Distinct experiences, designed with guests in mind, underscore successful properties, say experts

Distinct experiences, designed with guests in mind, underscore successful properties, say experts

With a burgeoning number of hotels across the region, it is becoming increasingly important for hotel brands to create aspects that distinguish them from their competitors

Hotel design, Middle East hotel design, Maliha Nishat, Duncan Denley, Carol Finnie, Anne-Cecile de Chaumont

According to a hotel construction report released in 2017 by TopHotelProjects, a hospitality industry market research company, 164 hotels were expected to open in Dubai in 2018. With such a large number of properties offering similar amenities being added every year, design is one aspect that hotels can focus on to set their brand apart from the rest.

“Guests are seeking an unforgettable travel experience that creates a memorable journey. Hotels that have a striking personality stand out from the crowd,” says Maliha Nishat, director of interior design at Marriott International, Middle East and Africa.

“Hotels have to sell a lifestyle and a personality of their own. It should be a space that looks alive without trying too hard or being over designed. Why else are some highly Instagrammed hotels more popular than others?” she asks. “Humans thrive on experiences. Sharing their experiences and being in an environment that is uniquely designed is exciting for the senses.”

Carol Finnie, regional portfolio director, Design Worldwide Partnership (dwp), agrees, and adds that design is subjective: “What resonates with one individual, may not resonate with another. The design aspect is an important factor for guest experience when selecting a hotel. It takes on different shapes depending on individuals. Whether it is good space planning or a new design feature, its appeal to a person will depend on what’s important to them.”

But design is not the only element that will impact customer demand.

“If there is no quality or consistency in service, or if there is no connection between the look and the feel of the hotel, guests will be more than disappointed. They will feel cheated. We cannot overpromise and underdeliver. If you fail at this, no matter how nice the design was, guests will never come back,” warns Anne-Cecile de Chaumont, creative director at Break, a concept and design advisory firm for hospitality and lifestyle brands.

When taking a holistic view of current hotel design trends, there are a few themes that recur. What might seem like a trend is not merely a conscious attempt to follow a fad, but rather a focus on what customers want.

 “Instead of focusing on trends, we place guests first. We understand who our guests are, what their needs and expectations are, and how we can address them. We also try to go over and beyond that to create a memorable stay,” says de Chaumont.

Finnie adds: "As designers, it’s our job to challenge and explore new thoughts and ideas. Design is about creating something new and unique that may transform into a trend based on popularity.”

Evolution of the lobby

Being one of the first places a hotel guest sees, it goes without saying that the lobby is an important space in hotel design.

“Lobbies are no longer considered just waiting areas. Public areas and lobbies in general are the places where life happens,” notes de Chaumont.

“Gone are the days of pragmatic and formal seating arrangements in a lobby. The lobby is now an extension of the living room; providing engaging opportunities to encourage guests to spend some time outside their rooms. Reception desks are slowly making an exit, with check-ins provided in a more informal manner,” comments Nishat.

As a space meant for hotel staff and guest interaction, a lot of focus has been placed on accommodating diverse usage and behaviour in lobbies.

“Lobbies are skipping the formalities, breaking the barrier between staff and guests, and leaning towards human to human interaction. Some hotel brands, such as Moxy, do not have a conventional reception, but one that is integrated in a bar, café, lounge or library, in order to attract more customers and to keep the space alive at all times. Larger hotels are adopting a boutique-hotel attitude. A lobby is now a multi-functional space with staff who often multitask,” shares Nishat.

“The current direction is in designing a space within a space that is of dual use. For instance, a reception can be a combined bar or retail space, or an informal meeting room can become a cinema room. Lounge seating spaces are designed to be comfortable to spend time collectively with others,” says Finnie. “Guests should be able to interact as a group or meet one-to-one. Hence the type of furniture is more eclectic than it used to be,” she says, adding that music and lighting play a big role in establishing a certain buzz in the lobby areas throughout the day.

Designers place a lot of emphasis on selecting the right furniture and planning the best layouts for lobbies as these spaces also provide access to food and beverage areas and meeting rooms. “At the moment, designers are focusing on the multi-functional use of the lobby. In the past, it was mainly a transitional space,” says Finnie.

