Hitchcock’s hidden message for hotel managers

Whether it’s a straight-laced caper or psychological horror thriller, the late Sir Alfred Hitchcock certainly had a lot to say about human behavior and the medium of film. Moreover, as a top-tier Hollywood director, Hitchcock was blessed with decades of location scouting and overnight stays at some of the world’s best hotels. As such, he likely developed a keen eye for what they had in common and what makes a classy joint. Whether he intended to or not, Hitchcock translated this tacit understanding onto the screen, imbuing some firm teachings for hoteliers.

Also of note, this article comes on the heels of two Hitchcock biopics that have gone wide in the past few months — “The Girl,” starring Toby Jones, and “Hitchcock,” starring Sir Anthony Hopkins. Now that it’s the holiday season and you probably have some time off, I implore you to rent one of Hitchcock’s films, both for entertainment and to catch some of his keen insights on our fair hospitality industry. Let’s dig through some of his masterpieces and see what we can learn.

Set the mood

One of the reasons Hitchcock’s thrillers worked so well was that he understood the importance of bringing his audiences into the proper mindset for a thriller, starting right from the opening credits, which were often accompanied by frightful, percussive scores. The director also knew that in order for people to fully appreciate the rigorous chase scenes and showdowns at the climax of each film, he’d first have to contrast this with some sense of normalcy at the onset.

What better way to establish this precursory repose than through a few scenes at a hotel in the opening act? A grand ballroom lounge with soft piano jazz in the background. Opulent suites furnished in rich woods and polished leather. Fashionable and good-looking people bustling through marble-clad lobbies. More often than not, the check-in counter wasn’t merely a place to pay but one for socializing and positive interactions. All are far from where you’d expect a crime to take place. By their very nature, these hotel settings exude an air of calm, but also pique our curiosity because such stylish locales are places we all want to visit. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in “To Catch a Thief” (1955). The film opens at the Carlton Hotel overlooking Cannes, drawing the audience into the foreign allure of the French Riviera. Audience members want to travel here, and they do — albeit vicariously — by watching the film. Thematically adhering to this ultra-posh atmosphere, the story revolves around a group of jewel thieves. Brilliant sunny days along the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean amplify the tense nights of burglaries, police chases and forbidden romance.

The takeaway here pertains to how you set the mood for your guests. Know the feeling you want to evoke, and make it apparent from the moment they first step inside. You want to transport your guests to a fantastical place built around a given theme. 

So, what are you after? Is it an ultra-modern, and slightly futuristic, enchantment? Or maybe your hotel is better suited to the gothic charm of some classic metropolitan properties? The key is to match every physical aspect to this theme, from the large-scale lobby centerpieces and bellhop uniforms all the way down to the font chosen for the website and brochures.

Use color and light to amplify the mood

Employing some very clever tricks, whenever a hotel was geared to be a comfortable setting for the protagonist, Hitchcock would fill the screen with bright colors to confirm this feeling. This went far beyond clear blue skies and well-lit sets. Alongside the expertise of a sharp cinematographer and production design team, such shots were filled with reflective props and active backdrops (that is, not just a wall, but objects throughout to add textural depth). 

Now consider “Psycho” (1960), where the first-world locales of New York City or the South of France are swapped for the dingy Bates Hotel in an isolated part of rural Southwestern America. The rooms are cramped to induce a subtle claustrophobia. The colors are muted to augment shadows and our fear of the unknown. Also revisit “The Birds” (1963), where the jovial palette of San Francisco in the opening act is gradually transformed into the overcast grayscale of Bodega Bay to clue us in for danger.

Obvious inferences from the above examples should suggest that when it comes to light and color, make sure your hotel is as vibrant as possible, and be very cautious when designing a darker, tighter space. The proper use of color will bring out your guests’ senses and ease them into the magic of the experience. 

Painting the walls in a new hue is only the start of converting your hotel into a cinematic gem. Incite positive moods by allowing as much natural light in as possible, even if it means replacing those thick drapes. Fill the negative spaces in your common areas with wholesome décor to round out the theme and nix any dreary feelings. 

Formality solidifies the mood

Hitchcock readily made use of hotel staff to advance the story, only he did so in some very unambiguous ways. First, his staff members were always depicted in clearly identifiable uniforms that never edged towards casual attire. They are all distinctively well-dressed in solid colors and fabrics — so much so that even without a character introduction you’d instantly know their role. 

The director’s hotel staff trended toward formality in their presentation and mannerisms. Always dependable with a “Yes, sir” here followed by a “My pleasure, sir” or “Thank you, madame” there, this air of geniality established that they were trustworthy and respectful of their guests, as well as reaffirming the feel of an upscale hotel. True, Hitchcock oftentimes used this pretense to trick the audience later by revealing a staff member to be in cahoots with the main villain, but these were intentional plot devices building on our previously conceived notions of the setting and this stylized formality.

Hitchcock was a master of bringing us into his vision, and you should think about any parallels to your hotel. For instance, part of the fantasy of a hotel is that a guest is catered to. So, when it comes to your staff, instruct them to be as chivalrous as possible. Open the doors and pull out the chairs. Combine this with a brightly colored and well-suited theme, and then with any luck, your guests will leave your hotel and say, “It’s like being in a movie!”