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    Mike Watson on authenticity and apartmentalisation in hotel design

    Kirsty Sier

    It wasn’t so long ago that, no matter where you went in the world, hotels were essentially all the same. It used to be that travellers wanted a reliable and universal experience no matter where they went – no surprises from London to Singapore to Sydney, just a bed, a mini-bar and some pocket-sized shampoos.

    According to Mike Watson, the director of interiors at A+ Design Group, this was because hoteliers were telling their guests what they should be experiencing. These days, however, guests are more savvy. They’re more informed than they used to be, and they’re more interested in authenticity than in the cookie-cutter hotels of old. And this new breed of travellers has resulted in a whole new era for hotel design.

    “It’s an interesting time for hotels, and it’s challenging, because it’s changing so quickly,” says Watson. “The more people travel, the more informed people are. You can’t help but be influenced by what you see. People are always so connected, and it’s changing people’s expectations of hotel design.”

    As travellers become more well-informed and open to new experiences, good hotel design becomes ever-more important to the commercial success of brands big and small.

    “A lot of developers think boutique just means a smaller room; they think, ‘It’s going to be cheaper to build, so let’s do that’. But it’s so much more than that,” says Watson. “If you just have a small room, it won’t last more than two weeks.

    “Good design – whether architecture or interior design – people will just get it. They’ll understand it. People are voting with their feet; people are a lot more savvy and far more likely to criticise if it’s not right. They’re also far more likely to tell their friends if it is right.”

    After his panel discussion last week at the Design Inn – a symposium that brought together designers, architects and hoteliers working in hotel design and refurbishment – A&D sat down with Mike Watson to get his thoughts on what exactly the future looks like for good hotel design.

    SMALLER AND FRIENDLIER ROOMS

    “There [used to be] a distinct difference between where you lived and a hotel. When you went to a hotel, it was unlike your home – it felt very much like you were staying in a hotel. Everything was built-in, there were mini-bars in the room. What we’re seeing now is a shift away from that. For instance, guest rooms are getting much smaller – less than 20sqm will be the norm for hotel rooms now, whereas a room in a mid-market hotel used to be around 28sqm.

    “I think the reason guests are happy with smaller rooms is that there’s a move away from [unnecessary] spaces – for instance, we’ll see desks and mini bars disappear. You won’t need to buy an overpriced beer to drink in your room, because there’ll be more activation of communal spaces.

    “I think the big luxury [chains] will be very much [still feel like] the hotels, but overall there’s a move towards the residential style [of accommodation]. [This style is] less about built in and more about ‘collected’, mixed styles of furniture. Guests don’t want to be reminded that they’re away on business, but rather to feel like they’re staying in a friend’s apartment.”

    COMMUNAL SPACES

    “The only way the guest rooms can get smaller is if the public areas become more active. You’ve got to have open, active spaces that merge socialising [with business]. 90% of our meetings today would be in cafes, and the only time you’re in a meeting room is if you’re presenting something or if you want to have a private conversation.

    “Designs that promote guests getting out of their rooms [are] very important. Before, there were these vast, tall lobby spaces with beautiful furniture and nobody sitting in it. The trend is increasingly for hotels to encourage the locals to come in, whereas old hotels rejected the locals and tried to foster this [sense of] exclusivity. You want the colourful locals; the local colour.”

    FOOD AND DRINK 

    “Food and drink is increasingly important for hotels, for the first time in a long time. Traditionally food was done because [hoteliers] had to, but they weren’t interested in doing it. Today, it’s becoming a focal point of hotels. I think that’s a good thing; it’s more relevant to what people are interested in. Even the meeting rooms these days… I think they’ll morph into dining spaces, so they’re not just cloistered, business-style meeting rooms. What I think [hoteliers will] end up doing is partnering with local providores.

    “Location dovetails into this term that’s coming up called ultra-local. If you’re getting beers from the next suburb –  something interesting like a beer made from sea water in Perth – you’ll give it a go. Everyone will try it. Local produce from the providores is going to be more and more important. I think this is where millennials are ahead of the game – they’re more savvy about food and they’re prepared to pay for it.”

    LOCATION

    “The location for hotels is becoming increasingly important to guests. I think some of the better-publicised hotels these days are in gritty, urban locations on the fringes of cities. Guests are happy to commute if they can stay in an interesting location in the outer [city], because when they go back [to the hotel], it’s where they want to be. Because this is where the action is – the night life, the interesting smaller shops, the interesting locals with the local character and flavour. And generally it’s older architecture in urban spaces, which is why the laneways are attractive to people.

    “It sort of mirrors travel programs – five or six years ago, were people going to the arctic? The traditional travel routes have changed; people are searching for those experiences. People want those authentic travel experiences. If you can put yourself in the middle of all of that, people are going to stay there.”

    ‘AUTHENTIC' AND CONTEXTUAL DESIGN

    “Say eight years ago, it was very much cookie-cutter and hotels following a brand standard. Now hotels realise that they have to have a brand guideline, but that [they’ve] got to take on board where [they’re] putting this hotel and understand exactly what can be offered to guests around that physical environment.

    “Both with international travel and with the internet in general, people are far more exposed to design. I think there is a global movement in terms of hotel design, but it does need to be developed in a regional way. You can’t just transport everything from one spot to another. [But] there is a sort of universal design starting to percolate.

    “Regional climate will play a role in design – that use of light and how you filter it, what [the hotel] will open up to. Also, the landscaping [in Australia] is different. Cold climates in Europe will have more internal spaces, whereas we’re more allied to Australasia – open light, and [the merging of] indoor and outdoor are far more useable. That is something that we celebrate [in Australia], that openness of architecture and design. We’d choose to work outside on a balcony. Europeans generally love sitting outside too, it’s just that there are parts of the year where they can’t do it.”

    SUSTAINABILITY

    “Sustainability is a harder one. That’s going to come into the thought process a little. People are more aware now of sustainability because we’re reminded of it through the media all the time. They’re going to want to know what the hotels are doing about that. They’ll have to be able to articulate that to their guests.

    “Also the food will need to support local; there’s that question of where [the food is] coming from. That’s something that people will pay more for, but it’s got to be genuine, otherwise people will figure it out.”

    URBAN STORIES

    “[At A+], we emphasise context a lot. Yes, this [hotel is] in Sydney, but what part of Sydney [is it] in? You [have to] try to bring in the elements of the surroundings. Maybe if there’s a history of warehouse buildings [in that area], you might pick up on a particular type of brick, or a type of metal window.

    “We weave in elements that we draw from the area and the architecture itself and maybe the surrounding hotels and urban fabric. You don’t replicate everything, but you need to have something you can bring in and have a story you can pull your design around. It’s a reference point. It helps the designers understand, if you’ve got those reference points. If you get it, then the guests get it, then you’ve got that authenticity.

    “The days of just rolling out the same brand over and over again [are over]. Hotel design started with the likes of Hilton. He was saying, ‘It doesn’t matter where you travel to, if you stay in one of my hotels you’ll feel at home’. They were replicating it around the world and not integrating with the surroundings. That’s where hotel design started, when air travel was in its infancy. It’s completely the opposite now, and guests want nothing to do with that. Yes, there are certain standards, but they’re becoming a lot better at understanding where they are in the world.”

    Mike Watson is director of interiors at A+ Design Group. He has over 18 years’ experience in hotel design, and a background in architecture.

    Phone: 0424 199 599

    Email: [email protected]

    http://www.aplusdg.com.au/

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