Roundtable: Seamless design and the guest experience

Hotelier Middle East recently hosted round table on design and technology saw participants gather from the technology, hotel and design sectors. High on the agenda was guest experience in terms of design, technology and hotels

ITP Media Group

The hotel guest is king, or at least should be. Guests should be pampered, their needs catered to. To aid this, their rooms should be seamlessly designed, and any design elements, while appealing to the eye, should be functional and easy to use.

A recent comment piece by Shweta Parida, editor of Hotelier sister title Commercial Interior Design pointed out how that “with today’s blurred boundaries between work and play, hotels, are mimicking what happens in private residences.”

If, as Parida points out,  hotel spaces mimic those  of home, it stands to reason, then, that any design factors must be easy to use, and be as simple as flicking a switch on and off while blindfolded. 

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“Design must not be reliant on the guest,” says Bill Carr, vice president, engineering and guests technology, luxury brands for Accor Hotels Middle East & Africa. “We have to make it seamless for our guests. It has to be simplified, as most of our complaints are that there is one light in the guest room that nobody can find the switch for.”

According to round table participant, Mou’men Mohsen, senior technical marketing (Eng.), Jung Middle East, one hotel that kept design simple for its guests is the four-star property Al Khozama in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Mohsen revealed to the round table participants how that despite the property has gone through five separate refurbishments, it had retained the original wiring accessories, switches.  “The hotel is now being demolished but will be rebuilt with a request to return Jung wiring accessories. Good design and good design accessories are about longevity,” he says.

Although Marlaine  Collins, lead architect – Hospitality, SSH, agreed with Mohsen’s sentiment, saying that good designers should make sure their design is everlasting as a design should be, she highlighted how  trends are part of design and accessories, art and technology play a part in change as well, and those changes have to be implemented.

Today technology and design go hand-in-glove. Visit most hotels and light switches, or panels as they have become, in guestrooms look impressive, if difficult to master. “Guests do have difficulty working tech out in hotels,” says Patrick Bean, design director, Lacasa. “It might be an age thing because if I hand my 11-year-old daughter a laptop she can do anything in the room.”

Bean continues: “Technology can help us and as Marlene says it can help us with sustainability and how we make more things efficient and how we save electricity and how we do things environmentally.”

Earlier in the discussion, Collins had pointed out how technology helps hotels to have huge savings in terms of water consumption now there has been huge savings for hotels in terms of control the water flow.

She had highlighted how she had had “an amazing conversation with the guys who started the waste management company Blue, and how they have pushed into the hospitality industry with a phenomenal success. They are doing feasibility studies with operators and developers now and are saving 40% of water, which doesn’t affect guest experience,” she says.

However, design technology implemented in hotel guestrooms isn’t delivering quite as successful results as Collin’s impressive example. Carr puts this down to the length of time that guests stay in hotels. “Guests are transient,” he says. “There is one master switch at the door and by the bed that switches everything off.  Guests do not have the luxury of a learning curve, due to their short length of stay, and therefore do not have the time to work out how other elements of a light panel might work.” 

GOOD SEAMLESS DESIGN

Jacinda Raniolo, lead creative designer, GAJ, says there has to be a compromise between designers and hoteliers. “Designers are always looking for the [light] switch to be seamless, not to be obvious in the room, the IT consultant wants to make sure that everything is included in the switch, and the [hotel] operator says ‘oh I want to have just two switches and that’s it. I want to make it easier for the guests’,” she says.

Added to this sound of different voices is the light consultant, who wants to ad mood control, dimming. “It’s confusing”, she says.

Hailing from a consultancy background, Maliha Nishat, director of interior design, Marriott Hotels, says she understands how that from a design stand point to try  integrate everything [in light terminals]. “It gets rather annoying when you end up with [light] panels so big and difficult to use,” she says.

