The Evolution of Luxury; Design Leads the Way

By Barbara Best-Santos

There was a time when checking into a luxury hotel meant checking into a world of extravagance and opulence. Perception dictated that the more gilded the interior and the more that was offered, the more luxurious the experience. The luxury hotel experience after all has always been aspirational, designed to provide the guest with an experience they could not get anywhere else. Though that environment can and does still exists today, the luxury market has evolved and peeled back layers of lavish extravagance to create a new, modern definition of luxury that is keenly influenced by consumer trends, economic factors, technology, cultural influences and wellness.

Looking back, the summer of 2009 marked an era of change for the luxury market. Hotel occupancy rates nationwide hovered at 60 percent and revenue dropped by nearly 20 percent that same season. * In response, luxury markets in general seemed to adopt a more discreet and humble sensibility. There is now a more restrained attitude. These economic shifts have given birth to the lifestyle hotel movement that has seen a massive diversification of choices flooding the market with new independent hotels and boutique mini-brands authenticity, personalization and unique experiences reflected through design.

The evolving definition of “Luxury”

The luxury market aspires to offer spaces that no one else can replicate. As brands approach design projects, they need to tap into the heartbeat of what makes a guest feel extraordinarily special and deliver on that message. More specifically, brands need to ask: What do today’s guests aspire to experience? What can they NOT get in their everyday life, nor from other hotels?  What would they pay a bit more for? For many today, a luxurious moment would be defined by the time one can spend away from the frenzy of everyday life and the ability to seek out quiet places to recharge and strip away distractions. Infuse those capabilities into the right setting, with impeccable service, and you have the recipe for a perfectly luxurious escape.

The Technology Conundrum

Today, technology is intrinsic to every aspect of our lives – It’s almost akin to an addiction, the more we use it the more we need it and it’s really hard to let it go. And the speed with which advances are brought to market often brings challenges as well.  Hotels have traditionally had a hard time providing the basics to meet ever growing guest expectations and not overinvesting in soon-to-be-obsolete tech. With a luxury property, the bar is set even higher and the guest will expect everything that they have at home or work, and more.

How can design help meet this challenge? Luxury should mean having the best in available technology, make it completely accessible and easy to use and then make it all disappear when you need a time out…leaving a beautiful sanctuary in which to recharge personally rather than electronically.  A tall order for sure.  The trick is to design both options in one environment without falling victim to the age-old trap of failing to deliver because you’re trying to be everything for everyone.  

Cultural Influences and Heritage

The Fairmont Pittsburgh, PAThe story often goes that a guest wakes up in a hotel and the only thing that tells them where they are is the local context of the room art. Those days are gone for most high end hotels, but today’s savvy traveler is pressing for deeper and more meaningful connections during their stay. Though there has been a long tradition in the luxury segment of having grand hotels arise from some historic era or location with a strong tie to the property’s history, it is certainly more of a challenge with newer properties and those with less inspiring settings. There is an opportunity to dive into the story behind each project and understand the origins, location and personality so as to imbue every aspect of the property with elements that are consistent with, and referential to, a unique story. The opportunity to connect with the guest goes beyond the visual aspects of the built environment continuing through food and beverage offerings, educational experiences and staff engagement. In the successful luxury environment, the guest is truly transported through a one-of-a-kind journey that stays with them long after they leave, and ideally brings guests back.

Health, Wellness and Sustainability

Another major aspect of today’s lifestyle that is impacting hotels at all levels is the movement toward healthier living. With people focusing not just on exercise and nutrition, but on holistic wellbeing, it serves as a challenge to the luxury sector to up the ante. The baseline expectations of fitness and spa offerings are not enough and there have been tremendous advancements in the areas of healthier building and finish materials, an emphasis on indoor and outdoor connections, fitness opportunities outside of the traditional box, biophilia, spa-like guestrooms and of course food and beverage offerings. With everyone on the bandwagon, how does the luxury market offer even more?

It once again comes back to experiences that eclipse what we can get elsewhere. Creating a sanctuary of health that is seamlessly embedded in every aspect of the property. We are already seeing the idea of personalized health profiles that are used to curate a guest’s stay and beyond. There is an uptick in medical and wellness focused travel in the luxury sector. This holistic approach with the extension of services beyond check-in and check-out will be expanded. Understanding how this guest relationship communicates with the built environment is very important, especially for continuity in messaging and service delivery.

As they say, the only thing certain is change. Designing for the luxury market is both challenging and rewarding, as the bar is set precariously high in terms of delivering exceptional experiences, maintaining brand identity and meeting evolving guests’ needs. Having a keen understanding of all of these elements is essential to designing aspirational spaces that are positioned to provide sustained success for both branded and independent luxury properties.

* Resource. Hugo Martin, LA Times. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/oct/03/business/fi-hotels3

About the Author


Barbara Best-Santos is the San Francisco-based Hospitality Director for the Northwest region of Gensler, the global architecture and design firm. Joining Gensler in 2008 after having co-directed her own firm, Best Santos Studio, Barbara has achieved a distinguished career in interior design. Barbara specializes in boutique hotels, spas, and restaurants, as well as large-scale hotels and resorts. She has experience working on projects both in the U.S. and abroad, in locations such as China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Guam. www.gensler.com.