Romancing the Hotel

In their book, The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage, B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore note that “Commoditized (is a) word that no company wants applied to its goods or services.” They argue that the most compelling way to avoid that is to offer something more — experiences — that is, events that touch customers in a uniquely personal way. The authors reason, “While commodities are fungible, goods tangible, and services intangible, experiences are memorable.”

In the hospitality industry, we can use romance and fantasy to create memorable experiences. For this reason, America's 19th- and early 20th-century hotels were great places. Often in spectacular settings, they featured luxurious lobbies, gracious guestrooms, grand ballrooms, elegant bars and sumptuous dining rooms. People sought them out because they offered unique and memorable experiences.

Today, it remains essential for lodging design to evoke a sense of romance or fantasy — the anticipation of finding love, sealing a lucrative business deal, or attending a grand social event or a great conference. The design should incorporate spaces conducive in scale and character to both grand and intimate gatherings, conversation and celebration. Moreover, guests often would like to feel that they've traveled farther or to a more exotic, rustic or elegant place than they really have. They might dream they are having breakfast in Tuscany when they've actually gone to San Antonio on business.


A hotel can be designed to evoke images associated with the classic qualities of romance — heroism, adventure and mystery — for guests who have the need, wish or desire to escape their day-to-day lives during their stay.

Romance is often associated with nature, particularly light and water in their various manifestations, including sunrise and sunset, candlelight, firelight and moonlight, the ocean, the forest and meadows. A meadow can be evoked through soft textures and materials that facilitate serenity and airiness, such as a grassy courtyard. However, even the right type of carpet, particularly if it has a curved edge, can be used in a lobby to create the soft feel of a meadow. At the Hotel Valencia Riverwalk in San Antonio, TX, guestroom corridors are lit using spotlights through perforated metal. This evokes the sense of dappled moonlight through trees. Obviously, one can use a lighted pond or fountain to create a water feature in a courtyard or lobby. At the Valencia Riverwalk, a grotto-like fountain splashes under the “grand” stair that takes guests up from the street-level lobby. Moving light from under the water in the fountain pool plays on the walls and the lobby's vaulted ceiling. Water also can be evoked through materials with sheen or reflectivity, such as polished stone, metal or mirrors.

Heroism is not only associated with war, but also with epic journeys and exploration. Think of Lewis and Clark, of panoramas of the prairie, mountaintop views of the forest, or the ocean. Certainly, a resort hotel with a sweeping view evokes this image. So does any element with a grand scale, such as a grand entrance stairway with landings; or a plaza or courtyard that is large without being intimidating. The Valencia Riverwalk's own vista comes from across the street, where a distinctive historic facade is visible upon guests' arrival at the reception desk. Additionally, the hotel incorporates vistas of the Riverwalk and picturesque buildings from the dining terraces. The effect is not to dwarf the viewer, but to make the viewer feel a little larger than life.


Providing opportunities for adventure should be part of the experience of romance. Consider “time travel.” Historical references — for example, classical columns or a figurative sculpture — allow guests to be transported back in time to a more romantic time. Rustic materials, such as stone, wood, leather or copper, create a similar opportunity even in a contemporary setting. The Valencia Riverwalk uses elegant materials such as marble, tile and glass, along with rustic (historic) ones such as brick, wood, concrete and leather. Thus, it transports its guests back through both the use of historic design elements — its style — and the contrast of modern and historic materials. The future can be evoked through the use of curved spaces, in which the floor blends seamlessly into built-in furniture and into the ceiling — especially when rendered in a single piece of molded synthetic material — with unnatural lighting.

Providing the opportunity to explore provides a sense of adventure. Imagine being “on the edge,” for example, walking along the edge of a mezzanine level overlooking a great lobby or the edge of a terrace overlooking a lively section of the city. Picture a ride in a glass elevator through an atrium lobby, or a walk through a “canyon” — a long, narrow space with a high ceiling pierced by daylight. Even providing guests with a nearby opportunity to ride public transportation, particularly if they don't normally ride a train or trolley, allows them to become explorers. Imagine the vitality of a light rail stop within a hotel lobby.

Mystery is closely related to adventure and exploration. Consider something as apparently simple as climbing a circular stairway that keeps its final destination from view, or a small back stairway, as in a Victorian home. A series of galleries, whose doorways offer just a glimpse of the next room, offers a similar experience, as do corners and shadows. Hidden courtyards and gardens are intriguing, as in the Valencia Riverwalk, where guests discover a courtyard as they move through the building. And who could resist going to a small window in a large wall to take a peek? Indeed, there are many opportunities in hotel design to appeal to people's innate curiosity.


Exotic places evoke a sense of adventure and mystery, as well; indeed, so does anything that gives the guest a sense of travel to a remote place. Some designers create literal experiences, such as the Tonga Room in the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, where a lake in the middle of a dining room is the scene of periodic rainstorms. The Rainforest Café, a tropical rain forest theme restaurant and retail environment, is another example. Of course, Disney invented and perfected the art of transporting guests to another time and place.

These very literal places work for many people. One can also take a more figurative approach, in which guests must rely more upon their imaginations to transport them. One way to create this sense architecturally is through pastiche: applying stylized architectural elements to a new building. This approach plays well in certain locations where it relates to place, say, a pastiche that evokes a relatively heavy, Mediterranean Renaissance architecture built out of masonry, such as the Valencia Riverwalk. But the same building would not fit in Dallas or Miami as well as it does in San Antonio.

Moreover, this type of building is not only artificial, it is also very expensive. The challenge is to design a modern, lightweight steel or concrete structure that evokes in guests' minds something older, more permanent and more solid. An effective solution is to use familiar architectural forms, such as an arch, column or circular opening, expressed in contemporary materials.

Romancing the hotel — using the language of architecture and design to evoke powerful images of romance and fantasy — offers guests the opportunity to escape their day-to-day lives if they have the wish, need or desire. The challenge is to create that opportunity without creating an insistent or intrusive environment, and without distracting from the basic design, purposes and services of a lodging facility. After all, we can't force guests to go through an Indiana Jones-style obstacle course to get to their rooms. Just think of the expense and insurance risk associated with stocking the elevator lobby with snakes.

James Suggs, AIA, is vice president at 3DI, and leader of the Hospitality Group for the design and project management firm. He can be reached at

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