4 rules to avoid hotel design disasters

The teak chairs at the Hapuna Beach Hotel had to have extra footing added when the originals proved too low to use.

It is a truth that is universally acknowledged: No matter how carefully a designer or hotelier plans, something will go wrong, and the team will need to find a solution—quickly. “Design challenges come with just about anything,” said Tom Cross, hotel manager at the Hapuna Prince Hotel in Waimea, Hawaii. “As much as you try to plan, things happen.”

But challenges also give designers and hoteliers opportunities to look like heroes when they solve a problem. Here are some examples.

1. Be prepared

Shipping costs can vary from supplier to supplier, and knowing what the average shipping time is can make a huge difference. Cross, having worked in Hawaii for years, is familiar with how long it takes different suppliers to send their products to his hotel, and plans accordingly. Due to the holidays, he noted, December is especially difficult in terms of deliveries, and delays of more than two months can be expected for this time of year.

Adequate preparation can also mean regular site inspections during the construction process to make sure all of the teams are following the plan to the letter. June Ericson, senior design director at J/Brice Design International, was working on the new-build Grand Heritage Hotel in Doha, Qatar, when her team noticed a problem. “We designed the building with the team over there, and they built the walls with concrete blocks and layers of material so they were wider than the plans showed.” Because the building was shaped with slight curve, guestrooms in the middle of the structure were narrower than those on the ends. The thicker walls, however, meant that the entryways in some of these central guestrooms would be only 18 inches wide.

During a site meeting early on, the J/Brice team noticed the problem and took action. “We had to have them tear it out and do it over,” Ericson recalled. The affected area in these rooms also included the bathrooms, so instead of five-fixture spaces, the team combined the shower and bath, adjusted the size of the fixture, eliminated a few extra elements and was able to move the entryway walls to provide enough space. “It was complicated, but we caught it,” Ericson said. “We could adapt it, so we got the same look in those rooms.”  

There are “a lot of instances” in design when a space “doesn’t get built how you design it,” Ericson said, and a small change—like extra material on the walls—can make a big difference, like creating a hallway that was too narrow to pass through. “That’s why we’re careful to put in notes like ‘this is a clear dimension that must be held’ on our floorplans.”  

2. Get a sample before committing

It may seem obvious to say so, but logistics can sometimes make acquiring a sample of furniture difficult. Get the sample anyway. “It is worth investing a little time and money to test it before it is replicated many times,” said May Poon, a principal at CoberKoeda. “This is the chance to be sure it is not only a pretty design but a functional design. Great design has to be both.”

When renovating the Hapuna Prince Hotel’s Ocean Terrace in 2013, the property’s design team selected a dining table with a dramatic, unconventional look: Instead of a central, circular post to support the table from below, this table’s rectangular wicker post flared out from the top to the bottom.

But when the tables arrived and were assembled, the central post flared out more than what was indicated in the photos and specs, which left little room for guests’ legs underneath. “People could not pull into the table completely,” Cross recalled. Worse yet, the hotel had already discarded its previously used tables, forcing it to work with what it now had. The hotel team was able to remake the table base, reusing the tops and reattaching the base with a narrower point underneath. “It didn’t flare out quite as much,” Cross said.

Like Poon, Cross said that a hotel should always get a mockup of any furniture that comes in and try it out before ordering a full set. “You want to get your dimensions and make sure you really have them [confirmed],” he said.

3. Know what’s locally appropriate

Jeffrey Ornstein, principal at J/Brice Design International, has noticed a “learning curve” about what kinds of designs are appropriate for different cultures. “As principals, we have found that our challenge is how do you make a space that is regionally appropriate?” he said. “People from all different cultures gather in hotels, so you have to be respectful.” The challenge, he said, is to make a hotel culturally specific and internationally appealing at the same time.

Having worked on several projects in the Middle East, Ornstein has faced several cultural challenges. While working on the Jeddah Crowne Plaza in Saudi Arabia, Ornstein saw that the plans for the walls dividing the rooftop pool (where women and children would regularly gather) from the men’s spa were made of glass—a definite problem in a culture where men are expected to avoid looking at women to whom they are not married. To solve that, Ornstein said, the team made the walls opaque except for the top 3 feet, which let the light filter in while guaranteeing privacy for everyone.

4. Know locals who can help in a pinch

While renovating the Hapuna Prince Hotel lobby, the designer from Oahu-based Philpotts Interiors found some discounted lounge chairs that could give the space an updated look while saving the hotel a good amount of money. “They were heavy teak pieces [that] looked huge in the pictures,” Cross said. But again, the team did not have the actual pieces in front of them until the furniture was delivered—and when the chairs were set up, they weren’t nearly as large as they had seemed in the photos. “The thing that was unacceptable was the size of the legs,” he recalled. “I don’t know who they were designed for. They sat about 6 to 8 inches lower to the floor. If you were to sit there, your knees would be way out of whack.”

To solve the problem, the hotel team found a local artisan who specializes in wood and could make similar add-on pieces for the furniture that raised the chairs up to an appropriate height. “That was an added expense, but it saved that part of the project,” Cross said.

The Benefits of Models

A foam core model of a guestroom wall

Just outside of Atlanta, what appears to be an unassuming storefront hides a large warehouse where InterContinental Hotels Group builds models of its guestrooms and public spaces. When the company’s design team has completed concept drawings and floor plans, they can use this space to create three-dimensional models of various hotel spaces—and solve challenges before the final designs are unveiled to owners.

The first three-dimensional room model is created using boards made of polystyrene foam with paper on both sides. “This is the part of process where we gut-check sizes of furniture and concepts,” said Melissa McFarland, director of the brand design program for Holiday Inn.

“Life-sized model rooms show owners exactly what the room will look like and [let us] address operational concerns and guest feedback,” McFarland said. To see how different types of people will move through the space and use the furnishings, the team invites a select group to walk through the model and interact with the pieces. When the team was creating the Holiday Inn H4 prototype, McFarland recalled, they walked more than 100 people through the foam core model–“members of the IHG operations team, housekeepers, owners, GMs and consumers.” From these early walk-throughs, the team got feedback that they could implement into the next round of designs before creating a full model room.

The foam core phase is effective, McFarland said, because it lets the team make fast adjustments to new concepts in real time based on feedback from key stakeholders. For the Holiday Inn H4 prototype, the design team tested a desk concept that pivoted off a shelf that was attached to a wall. “We found during the foam core phase that guests kept trying to move the desk completely off the wall,” McFarland recalls. “It was the ‘ah-ha’ moment for us that led to the creation of the movable table.”

The foam-core trials let the design team introduce new concepts and quickly respond to feedback in a cost-effective way. “Life-sized model rooms also help our team understand how a new room design will integrate into different sized rooms across the estate,” McFarland said. “When introducing new designs to hotels that will adopt the changes as part of a renovation, model rooms are also helpful in understanding how a design can effectively retrofit in an existing hotel.”  

The next step of room modeling—and problem-solving—may take advantage of the latest tech trends. “We are beginning to incorporate virtual reality into our design process,” McFarland said. “VR gives us the ability to test furniture, finishes and fabrics before needing to purchase them for a live environment. We can also virtually take our new designs directly to owners, as we did at our owners conference this year, and get their feedback in a more efficient way before building out a live model room.”