Hotels are no longer just a place to sleep or eat; they have become social connectors, ambassadors of all things local, curators of personal narratives, as well as tangible extensions of a community, says Ian Rolston, senior project designer at HOK Ltd. (HOK). The economic downturn post 2009 and the rise of technology are two elements that have shifted the idea of status in North America, pushing guests to desire a new experience, one that is “interesting and unique” and sets them apart from their community of friends and colleagues on social media.
“Today, this idea of experience is really becoming an element that is far more valued than the idea of staying at a three or four or five star property; it is purchasing an experience more than just a stay,” says Rolston. “What is unique about hospitality is we have opportunity to put what is driving human behaviour into a vernacular that really gets to be represented in the three dimensional environment.”
In a conversation after an IIDEX seminar, The Changing Face of Hospitality: Shifts in the Hotel Industry, Rolston, along with Randa Tukan, senior vice-president and director of interiors at HOK, elaborated on the competitive edge of such immersive spaces, and how Canada is well-positioned to be at the forefront of this concept.
Immersive hotel spaces
The duo has witnessed the immersive trend pop up in the last two to three years, one that is moving away from a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach. They are currently working on a couple of such projects in Toronto. According to Tukan, updating traditional hotels with different furniture to change the aesthetic, or including lifestyle brands, for example, is no longer enough because of what people have been exposed to through media.
“We’ve experienced so many things without really experiencing them; it’s just exposure,” says Tukan. “So, there is still this distance, this virtual experience that leaves us, in the human sense, yearning for more.”
That said, experiential, personal and authentic solutions are responding to this need to feel immersed in real life, rather than looking at it through a screen. From the prior dawn of globalized hotels to a changing culture of integrated technology in homes, offices and now social spaces in hotels, immersive hotels are slowly gaining ground in Canada. Rolston forecasts even more demand in the marketplace for integrated flexible spaces.
For instance, hotel assets are well-positioned to create social hubs for people to meet as they already have infrastructure and the ability to offer these connections. Some hotels are already creating integrated event spaces that are adaptable to exhibits and live music. Meanwhile, the hotel lobby and restaurant now give guests a chance to hook onto the culture of a hotel and its surrounding community, and the community, in turn, has another outlet of event space.
Developers and operators behind both new and existing hotels might want to take note of this immersive shift in real estate, already posing challenges in other industries. In the events community, for instance, planners who have blocked off hotel space for conferences find increasing competition from platforms, such as Airbnb, as attendees are choosing home-like, Instagram-worthy settings to feel as though they live in the host city, rather than a traditional hotel, more cut-off from this authentic experience of “all things local.”
Existing hotels with limited capital can incorporate immersive elements and “work with what they have,” and “create nuances,” the duo notes, whether that includes engaging a rooftop or interior enclave. Tukan says while solutions are dependent on physical space, it’s thinking about this element of unexpectedness, outside “the usual box.”
“People are really bored with the expected,” she says. “When you have that mentality of wanting to do something different, you step inside an existing place . . . and think about how many ways a space can be used. Start carving out the vision and looking at it in different scenarios so it’s not one size fits all; it’s building in flexibility.”
This flexibility, adds Rolston, can easily integrate connectivity within the spaces. From retrofitting with technology applied to existing architecture and wired back to control points in building so you don’t have to do so much invasive work or within the space itself to create space within space using architectural facades, screens or removable partitions, hotels can then curate this space for events or allow guests to use it as they desire.
Canada at the immersive forefront
Canada is at the forefront of the immersive hotel concept because it is not an exclusive culture, Rolston emphasizes.
“We have an innate ability to explore experience,” he says. “We want to make sure that we understand the nuances of communities and people around us.”
There are many opportunities to engage in the immersive hotel in Canada, with mixed use environments that connect generations and cultures in a hub.
“One of the amazing things about being Canadian is we have great perspective in the world; we look outwardly first, not necessarily inward,” he adds. “We’re curious by nature and that allows us the opportunity to take a look at our hospitality environments and take a look at our guests and their needs, not immerse them into one dimension of a brand culture or a developer’s idea of a space.”
Asking questions of guests to acquire a knowledge base of interests and exposures helps him intuitively seek ways to understand how a hotel can engage guests.
“There is this inclusive dialogue that begins to happen that translates into how we lay out a lobby space, so we look for areas of interaction and connection,” he notes. “How do we lay out a guest room and make sure we’re being thoughtful of what the guests needs when they arrive?”
This extends to considering where guests place their key card or appropriate places to set down luggage. Taking it a step further, it leads to talking about how guests can intuitively connect to the scene in the respective city/ Ensuring there is a suitable level of technology also helps guests integrate into the happenings of a community.
“From a Canadian perspective, we are not so insulated that we want to simply provide specific experiences based on our own specific ideas of culture,” he says. “From all the communities and cultures that have enriched our city, we have learned the practices and principals they use to communicate, greet and connect with one another.”