Upscale Resort Design Today

Two design strategies drive the upscale resort market. One aims to create an exclusive resort, while the other seeks to build a world of unique experiences.

An exclusive resort is one that separates itself from the competition in terms of quality and rewards patrons with services and leisure experiences that are special, unexpected, and beyond what vacation guests typically expect.

An experiential resort transports patrons to a synthetic, yet convincing world filled with consistent, related experiences: experiential resorts are not real, but the attention paid to the smallest details of architecture, landscaping, staffing and other design components goes a long way toward creating an impression of authenticity. A husband and wife who fear taking the kids on an African safari might find a safari-themed resort in the U.S. to be a reasonable substitute, thanks to the authenticity of the details.


The design of the Temenos St. Regis Resort communicates exclusivity long before guests reach the property. In this Caribbean island resort, arriving guests drive along a winding road, through a Greg Norman-designed golf course and past elegant villas and estate homes. The landscape, carefully chosen and manipulated, serves to build anticipation.

As one approaches the main building, design techniques related to scale become apparent. An exclusive resort is not a conventional recreational destination where a large hotel dominates the landscape.

At the Temenos St. Regis, arriving guests drive into a courtyard enclosed by a U-shaped central facility called the Manor. They catch a first glimpse of the shoreline, with the island of St. Martin visible across the water. Inside is the ocean-view restaurant, a luxury spa and a comfortably furnished lounge area. The modestly scaled manor aims to welcome and relax guests, but not to overwhelm them.

Unlike in traditional hotel lobbies, there is no conventional front desk where arriving guests form a queue and present credit cards. Instead, guests are received as if they have arrived at the home of a friend. The architecture of the manor includes a water garden fitted with comfortable furnishings where guests can sit and relax. The staff, informed ahead of time as to the identity and arrival time of each guest, has already handled the administrative work. Their job now is to welcome guests, deliver any documents that need signatures, escort guests to their lodgings, and answer questions about services and amenities.

In short, the design of an exclusive resort controls the environment so that arriving guests experience only the resort and nothing related to the support work being carried out in the background.

The Temenos St. Regis design includes a choice of hotel suites, condominiums and family residences, all housed in modestly scaled structures of roughly equivalent size. There is an intentional effort to avoid compartmentalization of the resort by unit and usage type. While the consistent scale and understated architecture blur the lines between the different accommodations, the interiors offer elegant and luxurious furnishings and décor.

The experience of an exclusive resort is not about architecture. Instead, the architecture reinforces the exclusivity and creates a pleasant backdrop. In this St. Regis, the architecture is derived from styles found in the Greek Isles: whitewashed geometric one- and two-story buildings form rows that spill down to the sea. Outdoor terraces and roof gardens complete the architectural look, while site orientations present carefully crafted views.

Many housing units have unusual outdoor showers designed as walled-in terraces with no ceilings. While showering, guests can enjoy the sky above, yet remain shielded from view. Such design flourishes reinforce the exclusivity of the resort.

In the end, the design of the Temenos St. Regis isolates guests from the surrounding world. Once on the property, the design eliminates virtually every hint of abutting properties, while controlling the landscaping and sight lines in ways that wrap the exclusive environment around guests, preventing any intrusion that might break the spell.


The design concept of an experiential resort aspires to some of the same goals as an exclusive resort. For example, the design of both exclusive and experiential resorts aims to mask the everyday world — to make it invisible through a nearly obsessive focus on what guests see, hear, smell, taste, touch and imagine as they interact with the resort.

But if an exclusive resort provides guests with a setting that offers the absolute best of the world in which guests live, an experiential resort introduces guests to a romanticized version of an entirely different world.

An experiential resort might, for example, create an exotic African savanna populated with native animals; an alluring Scottish links golf course along the seashore; a raw and rollicking 19th-century American West experience transplanted to the Far East.

The design of an experiential resort begins and ends with the appearance of complete authenticity. An African savanna has a certain character that grows out of the climate, plant life and wild life. A designer must create an illusion that evokes the spirit of the real experience, something powerful enough to encourage guests to suspend disbelief. Compromise, and the property will never cast that sort of spell.

And there are many details. What part of Africa has this resort set out to imitate? What regulatory issues must be resolved to import plant and wildlife for this purpose? How will the regulations be satisfied without intruding upon the authenticity of the experience?

What kind of landscape typifies a Scottish golf links? What is the character of the clubhouse? Does the restaurant serve authentic Scottish cuisine?

What is the nature of the streetscape in a classic western town? How did the people who lived in those towns dress? How is the rustic character of the Old West expressed while providing accommodations and amenities appropriate for an upscale resort?

To get the details right, designers carry out many hours of research to ensure the authentic look of their creation. Research enables them to reproduce the right landscaping, to imitate materials when the real materials do not meet modern codes, and to invisibly manage imported wildlife. All in all, an experiential resort is a carefully calculated work of imagination.

Consider the resort community of Water Sound on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Designed and built by the St. Joe Company, Water Sound is reminiscent of a quiet New England seaside village. While not a literal copy of the New England model, an architectural vocabulary was developed that included weather-beaten shingle-clad houses trimmed in white, pedestrian boardwalks leading to the sea, and small gardens bordered by picket fences. While capturing the spirit of the original, the design also adapted to Florida's tropical climate.

In a sense, Water Sound is the Nantucket that New England's seafarers might have built had they landed on the coast of Florida.

Still, resorts that recreate an experience or focus on exclusivity share a number of design traits. In either case, the designer must commit to a holistic view of an experience that is all-encompassing, from the architecture of the buildings to the necessary behind-the-scenes facilities: kitchens, the central plant, the laundry and the land-hungry parking lots.

In creating successful experiential and exclusive resorts, designers begin thinking about the experience of the first guest years before he or she sets foot on the property. What does that mean? Perhaps a Nantucket village resort in Florida is designed to have an aged, weathered character reminiscent of a New England fishing village. Perhaps an exclusive resort in the Caribbean will begin construction with the landscaping in order to give the plantings time to mature before guests arrive. In both cases, it is the details that allow a guest to suspend disbelief and partake fully in what the resort has to offer.

Ryan Eshelman is a senior design architect with GSB, focused on the planning and design of resort hotels, condominiums and entertainment facilities. For more information about GSB, visit or contact Eshelman at

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