When Guests Get Emotional

by Jessica Dukes
Antoinette Bruno and Jessica Dukes
May 2011

These days, mere customer satisfaction is about as exciting as a set of clean towels and a complimentary Continental breakfast. A pleasant stay just won't cut it—hotels want their guests to feel that they've enjoyed themselves on a much deeper level. According to a recent study by the School of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, "Emotions are the new frontier for hospitality research and design," and we've been seeing that concept reflected in hotels from Seoul to Santiago, and Bilbao to Boston. From functional design to sensorial design and beyond, from the tangible to the intangible aspects of the guest experience, hotels are aiming for the heart, and breaking design down to a science in the process.

Functional design elements like running water are necessary, of course, but can go the extra mile (free wifi, please). In-room Nespresso is just one recent example we've seen at Chicago's The Fairmont of sensorial design, a pick-me-up perk that revives the typically sleep-deprived guest by touching on taste and smell. And it's true that amenities like high-speed Internet or up-market bath products augment the guest experience, always. But for the real design dopamine, more and more hospitality design experts seek to create a “meaning-oriented" experience.

Back in 2002, The Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly predicted that "innovative experience design will become a critical component of any successful hotel company’s core capability." Experience design aims to please by crafting an intangible commodity—a memorable experience—for the guest. What better way to ensure repeat patronage than to send guests off on a happy high, carrying a lasting memory with them of their stay?

The lobby at The James Hotel Chicago

Art connects with patrons' sense of wanderlust in the lobby of The James Hotel Chicago

Insider's Only

Hotels often try to create the guest experience around a theme. Exclusivity is a common enough example, a message transmitted in countless ways. The Millenium Seoul Hilton bets on the splash of its two-story waterfall in the hotel lobby to impress guests. The effect is similar to that of the Trump Tower on 5th Avenue in Manhattan: while Starbucks-sipping, camera-toting tourists gawk at the visual spectacle, Trump guests rise above the fray in glass-walled elevators.


The Elysian Hotel's website homepage

Liquid dazzle sure gets the message across, but there are other ways to make the guest feel like a celebrity. At The Elysian Hotel in Chicago, which opened in 2009, a Parisian-style enclosed courtyard sweeps the guest off of regular, everyday Walton Street and into their VIP experience. The diminutive lobby features two hulking elevated marble busts, each well over a meter high, and one solar system of a chandelier. The creative use of space and stunning design elements that have guests making sidelong glances at each other at reception, on the lookout for Liam Neeson and Nikki Minaj. Incidentally, the hotel website doesn't feature a romantic couple or even a jetsetting hombre as models —the ultra-chic chick sauntering through the lobby on the hotel’s website is a nod to the rapidly growing segment of women business travelers.

Choose Your Theme
You buy who you are, or who you want to be. As accommodation options diversify, the same thing goes for where a person chooses to stay. Increasingly, guests seek an experience other than unadulterated exclusivity. The James Hotel in Chicago and New York (and coming soon to Miami) has actually collected a fan base for its ability to read its target guest: the traveler who romanticizes travel. Stacked vintage suitcases in the reception area of The James' Chicago property transmit a feeling of wanderlust, nostalgia, and playfulness. The hotel employs an art curator, with the result that the New York property has earned press for its artwork-infused lobby. Stylishly appointed guest rooms are outfitted with sustainable wood floors and an in-room recycling program. The James has a clear message for every dyed-in-the-wool globe-trotter or wannabe voyager: "You are young at heart, offbeat, intelligent, arty, whimsical, and still socially responsible. Who wouldn't want to be you?"

Silken Gran Hotel Domine in Bilbao, Spain

Artistic Accommodation at Silken Gran Hotel Domine in Bilbao, Spain

Thematic hotels like The James are gaining steam (as are green hotels). Luxury-loving art fans can rejoice in the world-renowned art collection of Hotel Royal Sonesta in Boston, featuring works by Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, and Frank Stella. The Silken Gran Hotel Domine in Bilbao, Spain is right across the street from the Guggenheim Museum, and with design installations by Javier Mariscal and Fernando Salas, it is a work of art in itself. The work of detained Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei is currently on view at the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan—tapping into social consciousness, as well as a love of art. Guests come away with an experience, and that fleeting feeling of being paparazzi-worthy, or being interesting and artistic, or even of having solidarity with a political prisoner like Ai Wei Wei, becomes a lasting memory.

Some memories are unforgettable. With a memorable experience in mind and at heart, choosing a place to stay on your next trip through town becomes a no-brainer.