The seven secrets of successful storytelling in hotel design

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Hoteliers demand far more than just cad drawings. They want designers to tell a ‘story’. The team at Pallavi Dean Interiors made a statistical analysis of 175 leading hotels to help crack the code of compelling narratives

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Delano Miami South Beach, co-created in 1992 by hotelier Ian Schrager and designer Philippe Starck

The big thing we have learned is that there are seven main storylines in hotel design. Not every hotel fits neatly into these pigeonholes – about one in 10 properties that we surveyed either has no real story or is an outlier with a different tale to tell.

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Many properties tell more than one story. But after crunching the numbers, we discovered that about 90% of the hotels we looked at have one of these seven storylines as its dominant narrative. The whole research project was born of frustration. We were working on a number of hotels across the Middle East and Africa, and every step of the way we’ve being asked – what’s the story?

Owners, operators, and marketing directors – they all want to hear a compelling story because stories sell hotel rooms. They generate media coverage, they leap out from booking.com, and they go viral on social media.

But coming up with a story isn’t easy. We were scratching around in the dark, randomly trying to think of stories, but the results were hit and miss. We both have quite strong academic backgrounds and were craving some kind of system, theory or conceptual framework to give the creative process a bit of focus. We couldn’t find one, so we made our own.

We analysed 175 hotels from three lists of leading global hotels: The Conde Nast Traveller Gold List, the Trip Advisor Readers’ Choice Top 25 and the Travel and Leisure World’s Top 50 Hotels. We looked at the story the hotels tell about themselves in brochures and websites, cross-referenced that with the stories journalists write, then looked at guest reviews on sites such as tripadvisor.com.

We tweaked the list of categories along the way, ending up with seven dominant narratives:

1. History

One of our favourite historical narratives is found at the Hotel Vestibul in Split, Croatia because it drives home just how powerful stories can be. If we tell you it’s an 11-room, 5-star boutique hotel with modern design, daily newspapers a garage and fax machine, you’d probably never notice it. But if we tell you it’s a 5-star hotel built in the Palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, where modern interior design blends with the original, 1,700-year-old walls, you’re hooked.

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Hotel Vestibul in Split, Croatia

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Hotel Vestibul in Split, Croatia

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Hotel Vestibul in Split, Croatia

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Hotel Vestibul in Split, Croatia

Example: Samode Haveli, Jaipur, India

2. Nature

This is one of the easiest stories to tell. You’re either slap bang in the middle of profound natural beauty or you’re not. The best examples don’t just talk about their location – they embed the natural surroundings in the hotel itself, with design and materials inspired by the local habitat. The andBeyond Kichwa Tembo Camps in Kenya does this particularly well.

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andBeyond Kichwa Tembo Camps in Kenya, photo Stevie Mann

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andBeyond Kichwa Tembo Camps in Kenya, photo Stevie Mann

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andBeyond Kichwa Tembo Camps in Kenya, photo Stevie Mann

Example: Six Senses Zighby Bay, Oman

3. The designer

This is the story closest to our hearts because it celebrates the design of the property, and the people who create it. The Delano South Beach Miami was one of the pioneers, co-created in 1992 by hotelier Ian Schrager and designer Philippe Starck. (Full disclosure: we’re currently designing the Delano Dubai on Palm Jumeirah with IFA Hotels & Resorts). Claus Sendlinger, the founder of designhotels.com, says that a decade ago simply being a boutique design hotel was enough to stand out. No more. So they created a story for each hotel under the banner “The Originals”, which celebrates their owners and designers. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump has also spun this story to great effect.

Examples: The Haymarket, London (by Kit Kemp)

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Delano Miami South Beach

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Delano Miami South Beach

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Delano Miami South Beach

 

4. Experience

Another storyline, like nature, that writes itself if you’re lucky enough to have it. American lodges are particularly good at this, telling stories of the skiing, golfing or family fun experiences guests will enjoy. Hotels with Michelin-standard restaurants also do this well, as do Las Vegas Casinos such as Bellagio and Cosmopolitan.

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Hotel Bellagio, Las Vegas

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Hotel Bellagio, Las Vegas

Example: Ginzan Hot Spring Fujiyan Inn, Japan

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Ginzan Hot Spring Fujiyan Inn, Japan

 

5. Culture

There are two types of cultural stories. The first is recorded culture such as music or art – we particularly like La Colombe d’Or in Provence, France, which has photos of Picasso dining there alongside original paintings that he left behind in lieu of his bill. The second type is cleverer, embedding local cultural references in the hotel design. We love the 25-hours Hotel Hafen City in Hamburg, which takes its design cues from the city’s maritime heritage.

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La Colombe d’Or in Provence, France

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La Colombe d’Or in Provence, France

Example: Park Hyatt Siem Reap, Cambodia

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Park Hyatt Siem Reap, Cambodia

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Park Hyatt Siem Reap, Cambodia

6. Cool crowd

Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. Jake’s Treasure Beach in Jamaica does this brilliantly, digging up its place in the hip, young reggae scene, but the narrative doesn’t only work for trendy youngsters. The ITC Maurya in New Delhi goes after an older demographic by styling itself as the preferred residence for world leaders and global icons such as Bill Clinton.

Example: The Sanderson, London

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The Sanderson, London, photo: Ed Reeve

 

Photographer Credit : Ed Reeve

The Sanderson, London, photo:Ed Reeve

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The Sanderson, London, photo:Ed Reeve

7. Innovation

So many hotels are telling the story of “reinventing” the hotel experience, through technology or by reimaging what people want from a hotel. We particularly like the YOTEL NYC. Simon Woodroffe, founder of the Yo! Sushi food chain, had his Eureka! The moment when he sat in a British Airways first class cabin and realised that you can have luxury in a small, confined space. (More disclosure: We’re working with Yotel on bringing this brand to Dubai).

Yotel New York Photogoraphed by Adrian Wilson, June 2011

Yotel New York Photogoraphed by Adrian Wilson, June 2011

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Example: W Hotel NYC, Citizen M Amsterdam

Key takeaway for hotel designers

If you’re blessed with the four most obvious storylines – History, Nature, Experience and Cool Crowd – be sure to milk them. But if you’re not – if you’re designing a 4-star business hotel in Abu Dhabi or the 17th resort hotel on a crowded strip of beach – don’t despair. There are three design stories you can always create from scratch. You can always create a story around the designer; you can always take design cues from local culture, and you can always be innovative.

PALLAVI DEAN AND RICHARD DEAN

 

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