Top 4 rules for hotel designers

Auberge's Chileno Bay Resort in Los Cabos, Mexico, makes the most of its surroundings.

LAS VEGAS—Ask 20 hoteliers what they want in hotel design and you’ll get 20 answers—but some concepts have become cohesive across the industry. At HD Expo, held at Mandalay Bay Resort last week, four hotel leaders shared their insights about what all designers should know when creating hospitality.

1. Be Authentically Authentic

“There are two things guests want,” said Mark Harmon, founder of Auberge Resorts. “They want a transformative experience and they want connection.” Sometimes those two collide, he said, like when a hotel organizes a unique marriage proposal for guests. “Transformative experiences [guide] a lot of what we’re doing.” The guide to connection, meanwhile, is finding new ways to help guests connect with the location.

For that, authenticity is key. “We’ve always tried to be authentic to what we do,” said Brad Wilson, president of Ace Hotel Group. “What we’ve always tried to do is make our projects social.” This mindset is not exclusive to millennials, he added, but has become a social movement for all ages. “It’s how people live today in a connected world. We have to reinvent that in each environment, in every city for every customer.” For example, while the brand’s New York hotel was notable for its lobby, the Los Angeles hotel doesn’t have a main lobby at all. “In LA, it’s about being outside. No one in LA wants to sit inside. There, it’s about the rooftop and the trees.” 

Jay Stein, CEO of Dream Hotel Group, agreed, and said that his company has avoided “formulas.”

The real importance to staying authentic is how you invent the hotel for each market, he added, noting that the term “authentic” has started to lose its meaning. “I hear people say, ‘We use reclaimed wood, so it’s authentic,’ but if it’s applied, is it really authentic?”

2. Know Your Target Demographics

“One of the things we suffer from is trying to be something for everyone,” said Viceroy CEO Bill Walshe. “Inevitably, you will fail.” 

For example, a designer might try to have the same hotel appeal to a retired suburban couple as a young urban couple, rather than cater to exactly what one or two demographics want. “It can’t happen,” Walshe said. “Dolce & Gabbana know who they’re designing for. The future for hospitality design is understanding who our customer is and deliver quality with integrity and respect.” 

3. Activation is King

After 10 years of seeing the apps on our phones update instantly and regularly, consumers have become accustomed to regular upgrades in their products. This expectation extends to their hospitality experiences—but the industry is generally in a seven-year renovation cycle, Walshe noted. “The tolerance, patience and acceptance of sameness from our audience is changing,” he said. “I grew up in the industry where location was king. The equivalent now is that activation is king. In order to satisfy a returning guest, you have to constantly surprise them. They can’t come back to something that looks the same.” 

Speed of development will become increasingly vital going forward, Wilson said. “It’s a challenge for the industry,” he acknowledged, and noted that the prominence of programming at hotels is a way to bring hospitality beyond the physical walls of a hotel. “As we shift from the physicality of hotels into experiential, that’s what we can execute,” he said. “There’s a life beyond the physical, and it can be changed more frequently.” 

4. Be Willing to Truly Collaborate

No hotelier does it all alone, of course—but when several type-A personalities get together to create something new and distinctive, they may find themselves butting heads rather than making progress. To avoid that, start small and find the right partners. “Come up with the germ of an idea that expresses what it’s about,” Harmon said. For Auberge’s upcoming Lodge at Blue Sky, opening late 2018 near Park City, Utah, the theme is “luxury with wild abandon,” which doesn’t dictate what the ultimate design style will be. “We know who our market is,” he said. “When we look for collaborators, we want people who can take the idea and run with it.” 

For Walshe, the essence of a successful collaboration is as much about “why” people work together as “how.” “We’re a company run on ideology,” he said. “The people I collaborate with share values.” 

Ultimately, he said, when it comes to hotel design, those values boil down to one concept: “Positive disruption…has to be disruption with a purpose. Disruption with no purpose is interruption.”