Until recently, checking into an American hotel was a trip to the land of conformity. Except for some regionally inspired resorts and some historic renovations, interiors showed little individuality. Once inside, a guest could be in any hotel, anywhere in the country. Even luxury hotel design, while elegant, was typically . . . traditional.
Some properties have broken the mold by integrating elements such as color and artwork to imbue a sense of place; others go completely outside the box with high-style, idiosyncratic interiors. Outside the U.S., new properties from Asian business hotels to Costa Rican resorts sport elaborate, individualistic design. In any case, meeting and incentive attendees know they're not in Kansas anymore.
A Sense of Place Perhaps the strongest trend in hotel design and renovation is to create a special sense of place for the property, one that draws from local influences. "Throughout the world, regardless of chain affiliation, hotel design has become more culturally sensitive," says Robert DiLeonardo, president of his namesake Rhode
Island-based hospitality design firm. DiLeonardo believes that this is due to increasingly sophisticated travelers. "No one wants to go to a meeting in Singapore and feel like he is in Phoenix," he says. At the Westin Hotel in Providence, RI, DiLeonardo crafted a design reminiscent of Newport, RI mansions, with such elements as classical-style columns and a domed ceiling in a soaring rotunda lobby.
On the resort scene, the trend is toward sensitivity to the surrounding environment. One example is the Melia Playa Conchal Beach & Golf Resort in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Spanish architect Alvaro Sans created a low-rise, open-air complex with buildings shielded from the beach by trees and vegetation, so that people walking on the beach don't see the resort. "It's a very inspiring landscape," says Sans. "Preserving the topography was important." He also engineered spectacular ocean views from hillside buildings, including a 5,000-square-foot meeting facility.
On the Edge The most individualistic American hotels in the news today are the growing collections of hip hotelier Ian Schrager. Schrager burst onto the hotel scene in 1984 with Morgans, a luxury urban inn in New York City designed by Parisian trendsetter Andree Putman. It was followed by the Royalton and Paramount hotels in New York, both decorated by French designer Philippe Starck and known for their bold, cutting-edge interiors. Today, Schrager has added Starck-designed hotels in Miami Beach and Los Angeles, has a managementwith the venerable Clift Hotel in San Francisco, and is expanding overseas. Most of his hotels have facilities for small meetings.
Another successful and unconventional hotel company is the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group. Properties such as the Los Angeles Beverly Prescott and the Hotel Monaco in San Francisco, both Gold Key Award winners (see box, page 42) showcase interiors by the Beverly Hills, CA firm Cheryl Rowley Interior Design. The style is whimsical and colorful as opposed to Starck's spare modernism.
However, the vast majority of new and renovated properties reflect less adventuresome design. "There is something about every destination that makes it unique. We try to synthesize that and give it back to the hotel guest," says Mary Jane Rosa, vice president of design for Sonesta Hotels and Resorts. But, she says, "hotel design isn't about cutting-edge style, it's about comfort." Sonesta properties all look different from each other, but they don't make bold design statements. "We don't want to challenge our guests," says Rosa. "We want to pamper them."
Guest Room Design When New York's Paramount hotel opened seven years ago, the guest room design garnered national press coverage. Small and predominantly white, the rooms have been described by designer Starck as scenes from a Cocteau movie. Their most arresting feature are their headboards: huge, cushioned silk screens of Jan Vermeer's 17th-century painting The Lacemaker, framed in gold. A far cry from the standard double-double, they became a calling card for the 610-room hotel and launched a minor revolution in guest room design.
"We want guests to walk into the room and say 'wow,'" says Cheryl Rowley, president, Cheryl Rowley Interior Design. She uses dramatic color palettes and "off-the-wall" mixes of patterns to create environments that "aren't just another hotel room."
Luxurious bathrooms are another trend, says architect David Beer, founding partner of hospitality design firm Brennan Beer Gorman/Architects in New York City. Most American hotel projects today are renovations or adaptive reuse, says Beer, and these properties tend to have elaborate bathrooms. They are characterized by rich materials, such as marble and granite, and large bathtubs with separate showers.
