5 rules for designing operationally efficient hotels

From left to right: Kip Vreeland, SVP of full service franchising, Marriott International; Lisa Knight, president, design, ABI Design; Justin Jabara, VP of development at Meyer Jabara Hotels; Vito Lotta, VP of architecture & design, full service brands, Hilton Hotels & Resorts; and Gary Isenberg, president, LWHA Asset and Property Management Services.

NEW YORK - Looking good is always important for any hotel—economy or luxury, branded or independent—but if a property doesn’t operate efficiently, the aesthetics will be meaningless. At this week’s Boutique Design New York conference, held at the city’s Javit’s Center, several insiders gathered together for a panel on how to design hotels for operational efficiency, moderated by Gary Isenberg, president, LWHA Asset and Property Management Services.

“We have to understand what a room is for, and how brand standards can be pulled through,” Kip Vreeland, SVP of full service franchising at Marriott International, said. For example, he said, guests have made it clear that showers are a better use of bathroom space than tubs, and the brand standards have evolved to reflect the new expectation. “That is the standard, whether in a Fairfield or a Westin,” he said. “Customers are driving that, rather than Marriott.”

To understand how guests use a room, and how brand standards can adapt to meet changing expectations, designers and hoteliers need to change the way they think.

1. Think Long-Term

Investing in hard-surface elements—allowing for quick soft-goods upgrades—is always a good idea. “We’re able to change pops of colors and other features with soft-goods renovations,” Justin Jabara, VP of development at Meyer Jabara Hotels, said, referring to the company’s recent investment on upgrading the Cambria Hotel & Suites White Plains - Downtown. This strategy is good for long-term investors who expect to get regular revenue from a property, he said. “It’s more cost-effective that way.”

Limiting the casegoods in a guestroom can also reduce the time in between soft goods renovations, Vreeland said. “It’s cheaper for the owner, and it’s better for longevity.”

2. Think Multipurpose

As select-service hotels invest more in communal public spaces, multipurpose zones are increasingly valuable, especially when working within a limited footprint. “A communal table can be a breakfast bar or dinner table at night,” Lisa Knight, president of design at ABI Design said.

Jabara agreed, and noted that movable furniture can be helpful for select-service properties. “Breakfast bar buffets are great at high-volume times, but on shoulder days, they’re not very efficient,” he said. “How do you build a buffet so it can have different uses?”  At the The Hilton Wilmington - Christiana, he noted, the breakfast bar can “disappear” when not in use, freeing up the space for other needs.

3. Think Minimal and High-Tech

As real estate gets increasingly valuable, guestrooms are getting smaller—which presents both a challenge and an opportunity for designers. “Everything is sleek; there’s no extraneous furniture,” Knight said. “I think the guestroom will become more personalized. The room is like a blank canvas. You can personalize the space.”

As technology advances and products get cheaper, suppliers can produce the basics better, Jabara noted—but the focus on technology is often in the wrong direction, Vito Lotta, VP of architecture & design for Hilton’s full service brands, said. While hotels schedule renovations for every six or eight years, most technological devices get upgrades every six or eight months, making any in-room installation obsolete within a year. “A room’s lifespan is in years, but tech is in months,” he said. “You cannot keep pace.” The solution, he said, is to design the room to support a guest’s devices rather than incorporate any devices that will not be useful in just a few years.

Ultimately, Vreeland predicted, the hotel of the future will distinguish customer experience through technology, remembering each guest’s preferences through loyalty programs. As soon as a profile is matched to a room, the temperature, TV stations and lighting will transform to individual specifications instantly—all without the guest needing to adjust anything.

4. Think Individual

With guests—especially millennials—demanding authenticity in their hotels, companies and designers alike need to find ways to maintain a sense of location in each property’s design. “When I stay at a hotel and I’m in Pennsylvania, New York or New Jersey, I want to feel local,” Jabara said. That sense of location could be reflected in the property’s food, or in the guestroom artwork. “Our feeling is that you need a local aspect, and we’re pushing that trend in design.”

The growth of soft brands has made authenticity and locality easier, he noted. “On a true soft brand, there’s very little oversight to how far you can push the envelope.”

As branded hotels compete with Airbnb in the more in-demand markets, flexibility in brand standards is vital, Lotta said. Fortunately, most companies have learned this, and the “hard brands” are offering more latitude as they move into valuable markets. “There is a desire from all demographics that they want a unique experience from every property,” he said. “The hotel should be locally relevant, and it shouldn’t look like the last one. In the past, it was all the same. Now it’s not.”

Marriott developed a new guestroom prototype for its flagship brand several years back, Vreeland said, and worked with its designers to let owners select colored vinyls, wood casegoods, drapery and flooring for each property so that each hotel could have its own look. For some properties, installing PTAC units were impractical and expensive, but VTAC units were more cost-effective. By allowing each hotel to find its own solutions, Vreeland said, they were able to reduce the cost of the upgrades by 16 percent. “We were inflexible, but we became flexible,” he said.

5. Think Differentiation

“How many times can you segment the market?” Lotta asked rhetorically. Companies seem to be announcing new brands by the week, but there’s also plenty of “blurring” of the various swim lanes, he said. “We create a new brand when we see a void, when we start to see a gap between the swim lanes.”

“We’re living with legacy issues,” Vreeland acknowledged, and wondered aloud if Marriott’s current roster of 30 brands is too much. “Our brand teams are good at defining what they mean. Marriott is different from Sheraton, and that’s different from Delta.” The designs of these hotels will reflect those differences, he added. “You have to find unique ways to activate the space. The whole feel of room should be differentiated.” Westin hotels, he said, are using lighting “in new ways,” while Renaissance hotels are putting artwork on the ceilings. “We’ve created a cool way to make the room new and exciting.”

Designing for different segments can also present challenges for financing, Lotta said. For example, as LVT looks increasingly like real wood or ceramic, select-service hotels are opting for the less-expensive synthetic material. “But the luxury brands don’t want LVT,” he said. “They don’t consider it luxurious. We are at a tipping point. It’s almost there. When you get to full service, it has to be convincing that it’s real wood. We’re not quite there.” Real wood, of course, is more expensive than LVT, and is more costly to maintain over a guestroom’s lifespan, forcing a difficult choice on both the designer and owner.

Similarly, Lotta said, the “open-closet” trend means different things to different people. “With the right branded concept, that makes sense. At a full-service Marriott, it doesn’t look like it fits.” The company’s Canopy brand has found a good compromise, he said, with an “elegant piece of millwork that meets the needs—it’s a place to lay down your bag and hang things up. But no drawers. It’s a well-appointed element that fits the guest’s needs.”