Focus on Market Reinvention

August 11, 2010

“The hotel industry is reinventing itself,” says Nunzio De Santis, AIA, EVP and director of hospitality at HKS Hill Glazier Studio, Dallas. “It’s not about copycat design.”

Hotel design philosophies were quite different just a few years ago, when hoteliers would hand architects a book of standards and expect all their new hotels to fit the same mold. “A Hilton Hotel was a Hilton Hotel whether you were in Dubai, Dublin, or Dubuque,” says De Santis. “Today, that’s not good enough. Everything is way too competitive.”


Occupying 13 acres along the edge of a mountain in the Costa Rican jungle, this 130-room, 231,425-sf resort features several private, tree-top villas that, in the words of architect Nunzio De Santis, let you "reside with the holler monkeys."

Today’s hoteliers have thrown out their book of standards and are “borrowing” ideas—liberally and unapologetically— from smaller boutique hotels, which have survived for years by differentiating themselves from the big chains.



The biggest trend: Hoteliers are amplifying their position in a market by defining who they want to be in that specific market. “The days of being all things to all people are over,” says De Santis.

HKS Hill Glazier Studio is at the forefront of guiding hoteliers through these exciting changes. The firm’s hospitality group, of which De Santis is founder, reported $61.10 million in billings in 2006, according to BD+C’s annual 2007 Giants 300 survey (July 2007), earning the firm the top spot in the hospitality segment. In 2007, HKS expanded its hospitality group by acquiring Hill Glazier Architects of Palo Alto, Calif.

De Santis’s technique for helping large hoteliers successfully navigate the transition from broad market player to niche product provider involves two basic principles: knowing guests’ needs and expectations and understanding specific geographical markets to meet those needs. “Boutique hotels are about defining themselves through the expectations of their clients,” says De Santis, “so now more than ever, bigger hoteliers need to understand their guests.”

Specifically, guests are looking for more gracious surroundings, according to De Santis. “The hotel room has gone through a bit of a renaissance,” he says. “The clutter of the old guest room has been simplified.” Gone are the massive pieces of furniture that created an obstacle course; they’ve been replaced by fewer items, an “icon” piece (an animal-print chaise, for example), high-tech equipment, and smart spatial organization.

Greater square footage is also a must. “Hoteliers are realizing that an extra foot or two of space in the guest room makes a significant difference to the perception of the room without largely impacting room cost,” he says.

De Santis also emphasizes the role of the bathroom, mainly the importance of a fantastic shower, echoing what many industry experts are heralding as the end of the bathtub/shower combination.

Storage space also figures into De Santis’s room requirements, especially when it comes to resort design, which accounts for a significant portion of the firm’s hospitality work. Guest stays at resorts are generally longer than at other hotel types, so guests need larger closets and extra storage to accommodate more luggage, special equipment (scuba gear, skis), and bulkier clothing (diving suits, winter coats).

The appeal of the boutique hotel goes well beyond guest room design, touching on experiences people have with the entire property. “Every one of our hotel projects is a destination within a destination,” says De Santis. “A great lobby can be all kinds of things—a living room, a business venue, an ultra lounge—but the lobby is the teaser experience. It’s only the first gotcha.”


W Hollywood Hotel and Residences, Los Angeles. Situated at the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, the new W Hollywood encompasses an 11-story, 300 room hotel; and a 14-story, 144-condominium tower.

Creating a memorable experience and holding the client’s interest for as long as possible requires multiple layers that are slowly revealed throughout the guest stay. Those layers include a spa, a great restaurant (many of which are now operated by outside vendors), a hip lounge/bar, retail and entertainment, and the swimming pool/spa and surrounding spaces.

Obtaining financing in tougher markets can sometimes be made easier if the project has those additional amenities, but they’re no guarantee, says De Santis. With the dramatic softening of the U.S housing market in the last year, fewer hotels are factoring in residential components in their new projects. But whereas condominium sales provided hotels with upfront cash, retail or entertainment components only generate revenue when the space leases out upon completion of the project.

De Santis sees more mixed-use hotel projects happening, but not to the extent of those projects that once had a residential component. With the anticipated tightening of the U.S. hotel market, he sees the firm shifting its focus more toward international projects, where the hospitality market is accelerating.

Green hotels are yet another route by which hotels are tailoring themselves to a specific niche. “Hotels today, in generally every region of the world, are addressing sustainability,” says De Santis. “We start virtually every project with the idea of sustainable design.” As a result, the hotel market is reinventing itself in an environmentally responsible manner.