HM roundtable addresses impact of AV tech on operations, design

Pictured at the event [from left]: Joseph Yi, chief investment officer, Real Hospitality Group; Jefferson Lam, VP, Loews Hotels & Co.; Sara Duffy, senior interiors associate, Stonehill Taylor; Scott P. Rosenberg, president, Jonathan Nehmer & Associates and principal, HVS Design; Jennifer Mehra, senior manager/design and construction, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts; David Shove-Brown, founder, //3877 Design; Stefani C. O’Connor, editor-in-chief, Hotel Management/Questex Hospitality Group; Paul Conder, VP of digital experience, CallisonRTKL; Louie Sison, design director, Wilson Associates; and co-moderator Brad Grimes, editor-at-large, AVIXA. (Not pictured: David Kepron, VP of global design strategies-premium distinctive brands, Marriott International). 

In the fast-paced technology sphere, strategic engagement between the hospitality and audiovisual industries has become a key dynamic for both as they look to create intrepid, yet efficient, designs that yield increasingly robust returns on investment. How to ensure this happens was the focus of Hotel Management’s recent Executive Roundtable, “Marrying Design and Operations in the Audiovisual Age,” sponsored exclusively by AVIXA, the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association. The event, held in November at the Marriott Renaissance New York Times Square, brought together thought leaders from several disciplines who examined how contemporary consumer demands and global design trends are driving hotel owners, operators and brands to up their AV games.

It’s become a fact that hospitality, which once lagged other industries in terms of adapting new technology, has become more eager than ever to climb aboard the innovation train that is helping shape its future. That’s readily apparent in the industry’s embrace of contemporary audiovisual and virtual-reality platforms, used not only to enhance the guest experience but implemented so operations and design can tandem successfully when filtered through such platforms. More and more, hotel owners and developers are working with designers and architects to optimize the scope of the relationship so there are both cost efficiencies and aesthetically pleasing concepts and results. For example, an owner might decide to utilize AV in the lobby design because it’s easier to maintain than multiple pictures on the wall or an architect may create a platform that makes AV the focus of a room while not being overwhelming.

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Of course, with any relationship there are challenges and solutions, and during the recent Hotel Management roundtable sponsored exclusively by AVIXA, the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association, the leadership group on the panel offered a variety of approaches on adapting and implementing innovative concepts, the rewards of such new programs and the ideas influencing the industries’ futures.

“I think the biggest shift is the social media or Instagrammable moments in our spaces,” said Jennifer Mehra, senior manager/design and construction, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. “A lot of hotel operators are catching on to see that there is a return on investment from that perspective. And it’s small scale from a unique chair or table to large-scale impact of something that’s not seen before or a ‘wow’ factor. So, we are seeing that more and more now.”

Agreeing strongly about social-media platforms was Paul Conder, VP of digital experience for CallisonRTKL. “Making a shareable moment in any space—it doesn’t matter if it’s hospitality or other spaces like retail—is very important. There’s another big trend that has to do with personalization. You mentioned design and you mentioned operations. I think there’s a third lump to this, which is marketing. Where you can understand people better you can serve them more personally, you can make more seamless connections with them through digital technology. And I think that’s being integrated across the board.”

In their quest to provide more authentic and more engaging guest experiences, franchisors, independents, management companies and designers have been turning to more contemporary strategies that resonate with guests and locals alike. In some cases, the engagement actually is guest driven. For example, Scott P. Rosenberg, president, Jonathan Nehmer & Associates and principal, HVS Design, worked on one brand where 16 squares were created in an area of high visibility where, he noted, “You have Instagram photographs people have taken all around the micro-neighborhood, if you will. And it really makes you want to go explore. Then, something changes because now that’s in or something else is in. So, you can actually bring social media into art, which is kind of fun.”

Stonehill Taylor’s senior interiors associate Sara Duffy observed that audiovisual integration, unlike the operational models found outside the event’s hotel in Times Square, is not an in-your-face type of experience at most hotels. “I’m finding that art is really what’s becoming so interesting in terms of digital media. Initially, it was sort of you had to walk in and it was this amazing ‘wow’ moment and it was kind of in your face. And now, things are becoming subtle and we’re having to be much more sophisticated with it, which is, as a designer, I think much more exciting.”

AVIXA Editor-at-Large Brad Grimes, who co-moderated the Executive Roundtable with HM Editor-in-Chief Stefani C. O’Connor, noted the intel derived from trends in other industries—such as hospitality—vis-à-vis the interplay with AV also colors the technology’s advancement. “AVIXA is very interested in talking to people inside of the industries where our members do business to see what trends you’re seeing,” he told the panel. “In this case, how audiovisual systems might affect your designs and hospitality and, ultimately, how it affects your ultimate customers, whether it’s the operators of a property or the guests.”