Trendy guestrooms

According to de Chaumont, whose previous assignments guestrooms are probably the most challenging area of the hotel to design because of preconceived expectations.

“They have to be efficient, easy to clean and maintain, and they impact the cost per key of the hotel significantly,” she remarks. “Small, innovative details and smart decisions can make a difference.”

While guestrooms are the ultimate reason for guests to choose a hotel, the time spent in them has reduced greatly, thanks to mobile devices. “That does not mean that guestrooms can be overlooked, but it probably means that we have to reconsider what a guestroom is and should be,” de Chaumont says.

Standard considerations that designers must take into account, irrespective of the design theme, include a good bed, comfortable bed linens, optimal light levels, black-out blinds and good acoustics. Other considerations are more a result of traditions, rather than practicality and functions.

“Do we still need to set standards on the wardrobe design, the number of drawers, and the percentage of showers versus bathtubs? Do we still need a working desk, and should the bed always be free on three of its sides?” asks de Chaumont. “I am not sure. It is more the result of a ‘this is how we’ve been doing it for years’ and ‘guests will expect it’, and not a result of understanding what their needs are.”

The design of the guestroom is as important as other public spaces in the hotel, says Finnie. “It never gets boring. When it comes to guestrooms, we would think every configuration has already been created, but with the introduction of new standards, customer requirements, and legislations, there are always new challenges.”

Colour schemes

Several hotels have moved well beyond a neutral palette and have resorted to using bright hues to add personality.

“Colour has never gone away. It's always been there in everyday design. Colour theory is a simple science, and I love the whole theory of how we use colour to signal contrast and compliment elements,” comments Finnie. “Neutrals are a part of the colour spectrum, a solid base ingredient.”

Nishat says that the choice of colours depends on the hotel brand. “Brighter, more vibrant colours may be accepted and expected in hotels such as Citizen M and Rove. However, other hotel brands lean towards more natural colour tones as part of the design philosophy and brand voice. A St. Regis would never have loud and bold colours, whereas a W would.

“Additionally, designers must consider the longevity and the multiple-visit appeal of the property. Loud and dynamic colours may be great to look at for the first time and to get good pictures, but repeat visitors may find them irksome. Everything in moderation is the key. Colours and neutrals need to find a balance,” Nishat explains.

Interactive spaces

With the popularity of social media and the benefits they can bring to hotels, there is a spike in the setting up of interactive space such as selfie areas and Intagram-able spots.

De Chaumont believes that though customers are looking for ‘Instagram-able spaces’, they shouldn’t be the core focus when planning the design concept. “I don’t believe that design should be driven by Instagramable touches. It can sound a bit provocative to say that after having worked on Rove Hotels. What matters in my opinion is not the picture itself, but the willingness to take pictures. It’s this connection that is established and will encourage guests to create memories. For example, Rove hotels are full of quirky touches, artworks and artefacts that echo each other and create a dialogue. Guests take a lot of selfies in this environment, but the most interesting post I have seen so far is a picture of one of the rooms with the artwork ‘this is where I am’ over the headboard. Someone had posted it on social media with the words ‘this is where I will be next week’. There was nothing predictable in this post. It was the perfect illustration of a guest feeling connected with the brand even before he experienced it,” de Chaumont explains.

Finnie suggests that designers and operators must stay ahead when it comes to interactive spaces and customer needs. “As designers, in a way, we always want a space that people like to be photographed in. I think interactive spaces will be quite popular in the future and designers and hotel operators need to stay ahead of the game.

“In recent years, expectations are sky rocketing, appetites are diverse, and fingers are busy pounding away on smartphones, wanting to capture and post every experience, positive or negative. Hotels must have designs that cater to the most demanding guests, in a personalised manner. Examples include providing flexible spaces for guests to relax or offering selfie areas throughout the property to engage guests,” Nishat comments.

“The more ‘Insta-worthy’ spaces that are provided in a hotel, the better, she says. “Personally, I am a true believer in social media marketing. Nothing works better than word of mouth, and social media does just that on a colossal scale.”

