The Virtual Guest - Nicholas de Klerk

Nicholas de Klerk Bivouac Sleep Set Concept Room, Aukett Swanke


I have written about the technology-driven notion of the ‘borderless’ hotel before, but have not, as yet, explored what this means for the design of actual hotels. The term borderless in this context, means that the experience of the hotel starts well before you arrive and ends long after you leave, largely through the use of online platforms of one kind or another.

The last decade’s worth of technological development, primarily within the domain of social media, has made this possible, and is driving change – both behaviourally in terms of how people use, experience and share these spaces, but also, through the ‘disruptive’ challenge led primarily by homestay sharing platforms. Notwithstanding all this change, hotel websites still mostly provide information, as opposed to, in my experience, becoming a much more integral part of the experience that they are trying to sell.

It’s worth pointing out that this terrain is changing in real time, and it is our challenge as designers to think and more importantly design beyond what we know now. Whereas I might once have considered myself enthusiastic about social media, I am probably now best described as somewhat ambivalent – and I am far from the only person observing this change. The virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, derides the addictive network effects of social media companies and their ‘manipulation engines’. It may be, however, that in normalising the active participation in virtual worlds, these platforms may just have warmed us up for the next act.

The existence of virtual, digital worlds, of course, far predates contemporary online social realms. From the Second Life to gaming environments such as Grand Theft Auto and the more recent Minecraft – all create facsimile online worlds using visuals resonant of our physical, real world. A quick image search only serves to confirm that they are indeed facsimiles and have some way to go to get to the point where they approximate actual physical environments. But this is not a single direction of travel – you only have to think about how technology is changing the ways in which we navigate and experience our actual cities (everything from satnav to Citimapper) to understand that the overlap between the real and the virtual is becoming ever greater.

If this seems a little disconnected from travel and hotel stays, it’s not. The artist Will Jennings has written about this slippage, recounting how his first visit to Los Angeles presented him with unexpectedly uncanny familiarities, memories and reconnections with places and buildings that he had seen repeatedly in Hollywood films. Jennings also explores gamespace and how the ‘residue of the virtual and your acts in it’ are carried back into your day to day life when you stop playing. Lanier again, this time quoted in an article on virtual reality in the New Yorker, says that the ‘best part of [virtual reality] comes after you remove the headset: having been immersed in a comparatively flat computer-generated world, one finds that, in real life, “the most ordinary surface, cheap wood or plain dirt, is bejewelled in infinite detail for a short while.’

What does this all mean for the hotel and its ghosted virtual other? The key to this is material and spatial. As technology and the real time rendering offered by softwares such as Revit and Enscape improve all the time, our ability to experience real space virtually, but in a way in which the user can control and manipulate their movement within it in real time, becomes ever more plausible and effective. We used these tools in the design of our concept hotel room, Bivouac, created for the 2016 Sleep Event. In the illustration you can see in the creases in the virtual clothes; the hard light of the virtual room blends across the image into the real warmth of the actual lighting and fabrics in the constructed room. As the use of VR becomes more commonplace and less uncanny, we’ll start to see the division between these two worlds become increasingly blurred. The virtual may never replace the real, but it is easily an extension of it.

This might mean that on visiting a new hotel or city for the first time, you are able to navigate it more intuitively, as though you were more familiar than you actually are, embedding yourself in a way in which you would never achieve were you entirely new to the place. The virtual has the potential to prompt more real or ‘authentic’ experiences, even if in an uncanny fashion.

The potential of this will only be fully realised when the reverse also holds, and hotel spaces are designed with some sense of how they might be navigated or experienced virtually. Aspects of the physical hotel will be more memorable simply by virtue of the intensity with which you will experience them with all of your senses, as distinct from your initial virtual occupation of the space.

If this all seems too much like Lanier’s ‘manipulation engine’ you need only remember that guests will willingly pay for a richer, enhanced and indeed extended experience in which they actively participate and can author to some degree. Hotels have no need to harvest and sell data on to third parties as the guest will no longer be a passive occupier to be exploited. In this augmented world, which is virtually on our doorstep, the guest will, in some ways, almost become the hotel.


1:         de Klerk, N (2018). ‘The Social Hotel’, New London Quarterly, January 2018; also published online here: (Accessed 08/07/18)

2:         Thornhill, J (2018). ‘The enemy of the future is the complacent person’, The Financial Times, 07 July 2018: (Accessed 08 July 2018)

3:         Jennings, W. (2018). ‘Learning from Los Santos’,, 01 July 2018, previously published as an academic paper: (Accessed 08 July 2018)

3:         Rothman, J. (2018) ‘Are we already living in virtual reality?’, The New Yorker, April 2nd, 2018: (Accessed 08 July 2018)

Image Credit: Bivouac Sleep Set Concept Room, Aukett Swanke, 2016.