Special Report: Furniture Design
Interior design is a key ingredient in the recipe for F&B success
Is interior design an essential ingredient in the recipe for success for a hotel restaurant concept? Consultants and hoteliers take up the design debate as they examine current dining trends in the Middle East hotel F&B segment
‘The food, the wine and the ambience…’ it’s a phrase often recalled to sum up a great dining experience and one that says something about the perfect mix of ingredients that should be sprinkled into the pot when creating a successful restaurant concept.
But how important a role does interior design play? The hospitality industry is pretty unanimous on this issue: it is an essential element of what should be a ‘package’ delivering great food, great service and an inspiring setting that leaves a lasting positive impression on guests.
Speaking at Dubai’s AHIC conference earlier this year, Salman A Haider, executive managing director – hotels, Majid Al Futtam Properties – whose portfolio includes Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates and the mall’s Kempinski hotel – was very clear on the role interior design plays in his business.
“I invest most of my time, even my finances in design. Why? Because it provides the highest impact per square inch with the customer who pays the rate,” he said. “Interior design gets you the business, it is what a guest remembers when they go home and makes them want to return; everything else is invisible.”
Whether a hotel is creating a new venue or embarking on a renovation project, experts agree that the approach to a concept should be the same. “Think of food and design as two points of the dining spectrum,” advises Pam Wilby, GM of Dubai’s Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort, where the Maya Modern Mexican Kitchen and Lounge led by celebrity chef Richard Sandoval recently underwent an eight-month refurbishment.
“A true dining experience is not about the taste of the food, but must allow the guests to feast with all their senses,” she adds.
According to one F&B expert, an outlet will typically spend, “somewhere in the region of AED 2-3 million on its design” and normally the refurbishment cycle is three-five years. “It really is a fast cycle,” says Stefan Breg, founder of Tribe Restaurant Creators.
“You know, there are a lot of hotels in Dubai’s Deira that make me misty eyed; they have such beautiful restaurants but sadly there is no one in them – that is why revitalisation is so important. You need to create impact; that is what brings customers through the door.”
Breg offers a word of caution, however, advising that some interior concepts could become ‘lost in translation’ in this region.
“If I said I wanted to create a restaurant reviving the glamour of Art Deco, most Westerners would understand the vision. But this region has nationalities from around the world; an Art Deco restaurant might seem out-of-sync or even old-fashioned to them because they don’t have a cultural reference point,” he explains, adding that themes can often be perceived as over-the-top and can quickly become passé if the designer does not have longevity in mind.
David Rockwell, founder and CEO of New York-based architecture and design power house, Rockwell Group, does not believe that play-safe ‘classic’ schemes are the key to this longevity.
His studio’s signature-style skillfully blends old and new, which has injected a sharp, edgy twist into the ‘English manor house’ aesthetic at Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant at St Regis Doha.
Rockwell believes that the type of cuisine served by a restaurant should dictate the direction of the design concept. “The design must be authentic to the food, never upstaging or contradicting it,” he says. “We always try to infuse the identity of the cuisine and/or the chef to set the restaurant apart as a destination itself.”
“We do a lot of research into the chef, the cuisine, and target customers, in order to create an appropriate identity,” he continues. “We concentrate on materials, finishes, furniture and features that we think are crucial to our vision, and to communicating the identity of the chef or client.”
‘Invention’ is also essential to the approach taken by Japanese interior design firm Super Potato, which has conceived interior schemes for the Ritz-Carlton, Westin and Grand Hyatt.
“Hotels will be worn out in a few-to-10 years, either physically or in terms of the design,” says vice president Norihiko Shinya. “We try to achieve a new standard in design through innovation but one that will not feel old in 10 years.”
The underlining message here is that blindly following the latest interior trend will very quickly shorten the lifespan of an outlet. “Restaurant design must always remain relevant to a changing world, not necessarily with regards to trends, but with regards to values,” says Doris Grief, general manager, who oversaw the introduction of Bice at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers.
“An outlet’s design needs to change when dining values change and a gap between the two emerges.”
This ‘gap’, according to Daniel During of design and management consultancy Thomas Klein International, is the difference between being a trend-setter and a trend-follower: “It’s not simply about creativity and interior design,” he says. “Yes, this is a huge part of the process but it’s really about understanding where the market movement is — what are people looking for next and where are the untapped gaps they really want? You should not look at what else is being offered; you should look at what is being requested.”
Keeping it casual
Those eateries with a nose for what customers want are thriving in the Middle East, particularly in the standalone restaurant sector where entrepreneurial drive and creativity is creating a fiercely competitive market – and this sector, it seems, should be on the radar of any hotelier serious about their F&B business.
Dubai’s bustling restaurant culture has certainly caught the attention of the world’s culinary echelons. Once again this year, Zuma ranked on the S. Pellegrino list of the world’s best restaurants, having been previously listed alongside La Petite Maison, while big names such as Nobu and The Ivy, not to mention newcomers such as Table 9, have quickly followed in the footsteps of the region’s increasing gaggle of celebrity chefs.
At the same time, the penchant for casual dining is playing a role in the success of the standalone restaurant and some experts believe that hoteliers need to adapt to the demands of modern diners in the region.
“The point is this,” said Breg, in a recent address to hoteliers, “They are eating into your profit margin in your own neighbourhood. What makes this more challenging is that some of them are also entering the market not as fine dining or fine-casual, but as casual dining.