De Chaumont remarks, “With the development of social media tools, design is probably a key element when it comes to choosing a hotel. When guests are attracted by a nice picture, they start to project themselves in the hotel. This is when their hotel experience truly starts.”

Sustainable design

Sustainability has become an important aspect of hotels’ corporate social responsibility programmes, and hotels are keen to include it in their interiors.

“Using recycling bins, hourglass timers in showers and locally crafted and repurposed furniture, fixtures and equipment; as well as using recycled and upcycled products to create art are some of the ways hotels promote suitability through design,” comments Nishat.

“Many hotels are also eliminating the use of plastic bottles and plastic straws. Some properties are beginning to introduce drinking water taps in the minibar area with glass bottles for guests to fill and take.

“Designers play a vital role in the conscientious selection of materials. For instance, using old floppy discs to make large art murals, making furniture from completely recycled plastics, and using pineapple leaves and coconut husks in tiles are a few ways to promote sustainability,” says Nishat.

Biophilic design

Landscaping and foliage, daylighting techniques and natural ventilation are being used to incorporate nature into the design.

“Humans need a connection between our inner environments and the outside world. Humans and nature have a symbiotic relationship, and this link contributes to our health and well-being,” explains Nishat.

“Today, people spend 90% of their time indoors or in man-made structures. Biophilic design aims to meet our innate need to have a relationship with nature by creating a connection with nature in built environments.”

Networked spaces

With the advent of the Internet of Things, technology is a part of the design process.

In the past, tech products were concealed, but today, they are being incorporated as part of the guestroom or conference and meeting rooms, says Finnie.

De Chaumont suggests that while technology will keep advancing, design must keep up with new developments, and the human aspect should not be ignored.

“There are a lot of things being tested at the moment that can change the way users interact with their environment, such as room automation, voice-activated assistants, and robots used for room delivery. While technology will keep evolving, it cannot be an excuse to overlook the human connection. Technology must be an add-on element that allows guests to have seamless access to information and control of room settings.”

“Meeting rooms are more interactive than before, yet they look less formal and technologically driven than they used to. Technology allows design to become more flexible and interesting, and less uniform,” adds de Chaumont.

Nishat admits that it is difficult to keep up with the advancements in technology, and it must be kept simple to provide ease of use to guests. “Online and iPad check-ins are eliminating the need for large, front receptions areas, giving designers more flexibility and creativity.”

Nishat says that in smart hotels, personalised tablets can control everything from room temperature to food service orders. “Text is replacing landlines. Rooms have streaming services such as Netflix and Apple TV. Wi-Fi networks work inside and outside the hotels.”

Technology has also changed business meetings, and spaces have had to adapt accordingly. “Many large hotels depend on meetings and conventions for revenue; therefore, a well-designed meeting space is not optional,” says Nishat.

“Hotel convention spaces need to have the right audio, video and infrastructure for a variety of meetings — from seminars to live performances, panel discussions and big parties. Everything used in these spaces — furniture, audiovisual equipment, walls, dividers — has to be modular or portable. As a result, designers have to design for versatility, flexibility and connectivity. Due to the changing nature of technology, it is imperative to stay future proof,” Nishat advises.

Technology has become so invasive that Finnie predicts designers will have to work on non-tech zones in the future. “Technology has become smarter, smaller and combined with stunning product design. In the future however, we may be designing no-technology spaces or retreats to switch off from notifications. A non-tech spa! Now, that’s a thought!”


When it comes to lighting, there is a tendency to emphasise on effects, says Finnie. “Combining light and imagery has become an interesting tool for designers, linked with the growth in technology, through video mapping in hotel lobbies or as a feature wall backdrop.”

Nishat is quick to point out a new favourite. “A product that recently caught my eye is the Coelux system. It is an optical system based on nanotechnology that artificially reproduces natural light and the visual appearance of the sun and sky. It’s a great product for spaces that may not have access to natural daylight.”


As it is with other spaces with high footfall, materials used in hotels must be durable when subject to frequent wear and tear.

