Ms. Bravo-Smith

Architecture & Design

Achieving an Authentic Venue, Through Integrated Design

By Manuela Bravo-Smith, Senior Designer - Hospitality, Carrier Johnson + Culture

Sameness was once considered a virtue in the hospitality industry. Travelers were believed to crave predictability, which seemed to dovetail with the desire of larger hospitality groups to establish a recognizable brand. This was correct to some degree: a certain segment of the market prefer to take no chances with a hotel stay, and therefore place a premium on familiarity and having expectations met. But the industry has begun to swing away from this paradigm, recognizing that travelers also love a find: a unique experience or destination that offers newness and variety. Even owners and developers of bigger properties and major chains have begun to look for ways to craft boutique-style experiences for visitors who value something unique and unexpected.

However, crafting a unique experience is easier said than done. It takes more than some local-themed kitsch to make a venue memorable. Good design will combine aesthetics, comfort, and function with peculiarity-that is to say, uniqueness. And the key to succeeding with this recipe is an experienced design team with an integrated design process.

For those not familiar with the term, integrated design describes a multi-disciplinary approach that brings experienced team members together under one roof to contribute their expertise in distinct elements of the process. At Carrier Johnson + CULTURE, for example, those disciplines include (but are not limited to) architecture, interior design, planning, urban design, and branding. The integrated design approach begins with client-centered organizational strategy sessions that set out to identify aesthetic and market goals for the planned venue. From these sessions emerges a central design concept from which a set of consistent design ideas are extracted, to be applied across all aspects of the project.

The integrated design approach often leads to high-impact design innovation, certainly for hospitality sector projects but also for most every building type. Increased engagement with clients and key stakeholders helps us to reveal the particular culture to be infused into the project. It is that culture which brings depth, and therefore authenticity, to the design concept.

We should also note here that the project location is a critical factor in this process. Establishing a concept and foundational requirements based in the context of the project site and its surroundings will buttress any subsequent design and practical choices. The degree to which the architectural and cultural context inform the design team's thinking and decision-making-and thereby the concept outcome-cannot be easily overstated. More subtle but nevertheless important is the influence of location on the availability of certain materials and skilled trades. As integral parts of the living fabric of the location, available resources will have already influenced the local design landscape for decades, even centuries. Experienced practitioners of integrated design will find ways to ensure that the concept benefits from the location by adapting to the surrounding milieu whenever it is possible to do so efficiently and sustainably.

Context is Key

When undertaking a project-especially a hospitality project-setting the design concept in the historical and cultural context and the project's location is deeply instructive. Clear concepts become directional markings, informing the design in all phases of the project's phases and duration. Many travelers appreciate a hotel that is itself a destination, and just as many appreciate the hotel that takes cues from its surroundings to play on the uniqueness of the location. At its heart, a successful design is based on a strong concept that integrates the qualities of the physical surroundings-the street, the neighborhood, the city-with the less tangible elements like the social, cultural, and historical context of the area.

Integrating unique elements from the physical and cultural context of the project location into a concept infuses design with a sense of character (a localized approach), and if applied in a creative and unexpected way, the design will also be unique, i.e. authentic. These two approaches, if aligned and coherent from concept to design development and execution, will provide the project with an undeniable personality. Because the concept emerged organically from consensus and honors its location, it cannot help but exude authenticity.

Why does this matter? As people become used to a higher and ever more seamless level of services and interactions in all aspects of their lives-from their workplace to their homes to their purchases of everyday necessities-guest expectations within the hospitality sector are rising at an equivalent speed. In a world where huge spaces can be bridged with the touch of a finger, there is an even greater desire to establish an authentic experience in hospitality design. After all, if a hotel looks and feels exactly the same in Chicago as it does in London, its appeal will be limited and its significance in the traveler's memory small.

The growing expectation among travelers is to experience an unfamiliar environment in inviting ways. The design elements are as important as culinary offerings and amenities in creating that welcoming atmosphere. The traveler's discovery of a find encourages repeat stays and word-of-mouth recommendations, which in turn increase property value.

There are numerous cases of hotel corporations that have not adapted to this challenging atmosphere, or have been taken off-guard and been late to respond to this increased level of services and user expectation. Making only superficial adaptations is not enough-one cannot simply cover poor design with a thin coat of paint. And meeting standards in hospitality design cannot be considered enough, as these industry standards now serve mostly as guidelines for quality control and specific space and functional requirements. These challenges should not be viewed as limitations, but rather as opportunities. Owners and designers now have the opportunity to collaborate on a vast range of design possibilities, the pursuit of which will ensure that their product stands apart from the crowd.