“If you live in Dubai, you’ll know these names and you will eat in those restaurants where previously you might have dined in hotel restaurants – and the frightening fact is that they are generating a lot of revenue. That can’t be new mania, that can’t be a growing population – it is vision and it’s eating away at your revenue.”
Breg estimates that casual dining has grown by a multiple of six in the last seven years. “That’s not 6% or even 60% but a multiple of six,” he stresses to get the message across.
As TKI’s During points out, operating licensed premises is a shield that can no longer fully protect hoteliers from the arrows of competition targeted at their market share. “A lot of these restaurants are making the same or more money even without liquor because they offer an experience – that is what people are really looking for.”
Willi Elsener, managing director F&B division of Bespoke Concepts, who has worked with Anton Mosimann at the London Dorchester as well as Jumeirah Group in Dubai, believes the hotel’s fixed F&B model and management structures can often fetter those with vision.
“Many standalone restaurants have to prioritise service to survive and deliver on a unique dining experience for guests,” he explains.
“Often the hotel model is a safe cocoon; they have captive guests and the restaurant is not seen as an individual profit centre but as part of the whole package. If the figures are not right then the first reaction is to cut costs. I strongly advocate looking at hotel restaurants as revenue drivers.”
Some well-known groups are prioritising their entire hotel business in this way. Kempinski recently announced its new strategy as “a food and beverage-led business.”
But what kind of experience should hoteliers be providing in their resorts? Has fine dining really had its day? Elsener points out that it’s often a generational preference, and while there is a sector of the market that expects fine dining, many modern travellers are looking for a home away from home. “Many hoteliers have reacted to the shift in the market and it’s encouraging to see the efforts being made to appeal to a younger audience,” he says.
One resort that has used its current refurbishment project to address this change is Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi. “We are addressing the needs of the market at this end by adding a new outlet focused on providing bakery and deli-driven experiences. The aim is to allow guests to be in and out in 30 minutes, which may not be possible in some more traditional styles of restaurants,” explains general manager, Shaun Parsons.
But how does casual dining translate in terms of interior design? What design concepts work well in hotels? “The key to casual dining is repeat business; that customers start to absorb the brand or outlet into their lives,” says Aidan Keane of international design group, Keane Brands.
“The problem with that is people need to have something to keep them interested every time they visit. So I would look at different seating areas, zones and lighting to keep things interesting.
“Layered on top of that is the feel of a space –it shouldn’t be overly formal, overly varnished; there needs to be a natural warmth. Worn-in is a good look, people like to feel there is a patina of use in casual dining.”
Both hoteliers and design professionals see the hotel lobby lounge as an area that is crying out for a design rethink. “The whole lobby experience in a hotel, and I’m thinking of the middle market in particular here, is just too laborious,” says Keane. “In most cases there’s just a big desk with people stood behind it trying to look important.
“If you think of a hotel as a home, you would never to have to stand at a desk being asked 101 questions. We live in a modern world now, surely the check-in process should be at the point of payment,” he adds.
Keane is currently working with a hospitality group on a new concept for its hotel lobby that introduces a bakery. “The lobby is often a dead space and what it needs is people; it needs activity and energy and the best way to introduce that is to bring food into the space – not some stuffy hotel coffee shop but something that’s alive with aromas, food, drink and people,” he elaborates.
This mindset is shared by the industry, it seems, and the conventional hotel lobby is being reinvented by hoteliers – Le Meridien’s new sociable Le Meridien Hub is one response to this change. In fact, ‘sociability’ and ‘interaction’ seem to be the buzzwords of the moment in the world of hotel design.
“In all our work there is a focus on creating environments where guests and visitors want to stay and occupy, to connect and share the moment,” adds David Rockwell.
“This has translated into the open, social gathering spaces in our design of the future Andaz Maui, the luxurious, crafted public areas in every W Hotel we have designed, and a general sense of celebration, connectivity, and engagement that we infuse in many of our projects, whether a hotel, restaurant, hospital, theatre set, or museum.
“Our lobby for Aloft hotels is a transformable space with modular, moveable furniture,” he continues. “During the day it serves as a meeting/work space and café. At night it transforms into a space for lounging and play. People can fold, flip down, and push furniture to create their own work or socialising micro-spaces within the lobby.”
Super Potato’s design for the Grand Hyatt Singapore also creates a “home away from home” that adapts to the needs of guests. “The space functions as a lobby lounge but does not look like a traditional lobby,” Shinya explains.
“It has the concept of a ‘residence’ so the lounge has an entrance foyer zoned into a library, living, dining and terrace, which not only operates as a lounge but has multiple functions providing a business centre or a place for afternoon tea that replicates the feel of a private residence. This creates a warm, friendly environment.”
Involving the F&B professional within the design process is vital to ensure that a space works well not only on an aesthetic level but practically too. “One classic example that springs to mind is the waiter station I saw in a venue” says TKI’s During. “The designer obviously didn’t want this area on show when he created the space so he turned it around.
However, this means the waiters have their backs to guests and the service is appalling, not because of the competency of the staff but because they are fighting against the layout of the room,” he explains.
Where hotels don’t have the expertise, During believes it right to bring in third-party restaurants. “Compare it to medicine – you have dentists, you have psychiatrists, then there’s the brain surgeons and heart surgeons.
You wouldn’t go to the dentist if you need open-heart surgery,” he says. “Think of a hotel like a hospital. You have the rooms division, the marketing division and you have F&B. You need experts in every area and if you don’t have them, they should be brought in.”