There was a time when hotel owners and developers designed a hotel with conformity in mind, but those days are over, sources said, and guests are now looking for something more than "cookie cutter" that provides a unique experience.
With the increased focus on the next generation of travelers, brands are giving owners much more flexibility with design packages, especially over the last few years, said Amy Hulbert, managing director of design at Best Western International.
"Millennials are looking for something unique. They’re reading TripAdvisor. They're online looking at pictures. They're looking for something that makes the hotel special. They want to post a picture of it on Facebook and say, 'Look what I saw,' at such and such property," she said. "… We do have design guidelines, but they're written in a way that allows for flexibility in terms of the aesthetics so hotels can become very regionally appropriate. We want it to make sense to the guest, but we are interested in pushing the envelope."
Hulbert cited several examples of Best Western properties that have pushed the envelope from a design perspective. The Best Western Music Capital Inn in Branson, Missouri, repurposed a drum set as a light fixture in the lobby. The Best Western Plus Intercourse Village Inn, located in Pennsylvania's Amish country, went through a top to bottom renovation incorporating a post and beam barn design at the lobby entrance.
Adding unique design elements at a property not only creates a custom hotel that tells a story, but it can yield a greater return on investment, monetarily and on review sites, said Mitch Patel, president and CEO of Vision Hospitality Group.
"From our experience, having a unique property has had a higher ROI," Patel said. "We do spend some more money on our properties than others might, but at the end of the day, there are people that spend the same amount of money."
Patel said Vision has received little pushback from the brands when it comes to design because of the company's proven success. And for the most part, sources echoed that sentiment, stating only minor changes typically are flagged, such as color and fabric choices.
Vision worked with Marriott International’s Gen 4 prototype designer OPX, a Washington, D.C.-based architectural and interior design firm, to further customize the company's Marriott-branded hotels. Patel said working with designers who already knew what Marriott wanted helped make the process smooth.
For example, at the company’s Fairfield Inn & Suites in Nashville Downtown @ the Gulch, which is scheduled to open in June or July of next year, Patel wanted to add a bar and meeting space on the hotel’s roof. Given that the hotel is located in an urban area with limited space for a hotel bar, Marriott was more than willing to work with Vision on the project, Patel said.
Marriott also has given leeway to Concord Hospitality Enterprises Company when it comes to design, said Timothy Osiecki, the company’s president of architecture and construction.
For example, prior to Courtyard by Marriott unveiling its "Cynergy" roof refresh package to owners in late 2012, Concord had received approval from Marriott to install custom carpet as well as darker and richer wood veneers instead of laminates at its Cleveland University Circle property.
"Back in 2000 when (Marriott) developed the 'Room 2000' (design), they came to us to really kind of help develop that with them," Osiecki said. "We were always the guys ahead of the pack because we were always pushing it anyway. They’ve given us a lot of freedoms to make them proud."
Design approval process
Although brands are becoming more flexible with approval of design elements, there are aspects of brands' design that owners must maintain to keep the identity, sources said. Typically, these will be spelled out during the property-improvement-plan process.
Of course every brand has some "stops." The perfect-mix lobby accompanying the Hampton Inn brand is one example.
"They’re very keen on (it)," Patel said. The brand also requires a community table with a certain amount of seats, signature walls and cohesive furniture finishes, he said.
"The welcome to whatever city is very important (to Hampton)," Patel added. "They want that signature signage and black and white artwork."
Under Best Western’s "Design Excellence" initiative, members of the chain's design staff are visiting each Best Western hotel in North America to help owners devise a customized PIP that must be completed within three years, Hulbert said. The program is in its second of five years, with 40% of the PIPs underway. The company also has hired an architect to do content work to help ease the process for hotels that may have large redesign projects.
"We have a lot of people that say, 'Boy, I wish you would just tell me what to do.' And now we have somebody that can put pen to paper and show them what we're looking for," Hulbert said. "At the end of the day we get them the direction and we get a really great product and so does the owner."
Over the last five to six years, Best Western has cut ties with about 1,000 hotels in North America that didn't meet brand standards, in terms of contemporizing the brand, moving forward and staying competitive. Hulbert also said Best Western in Europe and Australia is rolling out a design-aesthetics program similar to the Design Excellence initiative to create global synergy from a design standpoint.
After a PIP is in place, designers will take the plan, which often includes color boards, fabric swatches and renderings, to the brand where ideas will get tossed back and forth.
"There’s a collaborative effort that you have to have with your development team and the design team,” Patel said. “That’s the only way you can make this successful."