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From the Design Quarterly: Hospitality design in the digital era. How “smart” is smart?

June 29, 2020

By Duk Kim

Hospitality design should accommodate travelers’ use of technology without losing sight of the overall experience

The way travelers use technology is changing the hospitality industry. Apps for discount booking, Airbnb services, and in-room tech have already upended the business. Digital tech continues to present us with design challenges.

As designers, we look at the ways our design for hospitality can accommodate technological evolution intelligently to bring value to the guest and our client. These are some of the digital trends and challenges I see impacting the hospitality industry right now.


Let’s talk basics. How are people of the future going to check into and unlock their rooms? Very few hotels use a real key anymore. They’re in the process of getting rid of the magnetic strips, that’s old technology—the new key is an RFID card.

And the next big advancement is a digital key on your smartphone. But a basic question arises: What works for most people? A smartphone “key” will work for many, but there’s going to be a contingent who may not be able to figure out how to use it. We must strike a balance between innovation and ease of use.

Hotel Zachary in Chicago, Illinois.

Universal configurations

It wasn’t too long ago when many hotels thought it would be great to have iHome charger/audio devices in guest rooms. And it wasn’t so long after they invested in these devices that Apple changed the charger on its iPhones, rendering the iHomes quickly obsolete.

Naturally, hoteliers must stay on top of these tech compatibility details now more than ever. Should they now adapt to Apple’s current lightning charger? Not so fast. The European Union is demanding a universal configuration from Apple that would push lightning out. And what about Android phone users?

I see more hotels embracing Bluetooth connectivity, a nearly universal feature in smartphones. They must, however, do this in a dummy-proof way. And it doesn’t enable charging. Smartphone room compatibility might sound mundane, but these choices about technology add up to the guest experience. And for large hotels, they’re a significant investment. Hotels must opt for the easy and instinctual over the complex whenever they can to make the most from digital tech.

Streaming with ease

By now many of us are used to streaming our favorite programs whenever we like at home, on our laptops, or via smart devices. And some hotels tout the ability to watch our streams on their flat screens, but if it’s too difficult to “cast” our programs, this can lead to frustration. After all, we’re traveling, we want to relax, we don’t want to click through menus. Hospitality providers that can create more seamless streaming experience for technology travelers use will have an advantage.

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Citizen M Hotel in New York, New York. (Architect: Stephen B. Jacobs Group)


The ability to hail a car with a smartphone app empowers travelers, but it poses significant challenges for large hotels. With a 150-key hotel, accommodating rideshare traffic at the entrance might not be a big deal. But at the 5,000-room hotels you find in Las Vegas and with convention centers, it is a big deal. How are those rideshare users getting picked up? Where and how do they queue? One solution we’ve seen is the creation of rideshare pick-up locations away from the front of the property.

But that’s where the details matter. Today’s cars are bigger. Rideshare vehicles are often SUVs, not cab-sized sedans. And hotels are often adapting areas for rideshare pick-up that were not meant for that kind of vehicular traffic or any pick-up and drop-off at all. Many use planters to create barriers between pick-up and pedestrian areas. Imagine rideshare vehicles entering these unfamiliar areas with an SUV’s limited visibility? Predictably, they back over planters and we get gridlock. These are unintended consequences of ad-hoc adaptations to technology and hospitality. We’re being asked to create innovative and smart solutions for rideshare at both new and existing hotels.

The minute you start putting up a sign that says “take a photo here” or “Instagram moment here,” you turn a portion of your property into a theme park.

The Instagrammable moment

In hospitality design, there is such a thing as being too on trend. Take the Instagrammable moment for instance. The minute you start putting up a sign that says “take a photo here” or “Instagram moment here,” you turn a portion of your property into a theme park. I understand that there may be certain times, particularly in restaurants or entertainment venues, where you want to be cute, you want to be funny. That’s great. But you’ll achieve a higher level of sophistication and refinement in letting these moments occur naturally as opposed to forcing the issue.

There’s a trend toward using large-scale graphics and street art-inspired murals or enlarged photographs as wall covering and for parts of feature walls. That’s exciting and those can become Instagrammable moments themselves. There are opportunities to create moments that are photographable, memorable without being so obvious.

In my team’s design process, we walk through the entire hotel experience from guest drop-off to room entry, we visit the fitness center and experience the bar and the dining room. We identify how people go through the natural progression of the spaces and we look to create genuine moments.

We trace our path through every possible moment in time in that hotel. And we identify which of those could be peak moments or interesting discoveries along the path. We think about design from a long-term experiential point of view. From our perspective, there’s a chance to have fun with transition or utility spaces. We can create “Aha moments” in the spots where you least expect them.

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Aloft Hotel South Beach in Miami, Florida.

Tech overload, tech fatigue

But are some hotels going too far with technology? Perhaps. It’s wise to consider that the guests are likely using the room for the first time. Is it intuitive for them to figure out how to turn off the automated lights that switched on when they entered? Some high-end hotels have a glass partition between the bathtub and to the rest of the guest room and with the flick of a switch an electric charge makes it completely opaque or transparent. That’s a cool experience, unless of course, you don’t know how it works or know where to find the switch.

The same can be said for hotels that experiment with tablet-controlled functions. Theoretically, guests can control their flat-screen TV, the room lighting, window shades, set alarms, and order room service all from a dedicated tablet device. That’s great for the tech savvy, but who might be left out or confused? Hospitality design will be more successful when it allows for guests to use their personal technology as seamlessly as possible without forcing visitors to adopt a new app, password, or device that they didn’t bargain for when they booked. While technology and how we use it will continue to influence hospitality, we should continue to evaluate the experience from the traveler’s point of view, not just a smartphone lens. 

Look for a follow-up blog on how the pandemic has changed hospitality.

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  • Duk Kim

    As a senior principal and hospitality market leader, Duk is an accomplished designer, leader, and teacher of hospitality experiences.

    Contact Duk
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