What Airbnb can teach us about relevant hotel design

An interview with David Tracz, principal and co-founder of //3877

David Tracz, AIA, LEED AP is partner at //3877, an architectural, design, interiors, and graphics firm specializing in residential, commercial, restaurant, and automotive architecture and design. With offices in Washington, DC and Cape Charles, Virginia, //3877 has completed projects throughout the Mid-Atlantic, New England, and New York. Prior to joining //3877, Tracz was a senior associate at OPX and one of the leaders in its hospitality studio.

David Tracz

He is often a guest juror at Catholic University of America in Washington, educating students in architecture and graphic presentation. He is also a leader for neighborhood pro-bono projects. Tracz holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Catholic University of America. He is currently on the board of the DC Chapter of the Network Of Executive Women In Hospitality.

How have hotels made themselves more than just places to stay, but instead destinations?

I think the overarching trend in today’s marketplace is to make hotels more and more unique in how they present themselves across the board. Hotel brands and operators are demonstrating this idea in brand offshoots they’ve founded in response to changing demographics and guest needs. Examples of this include the Moxy brand by Marriott and Canopy by Hilton. This same idea also comes through in the hotel properties that are showing up in upand- coming destinations like Detroit and Chattanooga. These new sub-brands harp on the desires of guests who want a unique stay that goes outside the box of the standard room and board model, a stay that affords them flexibility. Framed and ascertained through the incorporation of local details and distinctive design elements and features, these ideas project an identity all their own that create a destination for both travelers and locals. In doing this, the individuality of the brand is infused throughout the hotel, from the smell to the atmosphere it offers. This concept is now spreading to and encapsulates roadside hotels and slopeside resorts, where the hotel is a destination inside the destination.

How have hotels created value in connecting with their surroundings?

The smartest hoteliers fully evaluate the location in which they are developing their properties and insert themselves seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. The concept of the hotel, along with the features inside and outside of the location should feel like a part of the place where it resides. It should feel entirely natural, which comes from drawing on the defining elements of local business and hot spots. The concepts included in some case even pull from local restaurants. In ingraining themselves into the local community, and directly pulling inspiration from the source, they create a larger connection that not only brings the environment of the hotel in, but helps to define the hotel as a destination.

Authenticity is in the details 1
Authenticity is in the details 2

Are there methods for designing hotels to do this?

I think the key is to follow a process that allows the designers and other involved parties to understand the place, really delving into the space they are entering. Researching who lives there, what the environment is like, what are the demographics of the area, and truly getting a pulse on how these elements can interact with the hotel’s conception and the goals of the hotel’s guests. The same goes for understanding what is successful in that space and why, as well as what hasn’t succeeded; what projects have hit the target and why? It’s essentially a revised form of competitive analysis. Developing a process that envelops these questions to best understand and research these places then translate that research into a space is the key. When carefully pieced together, these details help to craft hotels that feel unique and mirror the desired vibe of the guest.

Is it effective?

I think it has been particularly effective when the translation between environment and hotel is correct. I’ve seen hotels that merely follow the right trends, the trends are “in.” Then, unfortunately, things go out of style quickly, and the properties lose their appeal. Instituting and following a comprehensive research plan solves this issue by providing the details needed to create timeless allure.

Are there certain elements that are unique to today’s hotel that make them competitive with Airbnb-like home rental services?

Certainly, hotels offer a certain familiarity and security, but they also offer human interaction, a concierge, a front desk, and they also offer fitness centers and meeting spaces, alongside food and beverage spaces that a home rental service just can’t provide. I think as time goes on, hotels can and will start to blend the headlining features allowed by home rental services into the amenities and service that they offer. I think this will be a turning point in the industry. When implemented, hotels will truly change and potentially even make themselves more of a destination.

What elements have hotels incorporated to remain competitive?

Hotels have begun to blend and integ rate more technological components into both their design and their overall service offerings. Examples run the gamut, but one of the most popular additions we’re seeing are branded phone applications that allow for guests to check-in prior to arriving and select their preferred room, amongst other a la carte offerings. It’s these elements that will that make hotels competitive within the Airbnb market, not to mention appealing to a younger customer base. By continuing to infuse technology into the hotel segment, hotel operations will also become easier to manage across the board, narrowing costs and making for competition between the two entities―home rental services and hotels―when it comes to price. The addition of experiences and services that generate a feeling of exclusivity, have also helped hotels remain competitive. This approach will only continue to gain in popularity as the growing demographic, millennials and the following generations, have demonstrated a keen eye and preference for experiential elements that can be captured through the lens of social media.

Authenticity is in the details 3
Authenticity is in the details 4

How are designers involved in the process?

Designers are involved in the whole process, especially in integrating details that reflect the goals of operator, guest, and community. I truly think designers need to be involved in this way, from start to finish of a project. Including designers in the process is essential to securing experiential elements that elevate the resulting hotel. Bringing a unique perspective to the table that is beyond that of design but also as potential guests and community partners, designers can help translate the needs of all parties into a formalized plan.

What experiential elements, services, and amenities are operators asking for in order to stay relevant?

In order to stay relevant, hotel operators are focusing on exclusive experiences that can only be accessed as a guest. Cooking classes, horseback riding, and other ventures are a few that come to mind, all with a connection to local vendors that, again, emphasize to guests that they have come to a destination, not just a hotel. Unique room types that feature multiple beds or creative setups have added appeal. Rooftop bars and added food and beverage areas create additional, exclusive spaces that differentiate hotels from their competitors. The idea of creating a custom space also fits into this narrative and is commonly asked of us. We are also commonly asked to provide guests with multiple spaces or zones in order to accommodate a range of guest activities. These spaces may include a place to draft a quick email or have a nice chat with other guests or friends. To secure these spaces, we have found the need to provide hidden spaces that can be “found” by guests, again making sure the guest has a special experience.

How, as a designer, are you planning for these asks?

While we spend a lot of time working on the functional aspects of the space and the flow, we also spend time giving spaces a larger identity that fits within the larger story the hotel is a part of. To be successful in this task, we’ve spent a significant amount of time developing a process for reviewing and understanding the client’s needs. We need to understand how the client would like the brand to be perceived by their guests. This process also accounts for getting to know the atmosphere surrounding the project location, by extracting and connecting the essence of the place. Devising a plan that captures the answers to “how,” “why,” and “when,” is critical to the success of the project and is something //3877 pays careful attention to on every project we take on.

What serves to differentiate hotels and Airbnb/home-rental services?

Inherently, hotels offer a wider ranging and more personal experience. However, home rental services offer everything on a smaller scale, and play to guests independence and desire for an experience more consistent with their day-to-day lives. This is reflected in what is commonly offered in home rental services, especially those that rent out the entire property. Personal living areas and dedicated spaces grant guests an ability to relax in a more secluded environment. Spaces that play to this idea are more than possible with hotels and can be achieved in several ways, including individual guest houses and largescale suites. In the long run, hotels have more services to offer guests, which is particularly attractive to both the business traveler and the vacationer. If hotels add varying room types that offer some level of combined living and sleeping spaces, they can better entice customers who have selected and enjoyed the benefits of home rental services. Hotels can start to gain back any market share they’ve lost to this form of competitor.

Is design at the core of this?

Design is most definitely at the core of this. The design is the differentiator, and designers are the force that is developing the rooms and hotels of the future. Design, for hotels, has shifted to accommodate guests and offer what home rental services fail to provide. Designers will play an in-depth role in organizing and integrating more than just functional requirements, but also pulling in details essential to creating a unique experience.

By Ashley Atkins