Far from being passé, the design hotel concept is expected to grow. Raini Hamdi looks at why, and at the factors that will shape the next wave of design hotels
From left: Masin: breakthrough is driven by real conceptual change; Foster-Brown: offer a complete lifestyle experience; Chua: individual service and attention to needs and likes;Blaiklock: strong sense of place and link to brand’s origins; Tiedy: good design gives a feeling of comfort and should ‘fit’
Globally, design is alive and well, thanks to growing numbers of sophisticated travellers who can tell what’s kitsch and what’s cool faster than you can check them in.
This is what is keeping design consultants and hotel developers awake at night: customers who not only want design, but technology that works. Customers who are always thirsty for something new, but who would ditch anything artificial for the authentic destination experience. Customers from emerging markets, who are not just vast in numbers, but also diverse in needs. Customers who are on business but combine leisure, and who are on leisure but must work. Design hotels must be flexible and cater to this amalgamation.
For design consultants like Frederic Masin, an associate at Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), and Christopher Chua, associate director-architecture of Blink Design Group, add also the client from hell, one without vision and an open mind, who does not know what he wants and ends up with generic formulas which do not push designers beyond their limits. For developers, add the design consultant who goes for the theatrics and aesthetics, leading to over-designed spaces, over-trendy materials – contrived and cold odes to themselves.
But when both come together like an interlocking jigsaw, the result can be a breakthrough.
For HBA’s Masin, a design breakthrough entails a real conceptual change, the way Grand Hyatt Singapore’s Mezza9 has changed the all-day dining concept, design and operation.
“The kitchen was brought to the front of the house and the whole layout was arranged to suit this revolution. It’s actually a common experience in Singapore, where food courts are popular, so this restaurant also represents a turning point where global brands started to pay attention and learn in a creative fashion from humble but clever local solutions,” said Masin.
The industry has seen other real design breakthroughs, such as John Portman’s atrium hotels; Amanresorts, which defined the ‘lifestyle experience’; Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts which created the ‘destination spa’; the birth of the oxymoronic ‘urban resort’ such as The PuLi in Shanghai; the launch of W Hotels, which saw other global hotel chains following suit with their own design hotel lines; or more recently, the presence of players such as Mexico-based Grupo Habita and Singapore-based Unlisted Collection, whose design hotels reinvigorate whole neighbourhoods.
An exponential growth of design hotels in recent years, however, have made them common and pretentious at times, a point consultants interviewed by TTG Asia generally agreed on.
“It is very disheartening to see the overuse of arts, fashion and culture to hide the non-existence of real innovation in design,” said Warren Foster-Brown, managing director and owner of FBEYE International, whose current projects include The Westin Singapore Marina Bay.
The next breakthroughs
Consultants believe the next breakthroughs need to occur in the way local culture and technology are incorporated into design hotels.
Another area is in the way hotels can be designed to offer individual attention to the traveller. As Blink’s Chua, who worked on W Retreat & Spa – Maldives as an architect, put it: “Can we design a hotel that allows ‘pure’ luxury in terms of individual service and attention to needs and likes? Have a supple design that allows for slight room adjustments for repeat guests that prefer their work desk a certain way, public spaces that allow a guest who always travels alone to have his own private corner, lobby lounges that adapt to how this particular guest likes to take his drinks, etc.”
While in the past design hotels might have been more design-centric than guest-centric, the mood clearly has reversed to focus on the changing customer.
Said Foster-Brown: “The market is in their mid 20s to mid 50s, middle to upper income, well-travelled, technologically savvy and socially conscious. Extensive information on hotels in magazines, newspapers and online media exposes them to different hotel designs from around the world and they have the ability to choose a hotel that best suits their lifestyle and personality. The design, therefore, should not only offer individualised attention and personal satisfaction but incorporate a sense of place that most hotels lack these days.
“The increased use and dependence on technology to engage and retain guests is a key matter to look into. As tablets, electronic concierges, in-room connectivity and entertainment system would continue to enhance the ambience, convenience and comfort, design hotels, unlike traditional hotels, should compete by providing a particular lifestyle experience that would exceed the guest’s physical, emotional and well-being needs.
“Who wants to be at home when one can be in a home one dreams of? That’s the dream stay.”
Added Lyndon Neri, founding partner, NHDRO: “Clients are becoming more global. They have two desires on a short trip: cultural immersion and a sense of tranquility. They want the hotel to have a strong sense of domesticity (home) to give them peace and rest but, at the same time, these new customers want a hotel culture that is contextual and rooted to the place that they are visiting.”
On top of the game
Design hotels believe they are on top of changing customer trends.
Mike Tiedy, senior vice president-Design & Innovation at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, said: “Appreciation for good design is growing around the world. We drive to wow each customer that walks through the door with an expressive and immersive environment. The customer does not have to intellectually contemplate every design solution. The design gives a feeling of comfort and ‘fit’ that makes everything just seem right.”
What makes everything fits is not just an edgy design, but a high level of comfort, technology that works and a highly personalised service delivery, added Markland Blaiklock, senior vice president of Sofitel Asia-Pacific.
The chain opened its second Sofitel So in the world in Bangkok recently and, in a first, had no fewer than four different architects/designers working on the property. But it all fits, Blaiklock maintained. “The owner, Verawat Wongvasith, wanted to theme the hotel around the five elements in Chinese feng shui and this evolved into creating four hotels within the hotel, each with its own private atrium.
“The approach merged well with the DNA of the brand, which centres on strong sense of destination (in this case, Thailand), with a fifth designer, Christian Lacroix, providing a link to Sofitel’s (French) origin.”
The hotel also introduced a paperless Mac mini solution in all rooms, giving guests the convenience to order room service, browse the Internet and watch TV from one source.
Players expect Asia’s design hotels sector to fast catch up with Europe and the US – which have had a headstart on the concept – and produce new breakthroughs.
Design Hotels founder and CEO, Claus Sendlinger, said: “South-east Asia appears to be leading the pack within Asia, especially Bali and Thailand, where there is an increasing number of small, independent design-led properties with interesting concepts.
“We are also seeing more prominent architects, designers and creative minds from Singapore working on interesting projects throughout Asia. Having the World Architectural Festival organised in Singapore for the first time this year outside of Barcelona is also a testament to the importance of design in Asia.”
Blaiklock too observes that Asia is now attracting and cultivating more talented and innovative designers. “The cost to construct and the cost of labour are also generally lower. In addition, the rich cultures in Asia provide an exotic backdrop and inspiration for very unique design concepts,” he said.