 Nishat appealed to the others in the discussion, saying how she thought everyone on this table would agree it is all down to the guest experience and that’s what we are all working towards. “You should be able to come into a room as a guest and seamlessly just know how to operate light switches. In my opinion this is good design,” she adds.

“We have had a lot of negative feedback in regards to touch switches,” says Carr.  “They can easily not work if you have grease on your fingers. Design has returned towards old ‘on-off switch ‘lights, which is being made with guest room management system (GRMS) control.  He went on to say how designers have to design so as not to be reliant on the guest.

Rotana Hotels’ corporate vice president - projects, Najee Syriani, said there are two lines of thoughts in terms of technology. “You either want to be in a home away from home or you want to have a new experience not being surrounded by ipads and mobiles. 

“We cannot wow the guests with technology alone,” he says.  “It is about the entire experience; in the room, in the shower, around breakfast by the pool. It is everything. It is not about gimmicks that make the stay annoying.”

Syriani emphasised the importance of technology, and what it can do behind the scenes in a hotel, such as with lighting, the check-in experience, and so on.  Collins agreed, highlighting that how technology and design works in the background to create “incredible sustainability savings: does not affect guest experience at all. Technology is constantly being updated, which is very interesting.”

“Collins went on to explain how prior to the roundtable she had carried out research and was surprised that Marriot in the USA had partnered with Amazon and Alexa, and some of their hotels were being operated by voice control.

“So, we are not going to be running around pushing buttons when you have one system that you can talk to, and that system is paired to the device that you or a guest arrives with. Technology is amazing and there are so many different levels to it, but all the layers of age groups mean that not everybody is able to use it as easily as others. But voice technology bypasses this. Now everybody can use it relatively easily,” she says.

It is the kind of technology that could negatively affect companies such as Jung who provide hotels with electronic products such as lighting interface panels. “Manufacturers are seeing this trend,” says Jung’s Mohsen. “For us as a manufacturer we have integrated Alexa as we see it as a way going forward as a simplistic layer. Also, as Bill Carr was saying, it is preferred to have this very seamless integrated. Our [Jung’s] latest practice is to actually have very conventional looking switches but with a backend integrating presence sensors, and everything.

Carr pointed out that voice technology is still in its infancy. “It has not been able to recognize all accents,” he says. “There is also privacy concerns with a lot of hotel chains. It is live and is recording a lot of conversations. It is a learning process and people are concerned.”

Chris Badea, sales & marketing manager, Jung, expressed his point of view from that of a hotel guest. He said that he believed in trends.  “Historically the region was driven by technology and luxury. At times, we are so focused on technology and profit that we do not focus on the friction points with guests, whose experience is everything in hospitality. Design is coming after technology, not before, though people think it is the other way around,” he says. “Designers are given projects by hotel operators and we all, designers, manufacturers, consultants, must solve the problem in the best, user-friendly way.”

ENVIRONMENTAL TOURISTS

The importance of design materials in terms of sustainability was discussed. He said that using recycled materials is becoming more popular. It is a subject, according to Bean, that designers are becoming more knowledgeable about. “If we use local materials we have to think how we build it with local materials.” he says. As designers, we have to ask questions: what direction is the building facing? How does the sun work with it? How we shade it?  It is interesting as the market for environmental tourists is growing.”

One of the main challenges in term of implementing sustainability into hotels is the cost. “You are just going to have dollar signs in your head,” says Nishat. “It is where most of the resistance will come from. But pushing the return on investment the long term benefits are far greater than what you put up front.” Nishat highlighted that in the Middle East there are more and more LEED silver and gold hotels in the UAE than anywhere in the Middle East. 

Carr said that from a technology and design perspective you can have the bells and whistles which, he says, don’t really bring added value, but the baseline that is required in terms of energy savings can be designed in quite easily into a hotel.

Mohsen said that Jung is facing a lot of resistance when it comes to new properties and projects. “Many of them want to go in this environmentally efficient direction but are hindered by budget restraints.”