“Durable materials not only make life easier for operations and housekeeping, they matter for the environment as well. Being conscious that products should have a longer life expectancy and that refurbishments should be carefully considered is a must. We cannot design a piece of furniture or an entire building without being conscious of sustainability and durability. There are a lot of products available on the market which combine aesthetics with low maintenance and low impact. It is our duty to do our research and use those materials as much as possible,” says de Chaumont.

Finnie agrees, “Everyone, from the client, to the designer and contractor, has a responsibility to use materials that can withstand heavy use of day-to-day hotel life.”

“Durability is very important, especially for architectural finishes on walls, ceilings and floors in hotels. Hotels are not residences and often see large traffic flows of people on a daily basis. The cleaning crew have a big challenge of quickly turning around rooms and clearing a mess without being noticed. The easier a material is to maintain, the better. We do make an exception for some items. Cushions and small area rugs may be an exception as the replacement cycle can be faster than the overall renovation cycle of a hotel,” Nishat explains.

Materials like ceramics and composites like Dekton, which are cost effective and durable, are popular choices.

“There has been a recent growth in the use of advance porcelain and ceramics. Hoteliers have a vast array of fantastic choices available. Timber-look tiles are an all-time favourite for cladding floors or walls. They are durable, easy to clean, low maintenance, and a pretty convincing alternative to timber,” remarks Finnie. “Dekton, an excellent alternative to marble and natural stone, can be cut and used like natural stone, but at a lower cost.”

“Nowadays, 3M or similar decorative film applications have also advanced hugely. The offer an excellent quality in printing at super high resolution. We recently had a project where the ceiling had to clad in a stunning, exotic hardwood. We achieved this by customsing vinyl and wrapping the underside of the ceiling. It looked amazing, and for a fraction of the price,” Finnie explains.

Also new to the market are smart materials that change their form, texture and colour in response to light, temperature and electrical fields.

“They are an interior designer’s dream and are guaranteed to make a lasting impression on guests. Using these materials, designers can create dynamic environments featuring wallpapers that change colour or pattern based on light and temperature, window blinds that open and close automatically according to the position of the sun, walls that ensure room temperature is optimal, furniture that acts as s power source and other fascinating application,” comments Nishat.

Terracotta finishes, especially terracotta tiles, are being used in unconventional ways. De Chaumont says, “I like it when materials are questioned or are used in uncommon ways. As an example, Nobu in London has exposed concrete, tiles, burned wood, exposed pipes... These are not typical luxury materials and finishes but the way it is executed makes it look high end. The materials are quite basic but the details are perfect.

“Local materials like bamboo, mud, and palm are also being used in hotels. They explore ancestral techniques and invent new ones. In Bambu Indah in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to meet one of the architects in residence whose mission was to explore new ways to create joints with bamboo and apply that to construction,” says de Chaumont. “It is interesting to see efforts put by designers into selecting the right materials and the right way to use them for a specific project.” design life span

Along with regular wear and tear, longevity of design is another aspect to be kept in mind while working with hotels.

According to de Chaumont, the life span of a hotel interior design can be extended by being more assertive on the specifications, making sure that the materials and joinery details are durable, and avoiding designs that are too trendy. “It is important to be slightly more eclectic in the furniture, fixture and equipment selection so that it is easier to replace one piece without having to replace them all.”

Finnie believes a good designer will consider the functionality of a space and the ways to be smart with future planning and upkeep. “It is important to keep a design as timeless as possible with the ability to change specific areas or spaces when required. You should be able to transform or inject new life into a space with few disruptions and cost to the client.”

This greatly depends on the designer and their design approach, she says.

Taking about the recent innovations at Marriot, Nishat says, “We are seeing more renovations in this region now than we ever have before. Ideally the lifespan of a hotel interior design should be a minimum of five years. This is the time period when upholstery, carpets and areas with high traffic start to show some signs of wear. In well-maintained properties, renovations may not happen for ten years, however smaller updates may be constant.

“It is difficult to design a hotel based on future trends ten years down the line. Trends may be good for fashion and retail, but should not be followed when designing hotels.

