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Tue 12 May 2009 04:00 AM

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Fashioning the perfect hotel

Hospitality projects mean larger budgets, more scope and greater creative opportunity - but they also present bigger challenges, says Selina Denman.

Fashioning the perfect hotel
The Chedi, Oman.
Fashioning the perfect hotel
The newly renovated InterContinental Al Bustan in Oman.
Fashioning the perfect hotel
Fashioning the perfect hotel
The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain Hotel & Spa.
Fashioning the perfect hotel
Sharq Village & Spa, Doha.
Fashioning the perfect hotel
The Palace, The Old Town, Dubai.
Fashioning the perfect hotel
The Palace, The Old Town, Dubai.
Fashioning the perfect hotel
The Address, Downtown Burj Dubai.

Hospitality projects mean larger budgets, more scope and greater creative opportunity - but they also present bigger challenges, says Selina Denman.

Hospitality projects often represent the pinnacle of a designer's career. Certainly, they offer earnings, scope and creative opportunities that may be lacking in many other parts of the industry.

"They are fun, and the most creative type of project," noted Steve Leung, founder of the Hong Kong-based Steve Leung Designers. "But it is not an easy industry to enter. Across the world, most hospitality projects are monopolised by a few hotel operators and it is not easy to get on their approved list."

An elite club often open to only a select few, hospitality design has a much higher entry level than other industry areas, Leung explained. "Residential is low entry level, and it is difficult to stay on top. There are always newer, younger design firms coming in. If you want to stay at the top, you have to go into something with a higher entry level. And hospitality is the top level of interior design - it is almost like designing an entire microcosm."

Scope of work

Because of the many different facets of this microcosm, designers involved in hospitality projects need to have a broad knowledge base that covers all the minutiae of design, from lighting to technology to interior architecture.

You also need to understand the specific, often unique needs of the operator you are dealing with, Leung said. "When you design a hotel, you need to understand the operator very well. There is no single golden rule in hotel operations - Four Seasons may have one way of operating its food and beverage outlets and Hyatt might have another. You need to talk to the operator and understand how each likes to work. Even when it comes to guestrooms and function rooms, different operators have different, sometimes contradictory, requirements," Leung explained.

There is also the challenge of juggling the sometimes conflicting demands of owners and operators. With a number of parties involved, hospitality projects require careful handling of both people and plans. "There are so many parties involved - the operators, the owners, the consultants," said Leung.

"You can end up with 30 or 40 people in a meeting. As the interior designer you are almost the lead consultant, so there is a lot of co-ordination to do. There has to be strong management."

In addition, the hotel sector doesn't offer a steady stream of work, and suppliers and designers alike should be wary of putting all their eggs in the hospitality basket. Group turnover at Italian furniture company Selva, for example, is split into 70% retail and 30% hospitality, which Philipp Selva, the company's CEO, is eager to maintain. "I like this percentage.

Hospitality is an industry where you have high peaks - you'll get huge contracts and have a fantastic year. But then the following year, you might have delays or unclear financing and so on, so I want to keep retail as the backbone of the company. It's a more steady business," he explained.

One-of-a-kind design

What the hospitality industry does offer, however, is the opportunity to be truly creative. In no other segment of the industry is the pressure to create authentic, one-of-a-kind design more acute. People are travelling further, chanelling more money into their holiday budget and becoming ever-more design conscious. In response, hotels, and the individuals who design them, are obliged to offer unique, non-repeatable experiences in truly unique settings.

"I believe we are seeing design standards getting less and less ‘standard'. Guests have become more and more savvy about what they are getting, and taking a holiday is also about trying to live a strong experience that you can take home with you," said Reda Amalou of AW2, a Paris-based architecture and design firm managed by Amalou and Stephanie Ledoux.

While technology is one factor playing a part in driving the evolution of hospitality design, the fundamental driving force is the guests themselves. "Technology has had an impact, but I am not one to think that it is fundamental in the change. Indeed, the people that will use luxury boutique hotels are usually technologically aware and they are probably able to afford amazing technology at home!" said Amalou.

"I am not sure this is where hotels should be putting their energy. Where the real battle lies is trying to provide things that are difficult to get back home - space, outside living, bespoke furniture and oversized bathrooms."