What about corporate meeting attendees who care more about plugging in their laptops than soaking in the tub? A new generation of rooms geared to the needs of business travelers are being designed for the road warrior. Workstations in these guest rooms have larger desk surfaces, comfortable desk chairs, and accessible outlets and phone jacks.
"A few years ago we began incorporating an electric outlet in the desk lamp, so guests wouldn't have crawl under the desk to plug in their computers," says Ariane Steinbeck, vice president of the Chicago-based Ghettys Group, Inc., a hospitality design firm. Today, such conveniences are becoming commonplace in new designs and renovations. Marriott's Room That Works, for example, is a guest room workstation developed by Marriott Lodging, AT&T, and Steelcase Inc. that has been installed in 150 full-service Marriott hotels. It features a large console table and mobile writing desk, two power outlets and a modem jack mounted in the console top, desktop task lighting, and an adjustable ergonomic chair--for no additional charge. Other chains, such as Radisson, Hyatt, Westin, and Inter-Continental, also have business-class rooms with similar or more elaborate set-ups for an additional fee.
Meeting Room Design Hotel meeting space has historically received short shrift on the design budget, but this may be changing. For example, at El Conquistador Resort & Country Club in Las Croabas, Puerto Rico, designer Jorge Rossello spent a sizable percentage of the $1 million art budget in the property's 70,000 square feet of meeting space.
Design dollars are also being spent to create
ergonomically correct, technology-ready conference space. Due to open in September 1997, The Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers' new Executive Conference Center is a rehab of former exhibit space. Here, wall panels of mahogany-trim-med Australian lacewood and granite counters bespeak upscale corporate office design. "We've tried to take that anonymous, hospital-like feeling out of the corridors and prefunction areas," says Michelle Mitterer, conference center director. Intended for small meetings of ten to 75 persons, Sheraton's Executive Conference Center is being designed and constructed by Brennan Beer Gorman/Architects and Brennan Beer Gorman Monk/ Interiors in New York. "There's an eye to rich materials, but also to function and easy maintenance," says designer Christina Hart. The breakout areas have integrated granite counters (and refrigerated storage) for food service, and there are comfortable seating areas with telephone and Internet access kiosks. Meeting rooms are outfitted to the hilt with such features as ISDN telephone lines and a track system on three walls that can hold different types of presentation materials, such as flip charts or white boards. Among the more unusual architectural additions in the 25,000-square-foot space are three offices for meeting planners that will be equipped with computers, fax machines, and telephones.
In some properties, meeting space is beginning to reflect the sense of place that typifies the new generation of hotel design. Sonesta's advisory board of meeting professionals have undergone a mind shift in recent years, says Mary Jane Rosa. "Attendees are telling executives that they don't want to meet in a vanilla box. Rather than being distracted by the environment, people can be inspired by it--and have a better meeting." n
Design Hotels: Making a Statement Design Hotels Inc., headquartered in Sausalito, CA, is a growing collection of hotels around the world selected for their innovative design. Most of the 23 member hotels have meeting facilities. Their untraditional interiors are all unusual and highly contemporary. "These are hotels for people interested in art and design, who want to be visually challenged," says President J. Peter Schweit-zer. "We look for ideas in textures, colors, and fabrics that haven't been done before. Each property has a complete design statement that runs through all facets of the hotel."
Those with Internet access can check out the electronic catalog at www.designhotels.com for information and pictures of these properties. The site also includes a useful page of meeting room specifications for all member hotels.
The Gold Key Awards: The Oscars of Hotel Design Sponsored by Lodging, the management magazine of the American Hotel & Motel Association, and Hospitality Design magazine, the 16th Annual Gold Key Awards for Excellence in Hospitality Design were presented at the International Hotel/Motel & Restaurant Show in November 1996. The grand prize winners shown here were selected from among 161 entries and judged on the basis of both aesthetics and function. Each has a distinctive design style and sense of place that adds a kick of individuality for visiting meeting attendees or incentive winners.