Why Experience Matters

The notion that a uniform and consistent "look" will provide properties with identity and guests with comfort, regardless of the location and context, has been replaced by forward-thinking hospitality. High-end boutique hotels and fine and local dining restaurants have evolved the fastest having the most freedom to respond to the needs and expectations of their customer base. Just as the operators of high-end restaurants understand, successful hotel corporations now recognize that identity stems from a context-informed design concept that is localized and hence original and authentic. Each knows that the global economy demands an ever more unique end-user experience. After all, why dine in a restaurant in a new city that is exactly the same as the one in your home area? And if the operators understand this concept, then certainly it is understood by discriminating hospitality guests who crave a unique and authentic experience.

As with restaurants, this lesson is most easily applied to boutique hotel concepts. Firms with integrated multidisciplinary design teams excel at the creation of ground-up boutique hotels because they are begun as new construction. Adaptive reuse and tenant improvement projects, on the other hand, present challenges that require experienced integrated design teams. Adaptive reuse always wrestles with preserving identity and branding, within the framework of bottom-line thinking. Localizing the concept, design and execution demands a more acute layer of analysis and implementation when the structure already exists.

Adaptive reuse and tenant improvement projects often bring an initial challenge in the form of structures that are either impersonal or context-specific. With the former, successful tenant improvement projects can transform an impersonal structure-e.g. a generic hotel chain property with cost-effective facades-using smart, warm and authentic interior modifications that root the hospitality experience in the locale. For example, a current adaptive reuse project located on Century Boulevard in Los Angeles (the "Gateway to Los Angeles") involves converting a 13-story office building built in the 1960's into a dual-branded LAX Hyatt House/Place hotel. The design team made the decision to embrace the character of the 1960's building's architecture and its historically notable office environment to set a strong foundation for the interior design concept. Other design elements took their inspiration from the structure's proximity to Los Angeles International Airport.

The context specific-or highly personalized-structure, on the other hand, challenges the design team to work on a building with a distinctive architectural style, and often a peculiar original purpose. Working on a structure that already has design value (valid or not) and a place in the urban fabric requires Zen-like detachment in the design approach: appreciating what it is-a visual marker of a specific local experience-and not fixating on what it should be. Buildings with such a defined style and purpose might be anachronistic, but a solid integrated design concept will entail solutions that help the project harmonize in the current context.

Integrated project teams are able to create authentic and original designs for the hospitality sector because they don't imagine a passive end-user. They know that people want transformative spaces, spaces that feel unique and related to their location. Creating that feeling of uniqueness is what maintains and inspires branding, and fosters a feeling of connection between brand and experience that creates repeat customers. At its heart, an integrated design approach recognizes that every project is an opportunity to showcase integrity, originality, and culture.

Born in Mexico City, Ms. Bravo-Smith has experienced the tangible and visual contrast between communities through time. Through travel and contact with various cultures, she has had the opportunity to reflect on how others see and experience new places. She has been influenced by her parentís background: her motherís simple and calm farm lifestyle, and her fatherís demanding career as a civil engineer. After completing a five-year architectural degree program from the Guadalajara Universityís CUAAD (University Center of Art, Architecture and Design) in 1997, Ms. Bravo-Smith began her professional journey at an international engineering company. Her current position is with Carrier Johnson + CULTURE. Ms. Bravo-Smith can be contacted at 619-239-2353 or Please visit for more information. Extended Bio... retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by

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Feature Focus
Architecture & Design: Authentic, Interactive and Immersive
If there is one dominant trend in the field of hotel architecture and design, itís that travelers are demanding authentic, immersive and interactive experiences. This is especially true for Millennials but Baby Boomers are seeking out meaningful experiences as well. As a result, the development of immersive travel experiences - winery resorts, culinary resorts, resorts geared toward specific sports enthusiasts - will continue to expand. Another kind of immersive experience is an urban resort Ė one that provides all the elements you'd expect in a luxury resort, but urbanized. The urban resort hotel is designed as a staging area where the city itself provides all the amenities, and the hotel functions as a kind of sophisticated concierge service. Another trend is a re-thinking of the hotel lobby, which has evolved into an active social hub with flexible spaces for work and play, featuring cafe?s, bars, libraries, computer stations, game rooms, and more. The goal is to make this area as interactive as possible and to bring people together, making the space less of a traditional hotel lobby and more of a contemporary gathering place. This emphasis on the lobby has also had an associated effect on the size of hotel rooms Ė they are getting smaller. Since most activities are designed to take place in the lobby, there is less time spent in rooms which justifies their smaller design. Finally, the wellness and ecology movements are also having a major impact on design. The industry is actively adopting standards so that new structures are not only environmentally sustainable, but also promote optimum health and well- being for the travelers who will inhabit them. These are a few of the current trends in the fields of hotel architecture and design that will be examined in the November issue of the Hotel Business Review.