Collins, who was on a recent trip to Singapore, said that every refurbishment that happens there has to hit a green mark, of which there are three levels, including   faucets, bathrooms, food service,  and lighting. “This is what drives building design and building development,” she says. “The innovative design on the back of this is phenomenally good.”

Ranilo of GAJ, who is an Australian, says that that country is similar to Singapore, and that projects must have a certain green rating.  She describes how GAJ had worked on upgrading a heritage budding from the 1800s into a hotel and how it had to meet sustainable requirements. “Materials had to be specified, safety issues had to be adhered to. It was quite difficult to do within an existing heritage building.”

Badea of Jung highlighted how in the UAE, designers and developers were implementing corrective actions in terms of sustainability whereas in Singapore implements preventive measures.  “From our [Jung] side, we do whatever the owner is asking. We have certain limitations.”

Collins mentioned how Singapore had set itself up years ago to achieve the sustainability standards it implements today. “But the younger generation [around the world], the new traveller are going to force this change to happen globally.”

Carr highlighted about how all corporate clients across all [hotel] brands have to report on their carbon footprint. “Our corporate clients are very concerned about what the cost is to them.” Syriani added that it wasn’t just about sustainable technology but about our material is sourced, working the local community, which are part of the social and economic measures that affect sustainability that are not necessarily technology driven. “At Rotana we try to push for local suppliers and manufacturers, local hires in our projects and renovations,” he says.

In Shweta Parida’s comment piece in Hotelier’s sister title Commercial Interior’s  Design, she also talked about how there is  a ’seven year itch’ in terms of design, meaning that this was the general expiry date for interior design. Carr reiterated this point saying that because the competition in the UAE coming onboard so quickly that seven years is the time to redesign. [Clients] ask why they are staying with you [as an operator] for the past six years when there is a brand new property next door.”

 In terms of retrofit, Carr believes it is easier to install hardware such as switches, for example, due to the support that technology today offers designers. “Wireless switches are here now. So interior designers can place switches wherever they want it,” he says. “Whereas we had to run wires.” Collins added that that kind of technology has become more and more affordable, than, for example, having to drill through roofs to rewire.”

There was a time once when hotel owners rejected the installation of LED lighting, recounts Carr.  “We had to do on a piecemeal basis,” he says. “It’s completely evolved,” adds Bishop. 

Moving on from LED lighting in hotels today is Circadian lighting, which is designed to be able to control the colour and intensity of the light at particular times. “It is automated and you can wake yourself up with colours that mimic sunrise,” says Carr.

 Clearly, there are times when technology and design can interfere negatively with guest experience, such as when lighting interfaces are difficult to master. Designers too, face such problems from hotels.

Collins recounted an incident about one hotel she recently completed. One of the standards of the hotel was that standard lamps in the guestroom had to manually operate. “It is hardwired but then the client decided to change the shape of the sofas in the guestroom, which meant that nobody could reach the on-off switch. The irony is that it was a brand standard that the lamp was manually operated. When the lamp came to Dubai it had to be rewired in order to get the on-off switch to a place where it could be accessed.”

One way to bypass such ironies is the control room, which is the mock-up room inspections. “The interior designers would notice how it works,” says Carr. However one of the problems with such rooms, according to Collins, is they are conducted under budgets and time, and not cheap. “You often have the client walk and says ‘oh. I don’t like that detail’, because they haven’t seen or felt the overall space and we are trying to sell the overall dream. If the room hasn’t been finished on time, the client will notice little details and become focused on them,” she says.    Collins went on to say that the one thing you have difficulty in controlling is the client. “

Again, design must go hand-in-glove with guest experiences. “As designers we have responsibilities to create an environment that guest wants to stay in and take the experience home with them,” says Collins. “It’s when you [guests] return to your house which is very ordinary, you want to create some sort of experience that mimics that technology, such as the circadian lighting. Ultimately, we will have that in our very own homes.”

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