“From the time a designer comes up with the idea on paper, to the actual built reality, the process often takes up to four or five years. Add another ten years on that for the next renovation cycle. The design does need to be timeless. The best is to look at older hotels that have withstood the test of time. Some properties and designs tend to date faster than others.”

Designing outdoor spaces

In recent times, the design of outdoor spaces have gained the same importance as designing indoor spaces. And many a times, the outdoor space is treated as an extension of the indoors.

“The delimitation between interior and exterior spaces are vanishing, and exterior areas are now designed to provide more than just the feel of being outside. There are a lot of materials, textures and furniture that can be used both indoors and outdoors, and that make it easier to blur the lines,” remarks de Chaumont.

She says the reverse is also possible, where interior spaces are a reflection of the outdoors. “It is also interesting to see how there is a reverse process with it, and some projects integrate outdoor elements in an indoor environment. I find this interesting, not only because it is surprising, but also because it allows one to behave in a different way.”

Finnie is quick to emphasis on the ‘connection’ element when it comes to outdoor spaces. “Connecting with natural elements is my first principal. It is all about how one connects with the environment and how they can enhance that connection. The design process becomes really exciting when one can break down the ingredients of what the outdoor space has to offer. For instance, the sounds and smells of the outdoor area matter, be it to provide the serenity of an exotic escape or the exciting energy and bustling connection of a restaurant spilling onto a street.”

“We have seen an increasing trend of blurring boundaries between indoor and outdoor spaces in recent years,” Duncan Denley, managing director of desert INK, comments.

“The days of interior designers and landscape architects working in isolation are over. The very best hotel landscapes are reflective of a close collaboration between the two professions, with interior materials carried outside and exterior materials flowing indoors.

“For instance, you’ll see oversized planters making their way into hotel spaces, while furniture traditionally specified for internal spaces, such as freestanding lamps and sofas, are being used outside. Manufacturers are well-aware of this trend of course, and are now producing a fantastic range of exterior-grade furniture, accessories and lighting which is indiscernible from the interior furniture, fittings and equipment. Ten years ago, landscape architects could only choose from rattan.”

He says that some of the best hotels in the city have emphasised designing their outdoor spaces, and those that do not do so, are missing out on impressing guests.

 “The very best hotel brands, such as Alila, Aman, Banyan Tree, Delano and Four Seasons place as much emphasis upon exterior spaces as interior or architecture. It often confounds landscape architects that some resorts fail to recognise the percentage of their guest's time which is spent in the hotel grounds. Something like 70% of resort guests’ waking hours are spent outside, yet in terms of budget and effort, landscape is frequently overlooked. An amazing pool is top of the list, ofcourse, and is frequently the image which sells the resort to visitors. Coupled with the sense of closeness to nature and retreat, well-considered landscape is essential.”

Since landscape is typically one of the last elements to be constructed in a new hotel, it usually bears the brunt of slashed budgets.

“Owners frequently have no alternative to inflicting last minute landscape budget slashing as a result of cost over-runs throughout the project. Desert INK certainly seeks out savvy owners who ring-fence budgets within disciplines, rather than those who arrive at the end of a design and construction period with empty pockets and massive aspirations. Those developers who ensure that value engineering is evenly distributed across disciplines know that this offers a better overall value to their brand.”

Denley says that it is important to work with the assets of the site. “At desert INK, we always start with the context and brief. We study the characteristics of the space, interiors, surrounding features and architecture. We examine the brief and question the client to gain a full understanding of what they and their clientele require from the exterior spaces. From there, we start to establish a mood for the landscape. This could be informed by the location or a theme running throughout the development. A mountainside hotel, for example, would be approached with a different rationale, planting solution and material palette, than a beachfront getaway.”

However, if there is one thing all designers agree on, it’s the vast array of opportunities designers have in the region.

As Finnie concludes: “Designers right now, especially in the MENA region, have so many opportunities available to create new ideas, whether it is through new technologies or new materials. This, combined with the presence of encouraging clients and operators, provide designers the chance to develop their unique design approach.”

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