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Roundtable: Designers and hoteliers discuss the confluence of design and technology in today's hotels

Roundtable: Designers and hoteliers discuss the confluence of design and technology in today's hotels

Commercial Interior Design and sister publication, Hotelier Middle East, recently hosted a roundtable with industry experts commenting on the confluence of design and technology in hotels and its impact on guest experience

Hotel design, Hotels, Hotel trends, Technology
ITP Media Group

The hotel guest is king, or at least should be. Guests should be pampered; their needs catered to. Rooms should be seamlessly designed, and any design elements, while appealing to the eye, should be functional and easy to use, in order to enhance that all important guest experience.

A recent comment piece by Shweta Parida, editor of 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 that any design factors must be easy to use, and be as simple as flicking a switch on and off while blindfolded. 

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

According to one 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 despite going through five separate refurbishments, the property had retained the original wiring accessories, such as the switches. 

“The hotel is now being demolished but will be rebuilt with a request to return the original Jung accessories. Good design and good design accessories are about longevity,” he says.

Although Marlene Collins, lead architect — Hospitality, SSH, agreed with Mohsen’s sentiment, saying that good designers should make sure their design is everlasting as it should be. She highlighted how trends are part of design and that 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 intuitive touch panel interfaces 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 also help us with sustainability and how we make more things efficient, how we save electricity, and how we do things environmentally.”

Earlier in the round table discussion, Collins had pointed out how technology helps hotels to have huge savings in terms of water consumption.  She 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 phenomenal success. They are doing feasibility studies with operators and developers now and are saving 40% of the 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 on or 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 lighting panel might work.” 

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, she points out, is the light consultant, who wants to add mood control, dimming. “It’s confusing,” she says.

Hailing from a consultancy background, Maliha Nishat, director of interior design, Marriott Hotels, says she understands that it's crucial from a design stand point to try to 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 the round 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 switcher lights, which is being made with guest room management system (GRMS) control. Guests feels like they have done something if they hear that familiar click, sound.

Carr 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 US 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 aged 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 seamlessly 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.”

Designing for 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 can 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 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.”

Raniolo of GAJ, an Australian native, says that this 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.”

Retrofit challenges

Paul Bishop, owner-founder of Bishop Design says that in Europe interior designers grew up with the challenges of working on heritage buildings. “Here [in the UAE] we have the base build, and shell and core, which I think is a lot harder to design, in that respect. You have to bring some life, narrative back into the space; there is a finite line between a retrofit. We have four retrofits now in Mauritius now. Again, where do we sit in this, as it is very client-driven, who want to quickly reopen for the coming season.”

Bishop goes on to outline the immense pressure this puts on both the operators and the designers due to the complex challenges. “This is what we welcome and hope we can turn it around,” he adds. 

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 travellers are going to force this change to happen globally.”

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