Here & now: Designing hotels in the era of Airbnb

NATIONAL REPORT—Designing properties in an era when Airbnb—and other home-sharing rentals—provides travelers with unique and authentic experiences presents legacy brands invested in cookie-cutter standards with a bit of a dilemma: Resist or adapt? But maybe the answer isn’t so black and white. Is it possible for brands to compete in the design space where Airbnb options offer varietal stays?

Courtyard by Marriott Fort Worth Historic Stockyards in Texas, designed by //3877, was inspired by its locale.

“Pulling on a hotel’s surrounding environment is key to,” said David Tracz, principal and co-founder of //3877. “Drawing on the environment creates a connection and a smooth transition between the surroundings, the hotel and the guests. The same goes for the area residents. The more seamlessly the hotel fits into the environment, the more it becomes a destination, rather than just a place to stay.”

The designer cannot do this from behind a desk; primary research itself enables the creative mind. More importantly, the guest should be able to see the artist’s sense of exploration and discovery throughout the property.

“In order to accomplish this, designers have to enmesh themselves into the environment surrounding the project,” he said. “They must engage with residents and understand who they are, what they do, and what the town or city feels like—connect to the environment. Having the answers to these questions in tow, a designer is best prepared to pull in accurate design features that celebrate the area.”

Every hotel should have a story, and it’s the designer’s responsibility to express it through a variety of ways. “The story can include experiential elements, as well as design elements that create a particular atmosphere,” Tracz said. “In creating this story, weaving in the credentials of the surrounding area is essential. Much of the time, the space’s ambiance is inspired by the environment. In applying these traits, the hotel is differentiated from other locations; it provides a component that other locations cannot.” There are times when going beyond the property’s surroundings can be helpful, too.

For example, Barrett Design Studio has been working on a boutique property on the Gulf Coast. Prior to beginning the project, the design firm not only studied the neighborhood, but interviewed the owner about his backstory, ultimately incorporating that personal history into the design.

“What we found was that his first business was in oysters,” said Celia Barrett, principal designer at Barrett Design Studio. “His family began with oyster boats. We are using the wonderful textures, both inside and outside an oyster. It is going to be beautiful. We are also emphasizing a few elements taken from this charming neighborhood on the beach.”

This hands-on approach to property design began with boutique hotels. “They captured the essence of the neighborhood, nearby activities, music, art, food, recreation and social media experiences,” said Scott P. Rosenberg, president at Jonathan Nehmer + Associates. This design philosophy continues to thrive throughout the industry, despite some hospitality groups holding firmly onto—sometimes outdated—brand standards.

“Although tricky and often in opposition to corporate standards, designers must educate clients on the importance of breaking away from legacy requirements,” Tracz said. “Success is not built on the past, but instead on incorporating new elements. It’s better for the design of the space and the success of the hotel to show better, more fruitful ways to the future, and pull them away from the past.”

Being dismissive of brand standards can backfire. “[Brands] have spent a large amount of time and money on research with trial and error to develop their standards,” Barrett said. “Our job is to keep those standards in place, but push the envelope as far as they will allow to give the property an individual personality.” To do this, some designers take brand standards and interpret them as larger overall concepts, instead of focusing in narrowly.

“In this light, I think of a standard as developing a sense of place, a larger feeling experienced by the guest,” Tracz said. “This should be both the goal and the standard we push clients toward. Building these experiences are more descriptive than they are prescriptive—they focus on the notions of discovery and delight, rather than creating a space that mirrors ten others.”

Unlike legacy brands, Airbnb properties don’t have brand standards to adhere to. There’s no consistency, especially with regard to property design, among short-term rentals, which, for many renters, is a top selling point.

“I do acknowledge a younger cost-conscious shopper is willing to take a chance to book a room or unit on Airbnb (and millions do) to get a unique experience every time,” Rosenberg said.

While newer brands are doing their best to provide guests with distinct experiences, it’s nearly impossible for larger properties to design unique, experiential elements for every room—and this is where Airbnb thrives.

“Access to specific places and the ease of connection to the area are also elements hotels should take note of,” Tracz said. “These capabilities provide guests with an authentic, local experience. When people live in a place, they naturally bring that place into their homes, and guests using Airbnb-like services get to experience this firsthand.”

The adventurous owner or developer can be a dream client for the designer if the goal is to break away from established criteria and guidelines. “It is a give-and-take, a process the designer goes through to decide which battles are not worth fighting and which ones will help win the war,” Barrett said. “The objective of all involved is to create a beautiful, comfortable hotel that the guests will love, talk about and return to soon. If the ‘adventurous’ elements that the designer wants to use can fill that need, then we have an argument to take first to the owner, then the brand.” The designer may not always win the argument, but the discussion may spark a compromise.

“Hotels can start to adapt by providing different types of guest experiences,” Tracz said. “It may mean looking at different room types or groups of rooms that connect to one another for a combined living-room experience, creating a more social environment. It may also mean offering different ways to access your room or choosing a room. The design of the spaces and the experiences they provide will largely be part of the adaptation process.”

Airbnb rentals often face challenges with amenities. “Airbnb properties are all mostly existing homes and condominiums, so it is really up to the individuals who own these to consider trying to get as many amenities into the rooms and living rooms as possible, such as easy access to power, good HDTV and WiFi at a minimum,” Rosenberg said. This is where the inconsistency lies among rentals.

“This space can no longer be one’s repurposed spare bedroom,” Tracz said. “Airbnb offerings need to understand that the demand for quality and experience will become greater as hotels continue more experiential offerings and spaces. There needs to be more to home-rental service than just a room to stay in, whether it means offering a full house rental or particular service for guests.”

Where hotels can also compete—and with an advantage—is in the area hospitality. After all, that is what our industry is all about. “These rentals are ultimately missing the guest experience,” Tracz said. “They miss the personal touch that hotels bring to the table. Hotels need to start bringing back personal and exclusive experiences for their guests.

“I feel that hotels and Airbnb will continue to push together; hotels will innovate, and Airbnbs will grow larger and begin to expand into individualized brands themselves,” he continued. “Hotels and Airbnb hybrids will pop up and offer flexible experiences.” HB

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