Guests are becoming less and less daunted by interior design - and more demanding as a result. "Everybody is more educated about design these days. Expectations are much higher. Perhaps we think this because we are designers but we do feel that design is becoming quite mainstream. It is not frightening anymore," said Ian Bayliss, creative director, United Designers.

Fashionista

The trend towards increasingly design-led hotels is only set to increase as a growing number of fashion designers enter the hospitality industry - which, according to Selva, will have a positive impact on the sector as a whole.

Such high-profile personalities will encourage interest in the interior and furnishing industries, and further promote good design in the hospitality sector, he maintained. "I think this is positive. When those fashion labels are showing such a high interest in furniture and interiors, it means we have an attractive business. All the high-end people will benefit."The company was recently selected to furnish Moschino's first venture into hospitality. Maison Moschino is scheduled to open this year on Viale Monte Grappa in Milan. Located in a restored 1840s neoclassical railway station, the hotel will feature 58 rooms and seven suites, set over four floors.

"We've just got an order for the Moschino hotel in Milan. The brand is called Maison Moschino and the idea is to clone this in several cities around the world. They are introducing the first of these iconic hotels in Milan and Selva has been appointed to do the rooms. We are also in contact with several other fashion people so there might be other things coming up," he revealed.

Suppliers across the board are reporting demand for quirky products that will set their hotel clients apart in an increasingly competitive competitive set. "What we have been finding is that hotels have been taking a leaf out of the ‘boutique hotel' book and looking to invest in that ‘wow' factor," said Agnelo Fernandes, export director of Cole & Son, the British wallpaper specialist.

"We've never been used by the Hilton or Sheraton brands, for example, but now the orders are starting to come through. People want something slightly more quirky," he added.

Branded hotels are starting to recognise that even though they might be part of a wider family and must offer some level of consistency, there is no excuse for shying away from original design. "It is interesting to see that the most amazing hotels in the world have historically been non-branded - Hotel de Crillon in Paris, The Ritz in London, the Oriental. They are about being unique and belonging to a place," Amalou pointed out.

"I believe that, recently, brands such as GHM have succeeded in doing this, with The Datai and the Setai, for example. So, my view is simple, successful hotels are not about branding. They are about a successful chemistry of location, design, service and, first and foremost for boutique hotels, about being able to create an experience strong enough that you will go back home with memories."

Goodbye to classical

While the need to be different means that there are few distinct trends currently shaping hoteldesign, there is one constant, said Leung. The age of classical design has come to a close.

Even operators that have traditionally promoted a more classical design ethos are adopting a more contemporary approach to their interiors, he maintained. "Classical interiors will be out of the picture in the very near future. People are getting tired of classical design.

"Even brands like Four Seasons and Saint Regis, which have traditionally been very classical, are becoming more contemporary. There are obviously exceptions but with a new build it is unlikely that you would introduce a heavy, classical design," said Leung.

However, that's not to say that hotels should introduce cookie cutter, contemporary design schemes that show no regard for cultural context, he said.

"Contemporary design will become mainstream but I'm not suggesting that hotels across the world should all be the same, even within that contemporary context. People want unique design that includes cultural, contextual design elements. They don't want to go into a Park Hyatt that looks the same whether it is in Shang-Hai, Dubai or London."

Leung called upon the example of Armani Hotels & Resorts, which is dedicated to creating contemporary hotels with strong cultural ties. "I've met with the Armani team and they quoted Mr. Armani as saying that he doesn't want to use the same architects and interior designers for each of his hotels. He wants to find the most suitable local designers to work on each project."

Amalou also reiterated the importance of making sure that hotels contain cultural context. "For example, at the Nam Hai in Vietnam, which we designed, we created a ‘platform room'. The rooms are laid out with no loose furniture, but with a single long platform in the middle. It houses the bed, the desk, the bath and a day bed," Amalou said. "You can close it all round with soft curtains and it becomes a ‘protected' private environment within the room. I believe this experience is totally unique."

And never has the need to be unique, intelligent and innovative been more acute - the current economic climate offers little room for any other kind of project. "I think we are going to see projects with strong fundamentals happen," Amalou said.

"Others that rely on feeble sites and far-fetched branding will most certainly stop, if not disappear."

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