Feature: Dare to Design

The design landscape is constantly changing, and hotels are incorporating looks with functionality in equal measure. Hotelier Middle East sits down with interior designers and operators to find out what's the word on the street about the latest trends

L-R: Cameron McPherson, director of design MEA, IHG -- Sheri Y. Smith, senior director interior design, Marriott International -- Ralf Steinhauer, director  Middle East & North Africa, RSP -- Kevin McLachlan, associate partner  head of interiors, Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ) -- Carol Finnie, portfolio director, DWP  Design Worldwide Partnership -- Marcos Cain, principal & founder, Stickman Tribe.
L-R: Cameron McPherson, director of design MEA, IHG -- Sheri Y. Smith, senior director interior design, Marriott International -- Ralf Steinhauer, director Middle East & North Africa, RSP -- Kevin McLachlan, associate partner head of interiors, Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ) -- Carol Finnie, portfolio director, DWP Design Worldwide Partnership -- Marcos Cain, principal & founder, Stickman Tribe.

Designing hotels and resorts in the region is a serious business; interior designers have to create the look of a property that fits operator brand standards while also standing out amidst a sea of tough competition. Under the auspices of Hotelier Middle East, Commercial Interior Design and Middle East Architect, the Future of Hotel Design roundtable took place earlier this year, featuring the region’s leading hotel design stakeholders including independent and hotel group architects and interior designers to discuss the latest in hotel design.

We present the top trends discussed, debated, and dissected:

Designing for millennials

The M-word has been cropping up in all facets of the hospitality industry, whether it’s millennial guests or employees. And certainly, it’s something to consider even with designing a property. DWP — Design Worldwide Partnership portfolio director Carol Finnie says designing for millennials is a talking point for everyone. “It’s been a hard push about how we’re going to be designing for the future, how that affects what we design, how we design as operators, and how the design of hotels has been affected by the next generation,” she says.

Finnie adds that the ‘millennial personality’ is all about sharing and collaboration, which is affecting how one looks at design.

Marriott International senior director interior design Sheri Y. Smith reveals that the hotel operator conducted a study to see where people fit on a ‘millennial scale’ and found that there were many who were on that scale who were not actually millennials, by definition.

Agreeing with her was Cameron McPherson, the director of design MEA at IHG. He comments: “I would definitely agree with that. In reality, there’s no such thing as a millennial. It doesn’t matter what age group you come from, your expectations are changing. With young people, we expect they want everything faster. They don’t want everything faster, they want it right, they want it correct.”

The word ‘millennial’ and what that group actually means and what its members want constantly evolves. Stickman Tribe principal and founder Marcos Cain says that what a millennial means is an evolution, and isn’t fixed. “We did a full study five years ago on millennials for a hotel chain. And we designed the room for each particular character of the millennials, and did activation points to figure out what F&B offering and what business hubs they want. With millennials, it comes down to [that] they’re trying to do multiple tasks at multiple times, and we’re trying to create multiple pockets of revenue for operators, so we can utilise the space to create different moments within.”

Following on Cain’s point about multiple pockets of revenue, one of the topics that everyone agreed on was flexibility of design. RSP director — Middle East & North Africa Ralf Steinhauer notes: “A lot more functions are merging into one. It’s not just a meeting room, it’s a place to hang out, and it’s a place to grab something to eat.”

Points of difference

There are many brands on the market now, and a lot of competition. That’s why finding points of differentiation between brands in the same segment but part of different operators is exceedingly important. But it also comes down to financials.

Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ) associate partner — head of interiors Kevin McLachlan says that designers are predicted to be under more and more pressure to “present an idea which meets a margin from the operational side of things”. He adds: “All it is now is a point of difference between one block of hotels and the next. It’s all about us researching who’s the next nearest competitor with you [an operator] and making that point of difference, and that will add more and more pressure.”

McPherson says he’s being brutally honest about the hospitality industry and says the hotel sector in particular can be a conservative business. “It takes a lot of time to react because you have so many stakeholders involved. If you are going to have brands, they have to have points of difference — they can’t blend into each other, otherwise what’s the point? You have to work out what that difference is, and how you keep it flexible. You have got to have flexibility in your design to last over time without having to tear down the entire building and starting again.”

A lot of the flexibility that’s needed also stems from the fact that, as Finnie points out, hotels get different kinds of guests. McLachlan adds: “You can have one type of guest in the room, another in the lobby, another in the restaurant. Places like New York are fine examples of that, where you feel like part of the community.”

Flex those brand standards

The importance of hotel brand standards are well known, and it’s a checklist that everyone involved in bringing a property to life has to tick. However, sometimes, it can be possible to flex brand standards, says McPherson – but this is entirely dependent on a case-by-case scenario.

He explains: “It depends on how confident you are at the level you’re at. If I believe strongly enough that we can flex that brand standard because it makes sense to do so, [then we can try]... If you’re gutsy enough, sometimes it carries off, but sometimes the quality inspector will come and talk to you about the brand standards.”

Smith adds that she’s open to suggestions as well. “I love that I get to meet with really creative designers, because they teach me about what’s new. I love when they say, ‘can we try something new?’ I will try it; I never want to make the brand fail an audit, but I’m definitely open.”

However, the caveat with this is that some designers, especially the younger ones, will go beyond what’s needed and create something that cannot be realised — causing wasted time and resources. The designers agreed that right now there is a lot of pressure on a young designer to deliver results, and sometimes need to be told to not over-deliver. Smith agrees and adds: “I find with our select-service brands sometimes the designers over-design, and I I feel bad because I think they’ve done an amazing design but it just doesn’t fit the brand and the cost.”

McLachlan, however, says that with the development of local three-star and four-star brands, these could feasibly go global and create their own design direction. “There’s a shift in polarity in terms of where design happens, in spite of all the hurdles thrown against us. Things that we just wouldn’t dream of: like concrete rooms with graffiti. We just wouldn’t get them past an operator before. So how do operators stand out in the crowd and create a brand?” He points out these are great to attract the “20-somethings who may not have the budget but want to travel”. Both Smith and McPherson agree; Smith references the Moxy brand and McPherson mentions Hotel Indigo, which is coming to the UAE.

Hotel design is definitely undergoing a revolution — watch this space.

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