a growing trend. The complex was authentic in that it fit with the neighboring theme parks and sustainably managed the site’s land and water, but it was largely a grand experiential invention.

Character and Context on the Egyptian Waterfront: Sheraton Miramar in El Gouna

While we always strived for designs that fit the surrounding context, we learned a valuable lesson about experiential design in a series of coastal resort commissions in Egypt. Although the Miramar was completed years ago, we have just renovated it within the same imaginative spirit but with today’s eye.

Michael Graves and I were invited to Egypt to see a site on the Red Sea in El Gouna. We were invited, as it turned out, because the developer liked an Art Deco-inspired apartment building that we designed in South Beach Miami. What the client had been building in Egypt were modern hotels that were somewhat “Mediterranean” but mostly they were generic midrise blocks on the beach. They looked like they could be anywhere in the world, even Miami.

On our way to see the site, we passed through small Egyptian towns built for local workers servicing the hotels. They were charming villages, low in scale, built using local vernacular construction techniques with stuccoed handmade brick walls and roofs of brick vaults and domes. We were inspired to create a hotel experience that was just as authentic. Most of the guest audience came from Europe and we sought to create a resort experience that was specific to Egypt.

Sheraton Miramar in El Gouna highlighting the waterways, lagoons, and garden courtyards throughout the site

We also realized that creating even a low-rise complex on the beach meant that only a few guestrooms would enjoy water views. We therefore created waterways, lagoons and garden courtyards throughout the site, ensuring that the guestrooms were always oriented to water or landscape. Now that the vegetation is fully grown, the experience is one of literally being immersed in nature surrounded by architecture inspired by local vernacular.

Modern Boutique and Sustainable Design: Resorts World Sentosa

Recently completed, this 3.5-million-square-foot integrated eco-resort in the leisure island of Sentosa in Singapore is a destination attractive to families and people of all ages. The intention was to provide obvious public value beyond the large-scale casino that is the development’s economic engine. The attractions — from theme parks to a maritime museum and an aquarium — were each intended to be interactive and immersive. Given Singapore’s location and historical relationship with the sea and trade routes, facilities related to maritime history and marine ecology dominate the experience.

To create variety, the brand positioning and interiors are different in the six boutique hotels, the world class ESPA spa, the many food and beverage outlets (we designed 14 of them, all very different) and the theaters and entertainment venues throughout the resort.

Maritime Experiential Museum by Michael Graves

What would give the resort its sense of place? The natural characteristics of the site and climate. The site is located on the waterfront of a tropical island at the base of the steep hills of a heritage forest. Here, architecture and landscape converge to create a special sense of place, a getaway from urban life. We managed the hot and humid, and frequently rainy climate by creating open-air but covered walkways throughout the site. These and other intermediary spaces between the indoors and the open air allow people to be comfortable in all weather conditions and reinforce the atmosphere of being in a resort.

The Most Luxurious Address in Cairo: Nile Corniche and St. Regis Cairo

Nearing completion and set to open in 2019, the 2-million–square-foot mixed-use complex known as Nile Corniche marries the sophistication of the storied St. Regis hotel brand with custom décor using materials and motifs authentic to the region. From the exterior facades to the public interiors and guestrooms, the character balances traditional Egyptian motifs with contemporary international flair befitting the hotel’s location and its flag. The hotel is both cosmopolitan and local, creating an imaginative experience unique to its city and site.

St Regis Cairo by Michael Graves Guestroom located at the St. Regis Hotel, Cairo