How LEDs are taking the lead in hotel lighting

CBT oversaw the redesign of the Langham Boston's lobby, including new LED lights over the reception desk. (Langham Boston)

Light-emitting diodes are nothing new, but as prices drop and quality improves, many designers are finding cost-effective ways to incorporate LEDs into hospitality lighting design.

“LED lighting offers hoteliers a significantly more efficient model over incandescent and fluorescent lighting, including a greener profile and lower maintenance and electricity costs in addition to immense versatility for customizing guests’ experiences through lighting,” said lighting designer Robert Sonneman. 

A major factor to consider when selecting LEDs for hotels is the overall cost. While the upfront costs of LEDs are higher than traditional light bulbs, the significant long-term cost savings and other benefits reduce the long-term budget needed to accommodate the design. 

“The long life, color, intensity and controllability of LEDs have opened a totally new universe of opportunity, efficiency and sustainability,” Sonneman said, noting that a five-watt LED could produce 18–22 lumens per watt. “In comparison, a conventional incandescent light bulb of 60–100 watts only emits around 15 lumens per watt. Today, LEDs can produce 300 lumens per watt and last 100,000 hours, and generally, most available LED systems produce 100 to 150 lumens per watt and last 50,000 hours.”

And because LED lights last so long, designers can put the fixtures in hard-to-reach places. “We can put lighting behind products, behind glass, on really high ceilings in ways that makes sense, but that doesn’t get constrained by how you access it as often,” said Vickie Alani, an architect at CBT. “You’re going to renovate in three years, and the lights might still be working.”

Depending on the exact bulb and the technology used, an LED bulb can pay for itself in anywhere from three to six months. “That, to me, means it’s now totally competitive,” Alani said. Earlier models used to take as long as three years before they offered any kind of real return on the investment, she said, which was a cause for concern among hoteliers given how quickly hotels can change hands. Now that a hotelier can see a return in less than a year, “there’s no reason not to [use LEDs].” 


LEDs can be integrated into a lighting design so that they’re indistinguishable from a traditional incandescent bulb, making them suitable for classic or contemporary design. “Because LEDs are so small, as a lighting designer I don’t have to be concerned with hiding them,” Sonneman said. This lets him experiment with different materials, forms and functionality. 

“One of the beauties of LED is that we can take old designs and add a modern touch to them,” David Rauschuber, SVP of Craftmade, said. “A lot of boutique hotels want to have that look but they don’t want to have super-modern contemporary lighting, so we’re able to integrate the LED into the fixtures to bring them to modern times and have an old-world design [at the same time].”

Similarly, Sonneman said, LEDs are easier to adjust than traditional bulbs, letting each hotel adjust brightness, color and “other mood-enhancing properties” as needed.

"Retrofit LED lamping is a great way to update any space and save energy,” Maxwell Cohen, director of hospitality marketing for 2nd Ave Lighting, said. “With new LED products surfacing daily, there is yet to be an application where they are inappropriate.”

“As LED technology continues to develop, we have been able to completely reimagine the forms, scale and application of luminaries. It has been creatively liberating to be able to think minimally in radically different ways and to realize these design visions without having to package large heat-generating bulbs.” —Robert Sonneman 

Color and Light

LEDs like Philips Hue are color-adjustable, letting a space go from warm and comforting to cool and classy in minutes. “You can do the whole rainbow,” Rauschuber said. “On these types of fixtures, you can specify colors. An incandescent bulb is 2700k, up to LEDs, we can take them up to 5,000, which is almost blue. Everybody’s been specifying about a 3,000 temperature, which is not too blue. It’s a nice white.” 

The color of the LED can make or break a space, Rauschuber said. “If you're not careful, you can go too blue and the space can be very cold, or you can go the other way and the space can be almost yellow. So you need to understand what your color temperatures are.” 

Adding adjustable color, Lois Goodell, principal and director of interior design at CBT, said, contributes not only to the hotel’s sense of wellness and comfort, but also the sense of control guests can have in their rooms. “You can customize it to the way that you feel for what you need or what you’re doing,” she said. “Are you working? Are you changing and getting ready for the evening? You can alter your environment.” 

“I designed a lobby where we had a custom wall with some glazing that could be lit from beneath,” Alani said. “The biggest issues was what color should we choose, and LED allows us to say, ‘just put in the LED strip and the color is up to you.’ We can do a sexy scene at night and a bright exciting scene during the day, and we can change the mood of the entire lobby through this wall, with this one tiny piece of technology. You don’t have to choose anymore, which is fantastic.” 

Flicker rate is also important to consider, Rauschuber said. “LEDs do flicker, so you want to look for a flicker rate of less than 12 percent. And then the Color Rendering Index needs to be about 90—that’s the accuracy of the color over the life of the fixture.”