A sense of place

Organizing a conference for a client in my hometown of Toronto, I sent several employees down to a big chain 4-star hotel located in the heart of the financial district where the attendees were staying. My employees’ job was to direct the attendees towards the evening’s reception venue a dozen or so blocks away. When I reconvened with my team, I asked one of them, “What did you think of the hotel?”

Although it may not seem significant to the layman, his response shocked me. “It was just a hotel,” he said, shrugging his shoulders with a blasé look on his face.

Just a hotel?!? He had just spent well over an hour in the lobby interacting with the hotel staff, the conference attendees and the physical space. Was this the best response he could muster? It’s not like this was an economy roadside motel either. This was a swanky downtown hotspot, bustling with tourists, business travelers and locals in its marble-clad lobby. Mind you, he was a Millennial, so apathy comes with the territory. But still, I was hoping for something a tad more vivid.

What’s really being discussed here is “a sense of place.” Basically, it’s the gut reaction to the exceptional physicality of your brand and only your brand, and it’s said in a positive light. This expression encompasses first impressions, but it also denotes how a space can grow on you with more time spent around it or with each subsequent interaction. As first impressions can be formed within milliseconds of meeting a new person or entering a foreign space, your hotel’s sense of place must work to elicit a positive reaction from incoming guests from the second they arrive right through to the moment they depart.

Let’s look at some examples. First up, I’ve been to many properties with pricy commissioned installations on the lobby floor. The size and grandeur of these sculptures is usually enough to get my attention for a minute or two — enough to sear the image in my brain. Then there are lobby waterfalls. Something about the sound of gently crashing water never fails to calm my mind, and often the design of such a space is set up to carry this noise with minimal distortion.

Lastly, consider Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, which I’ve had the luxury of working with in the past. Universally, they spend an inordinate amount of money to ensure that every property’s lobby has a massive bouquet of fresh flowers on display. They’re vibrantly colorful and soothing, and they also exude a pleasant aroma. (I recall my visit to Geneva last summer, and while I was not staying at the Four Seasons, I stopped in for tea and was literally blown away by the incredible lobby display.)

The blame for my employee’s brusque comment should not be launched solely at his personal indifference to his surroundings. It is a hotel’s duty to instill a sense of place either by giving visitors a striking visual image to remember or by evoking strong emotions. Sense of place is a powerful concept to play with, and I guarantee it will bring forth lucrative results if done right.

And this concept isn’t something confined to the hospitality realm either. In real estate, the buzz term is “curb appeal,” or how a house looks from the side of the road. Realtors often say that a prospective buyer makes his or her purchase decision based primarily on a house’s curb appeal, and that he or she back-rationalizes everything else to justify the initial, emotional conclusion.

In this age of hyper-competitiveness, you cannot be “just a hotel.” You have to give visitors and guests something evocative, something they will have no choice but to remember. If you really want to build emotional connections with your consumers, give them a sense of place.