7 elements to create themed narratives in a hotel

How Margaritavilles experiential design narrates a story to the guests

The acceleration of accessible technology has enabled the global consumer to evolve from brand affinity to brand fanaticism with a hunger for social credibility. Our inherent human dependence on storytelling has leveraged technology, travel, consumerism, and accessibility into the era of “Brand Immersion” and new definitions of traditional consumer categories. Apple products, particularly the iPhone, have risen to the top of the coveted luxury brand rankings in China for both men and women, rising above such traditional upscale brands as Louis Vuitton and Rolex. Apple has transcended from a traditional technology brand to a luxury category, and continues to evolve into a lifestyle brand as an expanding consumer base wants to immerse themselves in “the story.”

As technology enables consumers to communicate, socialize, and establish a relationship with their favorite brands, the emotional connection becomes stronger and longer-lasting. The desire and ability to make that relationship a reality has created the new market of themed brands and encompasses every consumer category in existence.

Experiential design image1

Our physical world reflects the permeation of the themed consumer with a blending of entertainment, dining, retail, travel, and lodging into innovations in experiential design and new consumer industries. This continued desire for total immersion has created a demand for environments that envelop the consumer in their cherished brands, particularly lodging, boutique hotels, and all-inclusive themed resorts.

Blew out my flip-flop

Stepped on a pop-top

Margaritaville has a rich and compelling story—it’s not a specific location, it’s not just a resort or restaurant, and it’s definitely not just a song. Margaritaville is often referred to as a “state of mind.” While that may seem poetic, it poses a huge challenge for the hospitality industry: How do you capture a state of mind as an environmental experience? The answer can be found in the fundamentals of the creative process—capture the brand essence of Margaritaville in experiential elements that support the “big story.”

Experiential Design image2

You probably know this story by heart. Jimmy Buffett's most famous song is an anthem to a relaxed and carefree lifestyle. The four-minute “Margaritaville,” with just 208 words in its lyrics, is the foundation for a massive empire of restaurants, casinos, resorts, products, and events. The song instantly takes you away to a life free from reality—a beach-front, laid-back lifestyle that people dream about. Easy to say, hard to build! How does a designer convey the essence of a song into an experience? The easiest way to start is to condense the overall consumer intent of a brand into a single word.


Image courtesy of Wyndham St. Thomas.


The global consumer wants to escape. Escape from everyday life, escape from the things that weigh us down, escape from the mundane. As a former executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, I constantly reminded our designers that we were forever creating “suspension of disbelief,” an immersive state of mind where doubt and worry were replaced with wonder and delight. The same philosophy applies to creating the Margaritaville experience—a complex blend of space, color, texture, sound, and iconography that captures the spirit of the original song.

The Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort is a wonderful example of a new boutique hotel catering to consumers who want to immerse themselves in a lifestyle created from a beloved brand. “For over 15 years, we’ve partnered with Margaritaville to conceptualize and design restaurants, hotels, and casinos that give guests the opportunity to escape from the pressures of everyday life and experience the laid-back lifestyle of Jimmy Buffett first hand,” says Pat McBride, CEO of the McBride Company. “Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort explores the elements of the Margaritaville brand in a new light, demonstrating that it can be costal-luxe and sophisticated, while still being a lot of fun!”

We will continue to see a trend in the condensation of traditional consumer categories into blended industries that target and cater to a niche market.

One of the most frequent questions asked of an architect is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Surprisingly, the actual design process is only a part of the job of an architect and designer—the design process is an elaborate orchestration of brand essence, function, budget, and purpose, all carefully crafted to bring the elements of a successful project together. Architects manipulate space and art together to create an environment that speaks to a story—you might say the same way a composer blends instruments and melody together to create a musical composition. Every song has a story, as does every architectural project—a story that you experience with all five senses!

So how do designers actually bring an idea, a song, the concept of “escapism,” to reality? They do it through the careful manipulation of space and sensory elements—in essence, they create this experience through the blending of elements into a final “story.” The chapters of that story combine to tell the tale of Margaritaville, beginning with, of course, the introduction—the arrival into the space. Key elements, or chapters, continue to tell a tale and blend together to create the complete branded experience. The main chapters in this famous story focus on the designer’s toolkit—key design elements crafted to convey emotion and experience.



Experiential design image4

The voluminous use of space in lobby design and communal areas is important in conveying the sense of a tropical beach paradise. It is offset by the transition into smaller, more intimate spaces, constantly surprising guests through the transition and interplay of different environmental experiences.


Experiential design image3

Texture is a key element of the Margaritaville experience. The use of natural and tropical materials, both tactile and implied, reinforce the escapism of the beach and the visual continuation of the brand. The interplay of texture with a variety of materials adds a rich tactile storytelling element including fabrics, surfaces, flooring, and wall coverings.


Experiential design image5

Color is one of the most essential elements to any brand—a visual identity cue that instantly associates an experience with an identity. As you can imagine, Margaritaville draws its identity from a rich tapestry of color. Everything from the cool blues of a tropical paradise to the vibrant and powerful colors of a “Parrot head” are combined to create the signature Jimmy Buffet look and feel.


Surprisingly, it’s not a simple matter of playing “Margaritaville” on an endless loop that creates the ambience of the brand. It’s a combination of music, nature sounds, ambient music, and silence that are carefully combined to create emotion, excitement, relaxation, and storytelling. You may not consciously realize it, but the sounds you hear impact your mood, your sense of adventure, and sometimes even your appetite!


Signature décor is always a key element to bringing a branded experience to life. Part of the design process includes the customization of props, furnishings, light fixtures, casework, and signature icons that reinforce and create memorable moments that last a lifetime. The showpiece of the Hollywood Beach resort, for example, is a 14-foot-tall flip-flop, complete with the infamous pop-top. It’s a favorite photo-op for guests, and even creates waiting lines of people anxious to capture the moment.

Experiential design image6


Our humanity, love, and imagination are captured and conveyed through art. Our designers leverage a diversity of talent, both locally and internationally, to customize art programs and visual stories that continue the Margaritaville story. Lyrics, art interpretations, photography, and sculpture extend throughout both public spaces as well as guest rooms—always reinforcing the mindset of escapism.


Amenities are not just used for comfort or service—they are used by the designer as vehicles to convey emotion and experience. From the highest of fine restaurants to the basic coffee shop, designers layer multiple stories, branded names, graphic design, and visual diversity into each dining location. Upscale amenities, such as a spa or pool, are the perfect way to create actual environments akin to the ultimate beach experience—complete with a frozen blender of your favorite beverage.

These are a few of the many visual and experiential ways that a designer conveys the story of an experience. In a world of increased expectations for design intelligence, it becomes even more important to add both identity and brand recognition in architectural design. It doesn’t matter if the venue is a restaurant, resort, casino, or hotel, the Margaritaville experience is created through the intentional manipulation of the senses—both physically and mentally. Maybe that’s why Margaritaville is called a “state of mind” after all.

We will continue to see a trend in the condensation of traditional consumer categories into blended industries that target and cater to a niche market. Retail, for example, has devolved into a volatile industry impacted by almost overnight changes in consumer loyalty and magnetism. Will lifestyle brands continue to drive experiential industries and consumer growth? Based on the trends in all industries, the answer is a definite yes.

About the Author

Johnnie Rush, chief innovation officer at The McBride Company.

Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy of Eileen Escarda Photography.