The secret to creating a winning hospitality concept — Photo by Creative Supply

As a hotelier, restaurant owner, or hotel group executive, you may be involved in the launch, opening or reopening of one or several properties. Along the way, you’re making important investment decisions for projects that will open several years down the line. This leads to many questions:

How do you ensure that your concept will still be relevant in the future? How to pick the right interior designer? How do you get media coverage when opening the doors?

It is exactly these questions that my team and I must answer when we work on the creation of new hospitality concepts. These questions are also at the heart of the flagship 3-day executive course I run at EHL (Singapore and Lausanne campuses). Recently, I was asked by one of my course participants what the secrets of a great hospitality concept are. Every project is different, of course, but in my experience, one principle remains true regardless: Sticking to the concept will take you a long way.

The limitations of interior design

Many hotels and restaurants start their renovation or greenfield projects by hiring an interior designer. This is a mistake.

By starting your hospitality concept process with interior design, you are not doing yourself a favour, because:

  • Interior design can (and will) be copied by your competitors.
  • Interior design will generate media interest upon opening, but will quickly fade out in favour of the next new thing.
  • Adding physical features to your property is not a sustainable way to differentiate yourself: In fact, over-engineering features can eventually lead to confusion rather than improve the guest experience. Ever had difficulty switching off the lights in your hotel room? 🙂
  • Interior designers are mainly concerned with space design, less so with customer segments, positioning and marketability, or operational integrity.

In short, by starting with interior design, you risk having a beautiful place that lacks substance and intention. A couple of years ago, I was brought on board late on a Parisian hotel project. Most of the interior design was done already. It was gorgeous. But it was also too chic for the target market and felt out of sync with the local environment. The interior designers had just designed something “that looked good” without considering the positioning of the place, its clients, or even the competition. To be fair, it was not entirely their fault as the only brief they received was: “design our hotel please”.

So, how can you make sure your project looks good but also makes sense? The secret is to start your project with a story, not with design.

The secret is to start your project with a story, not with design.

What’s your story?

A story defines your project’s role as well as its aspirations. In other words, your story conveys why customers should visit you, beyond just getting a room or a meal. Having a good story presents a number of clear advantages:

  • A story lasts virtually forever and can evolve
  • A story is hard to copy and can increase awareness around your property
  • A story is inexpensive to create, in relation to the overall cost of building or renovating a hotel
  • A story can trigger an emotional response and decrease price sensitivity
  • A story is engaging and gives journalists a reason to follow you over the years

Download our Brand Storytelling Handbook

Your story should consider the hotel’s customer segments, staff and management, as well as its location and infrastructure. For instance, centering a story around avant-garde street art would not be consistent with an airport hotel run by conservative founders.

Themes vs. stories

It’s important not to confuse theme and story. Themed hotels try to recreate a set universe (mainly through design), but few of them take the time to work on their story. A champagne-themed or sailing-themed hotel might appeal to some one-time guests, but how often would you want to visit ? A good story does not have to be literal, but it must be engaging. Over time and with the passage of guests, it ripens and evolves.

Look at successful hospitality concepts around you, they always tell a story that goes beyond brick-and-mortar.

  • Flash Coffee: Democratising speciality coffee
  • CitizenM: Affordable luxury for global citizens
  • The Hoxton: Open houses inspired by local communities
  • Ryse Seoul: Home to the creative globe-trotting community
  • Soho House: A members-only social club for all creative souls

Ask yourself: “If my hotel or restaurant didn’t have rooms or tables, what would my concept stand for?” If you don’t have an answer to this question, your customers will not see more than your products and services either…

So, how can you create a story that is truly unique?

Find what Google doesn’t know

Your competitors have the same market reports, work with the same interior designers, and search for the same information online. If you want to create something truly original, you must have different input. In other words, you must look for information not readily available. To do that, go out in the streets and find what Google doesn’t know. Look around you — how are people dressed? Do they have dogs? Do they eat outside? The list goes on.

Locals and archives

Speak to the locals to get a real sense of the place and, if possible, visit the archives of your destinations to unearth anecdotes and forgotten facts. In one of our resort hotel projects in Switzerland, we found a goldmine of information about the history of the hotel, from old memorabilia to vintage advertising. In one pamphlet from the 80s, the hotel was advertised as “a cruise without leaving the shore” — that’s a whole story right here.

Playing to your strengths

Combining your findings into a meaningful, memorable and timeless story is a creative exercise. As a rule of thumb, you want to find something that uses your strengths and also something that provides what your customers want and what your competitors don’t have. You want to give “an active role” to your place, a role that goes beyond “welcoming people”. Here are more examples of storytelling we developed for several hospitality concepts:

This story-led approach has allowed my clients to get countless (free) media coverage, from the likes of The Telegraph, Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal, Monocle, and many more.

Rolling out your story

When you have your story, the fundamental strategic work is done. The story becomes the brief for the interior designer, for the brand identity, and for every aspect of the customer experience (see table). It serves as a golden thread throughout the development of your project. The key here is to continuously check whether each component of your hotel concept is aligned with your story. Easy to say but hard to do in practice, as many people with different agendas are involved in such projects.

The Hospitality Concept Framework Component Description

The secret to creating a winning hospitality concept— Source: Creative Supply
The secret to creating a winning hospitality concept— Source: Creative Supply

Your story will also become the “internal decision yardstick” in case of disagreement. On the customer side, a strong story will serve as “a rallying point” for your community. And, maybe most importantly, it will fuel the growth of your business. Take Cipriani, a brand that started with a little bar in Venice with the vision to provide “luxury hospitality in simplicity”. Today, Cipriani is a global hospitality leader running restaurants, hotels, member clubs, grocery subscriptions, catering services and a food e-shop.

Their story, though, has never changed.

Please get in touch if you have created a story-led hospitality concept. It would be a pleasure to feature you in future articles or teaching material.

Youri Sawerschel
Creative Supply

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