Hotels and the experience economy

Nicholas de Klerk, Associate Architect, Aukett Swanke - 2016 Sleep Set Designer: 

There is something of a paradox in setting out a relationship between hotels and the so-called experience economy as if it were something radically new. Perhaps more than most other building types, hotels have always concerned themselves with experience.

They are complex operations with many uses and are experienced on a range of registers; from the intimate and private to the social and public. Embedded within this are further layers of complexity which respond to the specifics of the hotel; the city it is located in, the guests who are staying in or visiting the hotel and what they are looking for.

This is a curious mix of the familiar and the strange: guests want something they can identify with, but in an age in which experiences can be commodified and form an economy in themselves, are also increasingly interested in novelty and in the ability to share it with their peer and wider networks.

Aukett Swanke, Sleep, event

Aukett Swanke, Avixual, West End Hotel
Left: The city is drawn into the hotel and the hotel out onto the street 
Right: Typical guestroom accessorised with the guest's own effects


As designers it is near impossible to pre-empt or capture this phenomenon. Partly because hotels are large projects, often years in the planning and the making, and partly because trends such as the ‘experience economy’ are constantly evolving with technology, in particular, driving this change.

Designing a hotel as a showcase for increasingly ubiquitous technologies can seem like a creative cul-de-sac given that they are constantly changing. On the other hand, using technology to enhance and exploit (or indeed disrupt) the qualities of a building will continue a long-standing theatrical impulse in hotel interior design, but open it up to an ever expanding range of possibilities as technologies develop.

I have written before about the uncanny relationship between the home and the hotel which attempts to strike an uneasy balance between the familiar and the strange. We see this in new wardrobe-free hotel rooms which are more akin to a stage set, where we augment the room with our own personal effects. It’s a deliberate design strategy, and it’s possible that we will now start seeing this encroach on the management of hotels.

The as yet unchecked rise of big data has afforded hotels the ability to understand something about your preferences, if not about you, before you arrive at their establishment. The research we do about a hotel before we check-in is now being reciprocated by hotels on us in order to offer us a more customised stay.

Aukette Swanke

Aukett Swanke, Avixual, West End Hotel
Left: The courtyard looking up towards the stepped seating area which mixes work, leisure and performance
Right: View across the lobby to the courtyard 

We’re also at a threshold between generations who, on one side are wary about social sharing (but nonetheless participate) and are sceptical of the perceived benefits of this level of openness and those in the generation to follow for whom this is completely normal. Perhaps the adjustment to this emerging reality is softened by having an actual person greet you as concierge (as opposed to a machine), and ask you if you’re looking forward to the concert or conference you’ve travelled to attend – but haven’t necessarily told them about.

While we’re not quite heading into the Uncanny Valley – yet – technology is changing the way hotels are used and experienced in real time. Whether it’s a design or operational response to ‘disruptive’ platforms like Airbnb luring guests away from hotels with the promise of a more authentic experience, or simply the ability to bring our own tech and media (a little bit of ‘home’?) with us, the whole idea of travel is more seamless than it has ever been.

As the idea of travel evolves, we should see this period of change as an opportunity to think again about the hotel: it might become an element of social or cultural infrastructure – open as much to local people, businesses and organisations as to guests from elsewhere. The public areas of the hotel could become an operational version of the technological disruptors they have been facing down of late, generating additional revenue much in the way these companies do, from memberships, margins and merchandise. Expanding their staff to include curators, developers and programmers – amongst others – the lobby, bars, restaurants and other public areas of the hotel become a hive of activity that people travel to experience and be a part of. In becoming a piece of urban infrastructure which contributes to the sustainability of local economies, the hotel does two things: it contributes to its own viability, but also achieves the chimeric quality of authenticity that it can only but fail to achieve by design.

What does this mean for loyalty? In a time in which experiences are prized, tastes are fickle, and indeed one of the few constants is a search for novelty, perhaps one way to encourage loyalty is to invite guests to be co-creators or authors of their stay – of their experience. Inevitably this is done through technology, but it extends the guest’s involvement from long before they arrive to well after they have left. It invites their peer group to share in this process, encouraging them to undertake similar expenditure – and almost every ‘experience’ as a commodifiable, sharable thing will be quite unique. Of course there is still a role for designers in creating the spaces and networks within which this happens (albeit in a much more collaborative and participatory manner), but perhaps it’s also time to expand the idea of what the design of a hotel is.

Explore how this year's Sleep Set Designers interpret the theme of Loyalty at #Sleep17 - Join us here