Don't rest on success


In recent years, there’s been a growing emphasis on hotel design. Just look around or watch the newswire…100 million and even billion dollar projects are now commonplace. Need some hotel eye candy? Just hang out in Orlando, Las Vegas or Dubai. You’ll get your fix.

But, it’s not just happening at the mega project level. I’ve seen this trend emerging at all price points…from B&B’s to convention centers.

So, why is this happening? A couple of reasons…a proliferation of wealth, and the desire to get attention.

Hotel developers are reacting to the same dynamic shift we’ve experienced with just about everything we buy…more and more choices. And, as seen in other industries, the knee jerk is to spend more on physical attributes and their marketing to secure diminishing attention from prospective guests. The new order…build it bigger, with more flash, bells and whistles, and you’ll get more customers…and make more money. And, as long as there’s money available and a romance with the finer things, this trend is likely to continue.

Here’s the problem…design gets attention. But, it’s not likely to keep it. People will go once, maybe twice to see something spectacular. But, that’s it. If there’s not more to the story, they’re not likely to come back, or more importantly, tell someone else about their experience. So, once the economic cycle turns, and it always does, that investment in the “icing” no longer pays dividends…unless you can afford to change it, and change it often.

How many times have you been to the Grand Canyon? To the Empire State Building? To Hoover dam?

Now, how many times have you been to your favorite restaurant?

Bear with me, here’s a quick story to illustrate my point further…

Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina is where you find America’s largest private home…a remarkable palace built by George Vanderbilt in 1895. It’s a remarkable example of design and architecture. Biltmore is blessed with annual visitation in the neighborhood of about a million people…not too shabby. However, ever since the place was opened to the public some 30 or 40 years ago, the folks at Biltmore have been plagued with a problem…how to get people to come back. I mean, once you’ve seen the big house…you’ve seen it. So, here’s what the smart folks at Biltmore did…every few years they change…the design and the story. They open a new room at the main house, add a winery, a restaurant or an outdoor center to get attention. And, they change the experience with a new story…a new story about the Vanderbilt way of life. This approach did two things. It allowed them to build a “club” of loyal customers who would gladly spread the word to others. And, it reduced the average return visit to once every three to five years. That’s certainly better than once, or twice in a lifetime.

Then, they did another remarkable thing, they built a hotel…on the estate. Yes, the design was superb and harmonious with the existing experience. But, more importantly, its success was the result of the care you received and the story you could tell your friends…”I was a guest of the Vanderbilts”. During the first year of operation, we had droves of people who returned at least once and some who came back even more often. One couple stayed with us five times…the first year!

Design is a significant part of any hospitality experience. It starts the emotional juices flowing…resulting in either a resounding “I want to go there”, or a disappointing “lets pass”. Beyond that, it should complement and reinforce the rest of the story, and the way people feel when they leave.

So, if you’re going to hang your hat only on design, either on purpose (like the new Palazzo Versace) or by default, you better have the means to make frequent changes…and make that frequency the reason to come, much like the Bellagio does with new attractions like the holiday Cranberry Bog. If you aren’t committed to changing it up every so often, the Wow factor gets old…especially when you’re your neighbor adds more lights.