Why design matters

I was recently asked if I ever had a hotel stay that “changed my life.” With little hesitation, I found myself speaking with considerable emotion about one night this past year at the The Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, India.

I had arrived at the hotel late in the evening and was weary from the noise on the street, the people, the carts, the cows and the overall confusion. I was exhilarated and exhausted from the sensory overload. One foot into the hotel proper, though, and I could actually feel the weight of that chaos being lifted from my body.

An entry sequence that started at the hotel gates, which clearly define inside and out, transported me to a beautiful, tranquil place — and state of being. The feeling was that strong.

I was greeted by a traditionally dressed porter who escorted me through the hotel courtyard, up a beautiful sweep of stairs, past bubbling pools with gentle music enveloping me and into a magnificent lobby that was shod in stone with a grand chandelier dangling from above. A hint of spice filled the air. Two hotel clerks then led me through a comfortable, secondary lounge and, finally, to the edge of the deck where they swung open the doors and, in front of me, lit up in glory, was the Taj Mahal. It was magical.

Posing in front of the Taj Mahal during my trip to Agra, India.
Posing in front of the Taj Mahal during my trip to Agra, India.

As someone who makes his living designing hotels, I was able to turn on my “autopilot” rather quickly and start deconstructing what just happened. It was design that happened.

Everything about my journey into the hotel (and approaching nirvana) was designed. It was “guest experience” planned and supported by the landscape, the architecture and the interiors for the purpose of giving me a lasting memory of this hotel and — bigger picture — the brand. It worked.

Often misunderstood, design is a whole lot more than how a place looks. Done right, design serves three major constituents: the guest, the hotel/brand and the owner/developer. And done well, it is a tool for making space perform to some predefined measure or, as I like to view it, state of grace.

Good design can distinguish a hotel from its competitors and strengthen the brand. It can support operational systems and drive efficiency. It can make the staff’s job easier to perform and make employees more productive and happier. And it can turn a night away from home into an experience that somehow changes people — if not for a lifetime, for that moment in time that your hotel shares with them.

Those of us who have been in the hospitality business for a long time may be lulled into thinking that there are only so many ways to skin a cat. Could there be yet-undiscovered ways to design a better hotel?

The answer is yes.

Technology is urging change. So are concerns for sustainability and wellness and for even something as (dare I say?) old-fashioned as people’s desire for feeling special and for real, human, social interaction.

To that effect, we’re seeing dramatic changes starting to take hold in check-in/check-out (making it more of a personal experience and less of a big desk/long queue ordeal), in hotel lobbies (now key revenue generators) and even in guestrooms (adding integrated technology, more controls for temperature, lighting, etc.) and bathrooms (day lighting, better showers). All of that requires a design change.

And thinking more broadly, we’re seeing big changes — again, supported by design — in categories such as the airport hotel (now a chic destination and not just a convenient place to stay) and in focus, such as the merging of hospitality and wellness.

Bottom line, design is not the exclusive domain of trendy hotels. Design thinking is a strategic process whose ultimate goal is to spur profitability and happiness. It can change the life of a hotel — any hotel — for sure.