How Elkus Manfredi leverages co-creation for hotel design

Creating a great hotel is like producing a hit Broadway play: The producers (developers, investors, brands) assemble creative ideas from artists, designers, marketers and others to create a single narrative experience.

Like a Broadway play, great hotels have a great story to tell in an entertaining and memorable way, a story that is expressed in the tangible and ephemeral factors we call the brand experience. 

But when it comes to designing hotels, the traditional creative process doesn’t get early input from its “audience”—hotel guests. Since guests are, by definition, transient, someone needs speak on their behalf.


At Elkus Manfredi, we have been deploying a new process we call co-creation that enlists hotel employees to act as proxies for guests. Front-line employees like concierges, desk attendants and waitstaff observe guests every day, and know which design elements work and which disappoint. Operations managers, meanwhile, observe how guests experience subtle design features like lighting, stairs and surface materials. 

The best employees can offer creative and critical insights to designers. Each hotel is unique, and those top-performing employees understand how its location, business plan and ideal guest profile call for a unique brand experience, whether that is understated luxury or an energetic, hip vibe. Against this understanding they can contribute ideas and insights—but only if the designer brings them into the process. 

Here’s how co-creation works: Our design team establishes high-level goals with a property’s owners and top managers. Then we gather insights from all over the hotel operation. This might involve listening sessions with employees, casual conversations with frontline staff or sketch-and-brainstorm meetings. We encourage storytelling from real-world encounters with guests—a technique that informs our creation of that unique story the design will express. As design elements evolve, the team returns to particular employees for reaction, always keeping top leadership in the loop. Sometimes leadership is surprised by the creative contributions of front-line employees, whose suggestions are based on guests’ daily experiences as well as a hotel’s brand aspirations.

The Benefits

Through this process, co-creation generates a powerful secondary business benefit. Everyone, regardless of their position, acquires a sense of ownership in the resulting design. Managers learn things they didn’t know about operations, including ways to improve their staff’s workplaces and job satisfaction. Employees feel heard and valued. They have a hand in their destiny and become more engaged in their work. The design process thus unites the team and shows recognition and respect to the most valuable, customer-centric employees.

The ultimate result is a venue that expresses the hotel brand seamlessly. It might include a frictionless reimagining of the check-in process, a lobby offering both bright, funky entrances and intimate, quiet places to relax, blending the lines between bar and restaurant. 

With co-creation, employees and designers together set the stage for a beautiful production that lets the audience walk away happy.

Elizabeth Lowrey is a principal at Elkus Manfredi Architects.