Storytelling design adds to guest experience
31 MARCH 2014 6:22 AM
Some hotels are designed with storytelling in mind to add to the guest experience and give context to location.
GLOBAL REPORT—A new breed of traveler is driving change in the hotel industry, according to a recent report from HVS London. And that change is showing in hotel design—through storytelling.
“Modern-day travelers see luxury more and more in the storytelling of having an experience rather than in luxury items,” according to the report.
“Every project comes with a story—starting with the background of the individuals, the reason for the project, the public input, the context, both from the site and from the knowledge base of individuals and collective teams,” Gordon R. Beckman, principal and design director at John Portman & Associates, said via email.
“But sometimes ‘storytelling’ in design involves finding a metaphor that can be used to help increase the understanding of the ideas behind the form,” he said.
Mike Suomi, principal and VP of design for Stonehill & Taylor, agrees with this sentiment. During a phone interview, he said every project he touches has the element of storytelling through design. His company designs for hotels across all segments, both in the branded and boutique space.
“(In luxury hotels) guests want a bit of a fantasy. They want to be transported to a different place. They want it to be an experience that is tactile and seamless—meaning that it’s a comprehensively designed experience, that there are no gaps in the experience itself,” Suomi said.
For instance, Stonehill & Taylor spearheaded the renovation and conversion of the 1903 Johnston building into the 168-room NoMad Hotel in New York. The hotel’s name, he said, was the beginning of the story.
The name comes from the hotel’s location. Real estate agents dub parts of the city “clever names,” Suomi said, and the hotel’s location is called NoMad—short for North of Madison.
“In the early stages of design, the clients locked onto this story, this idea of NoMad not just being the name of the area, but the idea of a nomad who is a world traveler.
“The direction we went with the idea of the nomad is more about a nomad being a traveler from Europe who would go on the Grand Tour,” he said. The Grand Tour was a trip European young-adult children of the elite would take as part of their education, touring ancient civilizations.
“And so the idea of the NoMad Hotel is that the guests come and they stay in a place that recreates the residential feel of a home of one of these wealthy Europeans that has gone on the Grand Tour,” Suomi said.
Therefore, he said, the décor in the public space is eclectic, shadowing late 19th century through early 20th century. The theme is carried into the guestrooms, which feel like small residential apartments that would be found in Paris. A claw foot bathtub sits in the open rooms. Additionally, every guestroom showcases a different art collection, individually selected based on French towns.
“The NoMad is a transporting fantasy that takes you 100 years back and across the planet,” he said.
Although Suomi said the luxury segment demands storytelling through design, the idea is beginning to translate across segments and brands.
Location, location, location
“Sometimes the experience is linked to time and place of the location where the hotel is,” Suomi said.
“I've always said that if you want to understand the place you live in, go someplace else, anyplace, and experience another culture. I think this is the attitude of travelers today. They are explorers, learners and seekers,” Beckman said.
Shel Kimen, founder of Collision Works, has a hotel under development in Detroit that will be made from recycled shipping containers. She said design is about storytelling and helping people to understand the context of where they are.
“Let’s just say 50% of all travelers are experiential travelers, which I think that number is increasing. They really want to understand where they are and what is going on,” she said. “Stories add dimension to the travel experience that make it very personal. Because now you have something that you can really relate to. And you can see differences between this place and where you’re from, and also the similarities, which I think creates comfort.
“I think that’s why there’s such a rise in Airbnb, because … staying in someone’s home is very attractive because you’re going to get those stories, because you’re going to learn about the place you’re visiting on a very personal, intimate level. I think that’s what people are craving. And they get that from travel, but for some reason they don’t get it from their hotels,” she said.
Row NYC, a 1,331-room hotel that opened the beginning of March, tells its location’s story through design, according to Vann Avedisian, principal of Highgate Hotels, which developed the hotel along with Rockpoint Group.
“We looked to what our guests want and that was New York, more specifically Times Square,” he said via email. “Knowing that was essential and what ultimately drove Row NYC’s design concept, with the construction of a 24-foot high crystalline glass façade that draws upon the electricity of Times Square to wooden stadium stairs that were inspired by the famous theater stairs in Times Square.
“We’re in the middle of the most popular city in the world and are fully embracing being there,” he added.
“The millennial target market, especially, seeks more emphasis on local experience and location,” Beckman said. “They want an authentic experience. They want to be in social settings. Even when they are interacting digitally, they want to feel a connectedness. They appreciate the exposure to new art, local microbrews, etc. This trend reflects a generation and a need for hotels that meaningfully connect guests with the urban environment.”
Expanding brand standards
Boutique hotels are not alone in the design concept; some branded hotels have been designed with storytelling of location in mind, according to Suomi.
For instance, he said a great example is the Hyatt Regency brand. His company has completed several major hotel renovations and repositionings where the design team created a story for each property that had to do with the location of the property. When creating the stories, designers asked several questions: Why is the building there? What’s the history of the building? What’s different about the city in which the building is located?
“We craft a unique story relating to each Hyatt Regency that isn’t repeated anywhere else,” he said.
For example, when designing the Hyatt Regency in Minneapolis, the team went back to the roots of the city.
“We looked at what it’s like living in a place surrounded by lakes, the idea of it being cold, and we also looked at what the raw materials are that make Minnesota special … ore from the earth, wood from the forests and wool from the sheep farms there. And we used all those materials—the original iron-bearing rock, the unfinished split logs and the wool. And that became our palette of materials for that hotel,” Suomi said.
Additionally, Post-it notes were invented in Minneapolis, so designers made from Post-it notes a map of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers connecting, which is the art piece behind the front desk.
“I believe the mindset of hoteliers has to evolve. They must really consider the place in a larger context in order to connect to the urban environment and the local place in an authentic new way,” Beckman said.
“But much of this has to do with being flexible in maintaining the brand standards so that a hotel can offer an authentic, local experience. The one-size-fits-all model for brand standards needs to constantly be reevaluated based on location, climate and context,” he added.