When 'Design' Becomes 'User Experience'
Design – and the consideration of form and function it represents – is evolving across all areas of business into a sense of ‘user experience' and ‘customer journeys'. We spoke to thought-leading architect James Soane of international hotel designers Project Orange about its 2017 trends.
From the hallowed portals of Paris' potentate-friendly Peninsula, to the room next to the housekeeping cupboard in the Rotterdam branch of millennial discount chain Citizen M, hotels require design. In fact, mere ‘design' isn't enough any more – what to emulate now is the ambience described as ‘user experience'. Even if that's just a case of placing the teasmaid just right, so the sun's rays play on its less than ergonomic angles first thing in the morning.
But in these fractured times, what kind of ‘user experience' are your guests after? James Soane is an architect and interior designer whose combined Project Orange practice has worked on The Hoxton Hotel in east London, Oxford's Hynsham Hall, The Swan in Suffolk plus many more hospitality projects in the UK and worldwide. He's also the director of critical practice at the London school of Architecture. “What's stimulating about working with hotels is it's an area where thinking keeps changing,” he says of shifting trends. The good news is, he's here to tell you what they are.
An easy one to start off with. The most comforting homes are those decorated with conversation pieces from a life well lived, and hotels do well to emulate that – see Amsterdam's Pulitzer urban resort for a masterful application of the style. James, who is listed as a ‘collagist' on his architectural practice's website, says, “‘Curate' is an over-used word, but we all do it and people respond positively to it.”
The Independent Hotel Show 2016 was graced by many suppliers of compelling objets, and 2017 will boast even more. Until then, raid you local architectural reclamation centre and set the alarm to catch those antique markets.
“Citizen M had too much tech. It's scaled back and now the experience is much better,” says James of the affordable millennial favourite. Technology for technology's sake actually frustrates guests; think of all the confusion over light switches, writ large for the digital age. “A bit of drama's great in the public areas,” continues James, “but people aren't actually in their rooms that much and mostly just want a good night's sleep. The redundancy of all this tech is a massive waste. It doesn't go into the recycling bin, it goes in the landfill.”
At the Independent Hotel Show itself, we've noticed technology becoming a service facilitator – for instance, innovations in ecological laundry – rather than a customer-facing novelty. Head to the 2017 show this autumn for more behind the scenes wizardry.
“Not literally dirty,” says James, “but not brand new either. When people spend money, they like to feel it's on something permanent. ‘Geo quest' travellers want a hotel that works as a gateway to the locality, and they don't want the experience scrubbed up. Cast your mind back to 1973 and the golden age of chain hotels. It was about taking people to an exclusive place that was actually the same all over the world. This is the opposite. Rough Lux in King's Cross is a great example.”
New Knowledge Seekers
These are people who want self-improvement, or at least some Instagram moments, as part of their trip. To attract them, you don't need a historical hotel or a programme of start-up seminars – a memorable USP goes a lot further. “The Ace Hotel in Panama City has one of the best jazz clubs in the world in the basement. The combination of a tempting new experience in a mysterious city, under a trusted brand, is very powerful,” says James.
“The overlap between wellbeing and tourism is massive. And not just in The Maldives any more, exotic parts of Africa are being opened up,” says James. UK hotels in rugged destinations – the ‘no Wi-Fi on purpose' set – take note that, “People want adventure but a certain amount of confidence too. And comfort is relative; arriving and being passed a cold drink can feel luxurious.”
As in ‘fake news' – an emerging trend to be avoided of course, rather than followed. “Hospitality is simple,” says James, “I pay the hotel, it gives me hospitality. And that seems to have broken down a bit. People are tired of ‘We've done this for you!' when they know it's a script. There has to be something behind it. Big brands get away with this of course – we all still use Tesco for shopping and bring our cynicism with us, because we can't be arsed to choose otherwise.”
The key to not appearing fake is to sincerely commit to causes – “my young students are interested in sharing ideas, collaborating… things that, to us, seem optimistic and remote. But commonality is the only way that these seemingly insurmountable problems – equality, air quality, housing – can be solved.