New Expectations

Many on the roundtable concurred that in-house guests and the local community actually are pushing the envelope on what they want “their” hotel experience to be, whether they’re visiting from out of town for a week or spending a few hours having coffee in the lobby café.

“It’s not just that people are capturing images and posting to their Facebook or their Instagram feeds or saying, ‘hey look, I was here.’ But what a new generation of guests are doing is they’re media creators. And I think we have to begin to understand the facility with which they use those devices is completely restructuring their expectation sets about how they should engage with brands. They’re makers of stories,” observed Marriott International’s David Kepron, VP of global design strategies-premium distinctive brands. He added, “They’re literally putting themselves into that story. So, to the degree that audiovisual experiences [and] immersive digital content can allow for that interaction of play and engagement in a physical sense with the making of the journey through the experience, I think that becomes really, really powerful. Much more than simply saying, ‘I was here on the top of the Statue of Liberty. Look at this great shot.’”

Kepron indicated the challenge for brands becomes what it means to be a brand, especially “in a world where our guests are in part creating the experience. They’re not a third-party observer to this. They’re actually participating directly,” with brands then having to work harder at differentiating themselves.

Real Hospitality Group’s Chief Investment Officer Joseph Yi acknowledged: “As an operator and owner, that’s always been the challenge on the hard brands; the soft brands, obviously, have a little bit more flexibility there.”

Creating Experiences

The question was raised as to what other opportunities there might be for AV integration within a property or within a convention space and AVIXA’s Grimes was interested to know from the roundtable participants how prevalent video-wall or projection technology might be or “what is considered, in your estimation, an Instagrammable moment through audiovisual experience? What are you seeing or what are your brands or your design firms doing?”

Jefferson Lam, VP/design and procurement at Loews Hotels & Co., said it is important to find all the interface points that resonate. “We put video walls in our lobby so that guests can enjoy our bars because it’s conducive to it … you’ve got to find that right mix … music, video, interface points, even silly things like power and USB charging, that’s still creating an environment for our guests to enjoy, whether that’s a Instagrammable moment or just the fact that they’re comfortable in our space so they stay longer, enjoy more, have an extra cocktail or two, stay there for food or whatever it is, and come back again. I mean, that’s the whole point. Create an experience.”

Mehra said at Wyndham exterior projections of logos and slogans are in the consideration mix. “As people are traveling at night, they can see the beacon and keep us in mind. It’s an untapped design opportunity. But with us, we have a large scale and size. We have over 9,000 hotels, so we have to be sensitive to the owners, the costs, the implementation, the media itself, what the content is, how that gets updated or not. We have to think about it from end to end before we deploy to hotels.”

“When designers and owners are thinking about where technology can go, the opportunities for that, one important thing is to really think if the technology or the application is really intrinsic to its brand identity; is it appropriate for the brand?” said Louie Sison, design director at Wilson Associates. He noted the firm “just completed the guitar tower for Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla., and music is very intrinsic to the DNA of the brand. So, in the VIP suites we partnered up with Bowers and Wilkins to install these professional-grade speakers throughout. But a week before, I stayed in a 22-key boutique hotel in Laguna Beach, [Calif.], where you walk in the guestroom, there’s no TV whatsoever and you’re greeted with some type of vintage record player with vintage records.”

Content Curation

Those on the roundtable also indicated that there needs to be flexibility with AV technology so content can be manipulated/updated easily (and frequently) and that it makes sense on the operations side to have someone trained to be a dedicated wrangler of the technology.

“That’s something that I think can be missing in some brands where it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve invested in this screen. I’ve got my first wave of content up there.’ You come back next year, it’s still the same wave of content,” said Conder. “So, we’re advocating for people to have content curators. Whenever you deploy some of these screens, you have somebody who is full time just doing the content. Or else there’s no point to it.”

Nor is putting in audiovisual technology that’s not going to capture guests’ attention just for the sake of having something, according to David Shove-Brown, founder of //3877 Design. “Our users now can tell when you’re trying too damn hard … putting in giant screens to put in giant screens and say: ‘Look how hip we are’ is not the solution … you do it in a subtle way that allows for ‘Oh, I can just charge my phone on the pad while we’re sitting here having a cocktail. And it’s subtle technology. It’s not that in-your-face technology.”

One thing that could change perceptions is for hoteliers to think beyond just the nuts and bolts of a system and consider technology overall more as a verb than a noun, offered Conder. “If you think about it as a verb, as something you actually change, the way your behavior works, then that’s a really interesting way to apply and [to] design because you’re changing how people interact, what they feel, how they communicate, what they’re actually doing moment to moment. And once you do that, then you’ve got some relevance, right?”

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