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Experiential Design - Designing to make a hotel memorable
Gordon Beckman, AIA

Gordon Beckman, AIA, Design Director for John Portman & Associates

Hotel design is evolutionary - it transforms based on the place, the time, the people, the culture and the guest. It is generational in that differing generations have unique expectations of experiences. It can be urban, suburban, resort, seaside, mountainside, boutique, convention or airport; each of these types carries its own expectations of experience. Experience first derives from the type of place.

The place

Urban or suburban hotels build from a base of the local place and culture. Whether in Shanghai or San Diego, Switzerland or Chicago, the city, the seaside or the mountains, brands can reflect the location by connecting the local culture and history through image, space, materials, music and food. These are powerful influences on our senses - senses that when fulfilled, retain the experience.

Urban hotels become an extension of the public realm

Urban hotels, by their nature, are embedded in the public realm. The experience of these hotel types relates directly to the method of transportation, approach and arrival to the place. The street, the intersection, the public square - whatever the arrivals place might be, this sequence of entry is where the experience and, thus, the memory begins.

A great example of this was several years ago when I arrived at a small scale hotel in Switzerland where, when getting out of the car, I was welcomed by the concierge with a “Hello, Mr. Beckman.” Mind you, I had never been at the hotel in my life. To this day, I have no idea how he knew my name. So the arrival experience and the memory formed are about much more than the urban environment, the place or the architecture - it becomes a human event.

Suburban hotels and the creation of public space

Suburban and airport hotels seek to establish their own public realm. By definition, these hotels occupy a place which has previously been undefined and may seem unconnected. A common hotel model in the suburban environment has been what we refer to as ‘hotels in parking lots’. We have endeavored to change this model by creating a unique environment offering a spatial experience of approach and entry. This involves creating connections and a spatial hierarchy where previously there had been none. Think of the hotel as an object in a garden, interwoven with nature, where transitioning from the indoor and outdoor public spaces offers an orchestrated journey that contrasts the complexity of built and natural environments to create a rich, varied, and ultimately memorable experience.

The boutique


The boutique type hotel offers a unique experience of exclusivity, art, coolness and individuality. This specialty group is generally located in an up-and-coming, artistic and trendy part of the urban environment. Boutique hotels are specifically and purposefully unbranded-looking to offer a uniqueness of experience through, often times, cutting-edge imagery and design ideals.

The airport hotel

Even transportation-oriented hotels - there for the convenience of the traveler or the conventioneer - can attain a quality of environment and level of experience that offers more than a meal and a bed. These can become experiential types of places through quality of design, the creation of defined, inspired spaces, and a belief in the enhancement of the physical environment.

At the building scale

Of course, guest experiences are affected by the building itself where factors such as orientation, transparency, siting, form, mass and image all relate directly to the impression of the hotel as a brand and as an architectural part of the environment. For an arriving guest, the impression made by the entry sequence should extend through the public spaces of the hotel - the lobby and the common spaces. The location, the building’s orientation, and vistas to and from these spaces, all become a determining factor in the memorability of the experience and the place.

The atrium hotel type is arguably the most memorable, spatially. With the grand scale, the daylight and the vertical movement, it is visually charged. It is not the norm. Such a large interior space registers as the unexpected in our minds, and it becomes the focus of the place as it establishes a continuous connection, physically and visually, between the rooms, the public places, and on to the city. It is a grand public place at a city scale. It exists between the shared public realm and the private hotel guest rooms. The sensation of vertical movement through this space is equally invigorating as glazed lifts rise and fall, providing unique vantage points and bringing movement to the space.

The atrium type is exceptional and easily understandable as memorable. Ideas garnered from that type can also be applicable and potent in the more conventional hotel type. Simply allowing the vertical transportation systems to have a visual connection to the exterior - to have that constant reference of the city - heightens the sense of movement, making the transition from the public to the private spaces interactive and connected.

Finally, it is the guest room itself that can make or break a guest’s appreciation for the experience offered by the hotel. Little things can be the difference between a good or not-so-good impression - like being able to bring in or shut out daylight and the ability to personalize and control the environment for the duration of the stay. Design factors such as openness, materials chosen and the tactile experience offered by the surfaces and textures provided can enhance the experience.

The idea of enhanced guest experience

The examples given above are but a few. The point is that these exemplify the qualities of experiences that are possible in branded hotels. At the most basic levels, guest experiences are based on location, the place, the purpose for being there - be it holiday, convention or necessity.


However, there are things we can do as designers to enhance the experience through the orchestration of the arrival and entry sequence, the selection of materials and thoughtful consideration to other design elements.

While there are many differing hotel types, many differing brands, at many differing rating levels and price points, the thought process at the conceptual and the development level of these places can and should build up the fundamental ideas of location, site, sequence, space and materiality to enhance the guest experience and benefit the brand. Recognizing the essential compositional concepts and extending and rethinking the common ‘brand standard’ based on these unique qualities can result in a guest experience elevated by and commensurate with place.

In fact, the integration of a new hotel into a context can reach out and improve the overall public realm of the place in a mutually beneficial way. Mixed use projects are especially attuned to doing this through the creation of a vital urban place where the people, entertainment venues, hospitality, cafes, and shopping all work together to enliven the public realm and invigorate an urban environment.


At the end, it all comes back to people, place and quality - principles which are applicable to every type and size and are ingrained in the work that, as design professionals, we engage in daily.

Gordon Beckman, AIA, is Principal and Design Director at John Portman & Associates. He has built a distinguished career, working nationally and internationally on a broad range of building types, including commercial, civic, transportation, and mixed-use developments. Beckman’s work reflects his ongoing interest in, and examination of, the interdisciplinary connections, that structure, technology, environmental concerns and transparency play in next generation architectural thought.

Beckman has taught for the University of Wisconsin and the Illinois Institute of Technology, in addition to participating in numerous design reviews and juries at several Universities. He has been recognized by the AIA and awarded the AIA Excellence in Architecture medal.

John Portman & Associates


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