Designing experiences

Over the years, my designs have always revolved around one central aspect: the guest’s experience.

Hospitality trends come and go, room sizes and functions contract or expand as needed, and new destinations appear on the map. Despite this ocean of constant change, the top priority has remained the consideration of how guests experience each space. And during site visits, I always aim to look for potential opportunities as well as constraints, bearing in mind the perspective of the planner as well as the guest.

However, a trip to China last year has led me to reconsider my previous definition of “the guest experience”.

I travelled there to visit the site where a 5-star resort was to be built. On paper, the place seemed to hold wonderful promise: a tip of land shaped by two rivers that joined into one waterway after reaching the edge of the site.

Unspoiled green land, large enough to easily accommodate a luxury resort as per our client’s wish.

Well, wasn’t I mistaken! The sparkle of excitement for the guest’s experience was completely missing.

I was in the middle of a cold and humid landscape bordered by brown rivers, with an anonymous grey city blended with grey skies on the horizon. Who would want to go there? And what experience could I design for this scenario?

An aerial view of the resort site
An aerial view of the resort site

Both the client and the operator had provided very detailed briefs, so I could have simply ignored my discomfort and forged ahead with planning the resort.

But it just didn’t seem right. I had to dig deeper to understand more about an issue that was starting to feel quite personal.

So, I forgot about architectonic styles and analysis for the next three days. Instead, I focused on the people around me: the client in its many manifestations (fundamentally a government agency); the operator; my Chinese colleagues; and occasional experts who popped in and out on a regular basis.

Lunches and dinners – especially after a few drinks – proved the best source of flowing opinions about the project, the city and life in general.

At the end of this cultural immersion, I felt relieved. I finally understood how inadequate my interpretation of the guest experience was for this corner of China.

It turns out, this was not intended to be a resort for international travelers or those from across the vast Chinese mainland; the property was specifically targeted at guests coming from its big cities, particularly Shanghai.

It didn’t matter that there weren’t any stunning views, the humidity was stifling and the river was bland and muddy.

This place would be an escape, a return to rural harmony, a time capsule that survived despite the city growing around it thanks to the natural barrier of the two rivers.

Bring on the cold and the fog – who cares? These guests will want to be cocooned and comforted by food made with ingredients and recipes that in Shanghai are only a distant memory.

More than ever, I realized that this complicated yet wonderful job of being an architect also requires a great dose of humility.

Creating the right design for a specific location goes beyond learning its history, absorbing and distilling its architectural language and being knowledgeable about local materials. Designing the best “guest experience” requires deeper insights into people’s personalities and expectations so we can give them what they truly want – not what we want.  

This awareness is also growing with our clients and hotel and resort operators. The industry’s move towards increasingly tailored services makes the challenge of creating bespoke experiences even more exciting.

I look forward to exploring this topic – and many others – in future blogs, and hopefully sparking conversations about the inspirations and passions we share in this wonderful world of hospitality.