Unboxing the Hotel Room — Photo by Six Senses

That moment when your guest first opens the door to her guest room post check-in might seem routine, but is it?

I wondered whether it could be considered a form of “unboxing” or what Steve Jobs called the experience of packaging as theater.

If you've ever bought an iPhone, you're familiar with the satisfaction of unpacking it. The weight, design, and feel of the box, the pull of the cover, the soft sound as it opens, and the reveal of the new iPhone - it's a ritual. Jobs was so invested in his packaging that he even patented the iPhone box design.

Jony Ive, Apple’s former head designer has written, “Steve and I spent a lot of time on packaging. I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater.”

Why did Jobs care so much about the unboxing experience? Because he understood that customers would form an opinion about the product based on the quality of the packaging. Crappy packaging would signal a crappy product, no matter how good the product was.

Thinking about this recently, I wondered, hmm, could this idea transfer to the hospitality industry, can you “unbox” your hotel room by bringing a bit of theater to the initial reveal?

Friction and Drag

Opening an iPhone box is incredibly gratifying. The design team at Apple spends months working with different materials, testing factors like friction and drag to make sure the feel in the hand is just right.

If we look at friction and drag when it comes to that first moment when your guest walks into her room, what is the weight of your door? How easy or hard is it to open? Does it swing easily or get stuck?

I’ve stayed in hotels where the weight of the door was so heavy that I had to shoulder my way into the room. Other doors were so lightweight that it signaled to me that the hotel was also “lightweight”, and not of great quality.

Great hotels follow this line of thinking intuitively with their choice of quality materials but if you can’t afford that heavy oak, are there other ways you can play with the materials you are using to trick the senses to generate the right perception of weight and quality?

The Sounds

If it’s been a while since you’re newest iPhone, you may not remember that there’s a kind of whoosh that’s released when you open the box. That is not accidental. They built air pockets into the design of the box so that a specific sound was generated.

Similarly, Ford Motors, when designing a new electric SUV, realized the motor was too quiet. They knew people would miss the sound of an engine revving as drivers sped up so they designed the sound and built it into the car.

The way Apple understands what its customers want from the unboxing experience, Ford also got inside the heads of its drivers and delivered on important expectations.

How much do you understand what your guest wants from this important moment? Have you designed it with intention?

What sound does your door make when the key card works? Is it just the click of the door unlocking? Would a different sound create more of a luxurious experience? Is there something you can add to your door-opening experience to make it more satisfying to your guests or even exceed their expectations?

The Pay-off

So you’ve gently pulled the top off the iPhone box and voila, your beautiful new phone is revealed. That moment is the money shot.

Similarly, what is the first thing your guest sees when she opens the door to her room? Over the years, I’ve stayed in rooms where the immediate view was unfortunate, ie a short hallway with a bathroom door ajar. Or a room with curtains drawn, dark and depressing.

If the door faces a window, are the curtains open? Is there a colorful snack or welcome drink prominently displayed on a table that will immediately catch my eye? When you design the space, how are you directing my attention? Is there something you can add to bring some light, color, or delight to the scene?

Last year, I worked on a menopause retreat with Stacy London, and in her brilliance, she curated not just a gift bag for program participants but an entire gift room. When the participant entered her room for the first time, she was blown away by the sheer volume of hand-picked and very cool gifts and products from top menopause brands that were laid out - on the bed, on the bedside tables, on the bathroom counter, in the closet, in the mini-fridge. Participants said this was one of the best elements of the retreat, in part because of how it so exceeded their expectations for that moment. They were just expecting a room.

Lessons Learned

So what do you think? Useful at all or too much of a stretch? For me, the inquiry was useful because it made me look at this moment through a different lens. It’s an example of what Design Thinking calls analogous inspiration where you look for inspiration in different contexts.

Comparing hotel room doors to iPhone packaging may be a bit of a stretch. We only unbox an iPhone once, while we open guest room doors multiple times per day. However, there's no second chance at making a first impression of a room and it’s key because this impression can set the tone for the entire stay.

How do you elevate this moment from a merely transactional experience to a transformational one?