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Varying cultural customs impact hotel design
May 14 2012

When sensitive cultural issues present themselves in the design process, hoteliers must adapt their plans to transform constraints into opportunities.

  • Once a solid working partnership is established with the developer, it’s a case of working out how to best tailor the product to the needs of the clientele, said Glenn de Souza of Best Western International.
  • One of the prevailing design issues that come up in some Middle Eastern countries is the non-public display of alcohol venues such as bars.
  • The meaning behind project design is critical in Chinese culture. 

GLOBAL REPORT—Adapting hotel spaces to observe the cultural expectations of a particular region while maintaining brand consistency presents both challenges and opportunities.

“Learning and understanding different cultures is crucial for any global company, but in hospitality it is even more vital,” said Glenn de Souza, VP of international operations in Asia & the Middle East for Best Western International.

Once a solid working partnership is established with the developer, then it’s a case of working out how to best tailor the product to the needs of the clientele, de Souza said.

The following highlights key cultural considerations in various regions throughout the world:

Middle East
One of the prevailing design issues that comes up in some Middle Eastern countries is the non-public display of alcohol venues such as bars, said Eddie Abeyta, principal at HKS. Bars have to be designed and incorporated in such a way that the guest is not directly exposed to those elements upon entering the lobby.

The W Hotel in Muscat, Oman, for example, is being designed to meet this expectation while still catering to guests who want the bar experience.

“Because the terrain faced the waterfront, we were able to tuck the bar/lobby lounge component of the project at a lower lobby,” Abeyta said. Both the entry and the bar are connected to the waterfront, but when a guest enters the hotel the alcohol venue is not exposed.

At the Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort in the United Arab Emirates, the conceptual draft issued to designers at the onset of the project had to be dramatically altered to better accommodate customs of the Ramadan holiday, said Michael Maurer, principal at Gettys.

The lobby originally was designed to look out over the restaurant adjacent to the golf course, Maurer said. “Gettys relocated the restaurant to one side and placed the bar discreetly on the other, allowing for both to be screened per Muslim requirements during the holy month.”

The final result was an enhanced hotel experience that respects the local customs and traditions while not adversely affecting the guest experience for those who do not practice those traditions—all without impacting time or budget, said Meg Prendergast, principal at Gettys.

“Cultural differences of a different country shouldn’t provide hurdles but chances to better understand a project and the desired results,” Prendergast said.

The principles of feng shui have a strong influence on hotel design in China, Abeyta said. “You have to have pretty good knowledge of what it all means,” he said.

The meaning behind project design is critical in Chinese culture. “They really want their buildings to connect with the foundation of what China is all about,” Abeyta said.


Designers of the Novotel Nanjing had to keep in mind the addition of private dining rooms when planning and designing restaurant areas.

Understanding and applying feng shui, which is a system of geomancy designed to enhance the positive flow of energy, in the design process can present challenges, he said.


Private dining rooms in Chinese restaurants also are an important part of the culture, according to Duk Kim, principal at Gettys. The addition of these spaces often makes restaurants much larger than designers might normally anticipate.

The private dining rooms played a direct effect on the planning and design process in the Novotel Nanjing and Hyatt Zhenjiang in China, Kim said.
Although international travel has increased hotel demand in China, domestic travel has increased in an even greater amount in the secondary and tertiary cities. “Thus, keeping in mind their customs and traditions are ever-more important,” Kim said.

South Korea
No authentic Korean wedding proceeds without a Pyebaek Room, an area used by brides and grooms to pay respects to their parents and elders, according to Ariane Steinbeck, principal and managing director of Gettys in Hong Kong.

“We added it according to Korean traditions (in the Sheraton D Cube City Hotel in Seoul, Korea) before the owner even pointed it out to us,” Steinbeck said.

The addition of the Pyebaek Room would have been impossible to do without having a leadership team intimately familiar with those traditions, she added.

“We needed to be aware that this ceremony takes place and locate the space logically within the sequence of a Korean wedding,” Kim said.

The gym and spa areas also required a lot of re-thinking at the Sheraton D Cube City, he said. “In several parts of Asia including Korea, hotels often sell gym memberships to the public. … Combining the functions of hotel guests accessing the gym, guests using the spa and outside members using the locker room/gym facilities was a challenge in sorting out the circulation/access.”

While working on Resorts World in Manila, Philippines, the Gettys design team had to work closely with the owner and brand to accommodate location-specific security procedures and measures, Steinbeck said.

“Most large venues will need a separate lounge for the drivers to rest and wait for their employers,” she said.

The security component required at Resorts World took most of the design team by surprise, Kim said. They found it somewhat strange at first that developers wanted to locate a room labeled “luggage and storage” next to the entry of the casino rather than the hotel.

“It was some time into the project that we found out what it was really for … storage of guns by personal bodyguards,” he said.

6/20/2012 1:24:00 PM
A positive indication of cultural sensitivity reflected in the development of these new hotels. With global expansion however companies are not sufficiently addressing the issue of cultural diversity in their due diligence processes. Often an ethnocentric approach is adopted which can negatively affect not only the structural design of the property but also affect the crucial issue of employee committment. This could also negatively impact or delay the initial ramp up phase.
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