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Focus on the Guest Experience

December 01, 2007 |

“Hotel guests are looking for an experience, and that's driving what the hospitality market needs to respond to,” says Thomas Ito, AIA, LEED AP, principal and leader of Gensler's global hospitality practice, based in the firm's Los Angeles office. Addressing guests' needs is the prime directive in how Ito and his colleagues at the San Francisco-based firm design hotel projects.

Ito has guided Gensler's hospitality practice to $46.31 million in billings in 2006, according to BD+C's 2007 Giants 300 survey (July 2007), landing the firm in third place in the segment.

“Customers are searching for a hotel that offers something new—either in the way it's designed or serviced,” says Ito. “It's about who you are, what you do, not what you have.” The need to appeal to a range of customers expecting a range of experiences can complicate matters. How do the expectations of the business traveler differ from that same person's expectations when traveling on holiday—or do they? What about age differences? Gender? Families versus couples traveling without children? All very important considerations, says Ito.

“The notion of combining business and pleasure is a big trend,” says Ito. “Business travel is still on the rise, and we're finding a lot of business trips are being extended and combined with a few personal days, which greatly affects the spaces we design.”

That trend manifests itself physically in what Ito defines as “smart zoning”: creating spaces that can serve two or more functions or that can be used for different functions at different times of the day. This type of functionality addresses business needs but also allows social interaction, thus opening up the possibility for business to be conducted in places other than traditional meeting rooms.

One example of such multipurpose, flexible space is to turn the lobby into an area that functions as gathering, working, meeting, and entertaining space. Another more whimsical concept, which may be the ultimate combination of business and pleasure: tweak the swimming pool and other outdoor areas to accommodate several zones. He suggests using cabana spaces to differentiate uses and to allow business to be conducted poolside.

LA Convention Center and Hotels, Los Angeles. This 54-story tower is part of a new 6-block, $2.5-billion pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use development adjacent to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. The complex has nearly 1,000 guest rooms divided between the 874-room J.W. Marriott and the 124-room Ritz Carlton, as well as 224 residential units totalling 433,000 sf.

Age and generational differences are also crucial factors in the types of experiences guests expect, says Ito. Baby boomers, in general, demand pampering and luxury—but Ito issues a word of caution here. Luxury—to travelers in all age groups—no longer means over-the-top glitz and glam, he says. “The trend is to have things simpler and less cluttered,” says Ito. “Clean functionality is how things are designed.” This includes the bathroom, which is getting larger, more integrated into the room, and must include a fabulous shower in place of the unloved, largely unused bathtub.

Tech-savvy Gen-X travelers want their hotels to be state-of-the-art, fully equipped with flat-screen TV, automatic temperature controls, and self-serve check-in kiosks. Smart room keys can be programmed to accommodate individual guest preferences, so that when the door is unlocked, temperature settings, music preferences, lighting, and other features are activated.

Eco-friendly Gen-Y guests may be the most influential of all, particularly because they prefer to stay in hotels that are in line with social causes—notably the green movement. Ito expects sustainable design to revolutionize the hospitality industry. “We're taking a very strong approach to this trend,” he says. “The whole notion of sustainable design, green hotels, and environmentally friendly design, in both the architecture and the interior, is really important.”

Many hotel brands are conscious of sustainable standards and goals, according to Ito, who says his first criterion for hotel projects is following LEED standards. “Right now, we're doing all our projects with an environmental point of view. It's just good design practice,” he says.

Financial considerations are also significantly influencing the types of hospitality projects getting built. Just a few years ago many hotels included a residential component, and hotels with condos were hot properties that attracted financing. Today, however, the severe U.S. housing slump, which has also impacted the condo market, has changed all that; now, retail and entertainment components are the big forces in the market.

“We're seeing projects getting bigger, with large retail and entertainment components, food and beverage experiences, and a lot of integration of other experiences along with all the hotel components,” says Ito. These mixed-use projects are boosting the economic performance of hotels, adding to their appeal to lenders, and becoming destinations unto themselves.

What's next in Gensler's hospitality playbook? “We're going to see even more experience-driven hotels, especially on the upper end,” says Ito. He envisions the truly experiential hotel—one that's underwater or perhaps even in space. “It's way out there,” he says, “but there is a lot more talk about these kinds of projects.”

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