Understanding the hotel landscape
Getting the hotel exterior right is tricky but key to the overall visitor impression, says Green Concepts principal Geoff Sanderson.
Visiting a hotel is about experiencing positive emotions, especially comfort and good food. Positive emotions are partly derived from welcoming, courteous and caring staff and partly derived from a sense of being in a special place.
It is this sense of specialness that we expect from a hotel and yet few get it right. Apart from the obvious room comfort, a sense of wellbeing must be the other most sought after experience for a hotel guest.
The senses that seek wellbeing and "specialness" begin working at the entrance from the street; they follow your progress to the lobby, the reception and continue on through every corner of the hotel.
This sensory information is committed to memory and is used to compare each and every hotel experience. The exterior of the hotel is as important as the interior.
There is no point having a stunning entry lobby if the process of reaching the interior takes you through a landscape of black and yellow striped kerbs, crooked and dirty signs, paint peeling from the entrance gates, lamps covered in dust, unhealthy, uncared for plants, and gardeners' tools conveniently tucked behind an open gate in view of hotel patrons.
Well before the 'don't care' maintenance is the 'don't care' design, the design that is preoccupied with the building and treats the landscape spaces as decoration, filling the bits left over with non-descript plants, and strips of shrubs around mown grass.
This is not landscape. Landscape is the whole external space of the hotel and includes the external appearance of the building itself.
The entry drive, the carparks, the arrival apron, the signs and the front gate are all part of landscape. The pools, sports facilities, lawns, furnishing, lighting and garden planting are also part of landscape.
Hotel design needs to evolve holistically in the hands of a design team that includes the landscape architects, architects, interior designers, hotel management and engineers.
From day one, the team would be jointly responsible for siting the building, determining the appearance of the building, the approach to the entry, the relationship of swimming pools and beach, garden, sports facilities, outdoor eating and function spaces.
As landscape architects we are too often presented with an architect's concept sketches showing a clear need for planting to be a part of the hotel character and yet the width of plant beds, the alignment of entry roads, the positioning of signs simply cannot work and so a compromise is found.
Such compromise can be avoided by sharing the design process from the beginning.
A good hotel landscape has an elegant entry, where space allows a road access that does not reveal the hotel entry until you are almost there.
The travel from the gates to the entry may not be long but it must be beautiful, elegant, shaded and clearly linked to the building character and interior character via forms, textures, colours and that hard to define "feel".
Hotel landscape is not only about aesthetics, it is also about function. Good function helps aesthetics because it provides for efficient operations that go largely unnoticed by patrons. Dysfunctional aspects confound appreciation of hotel grounds.
Food vehicle delivery routes through the middle of poolside patrons, barbecue cooking leaving fatty stains on pavements, "temporary" storage of boxes and buckets outside kiosks, broken pavements, and farmyard styled garden maintenance are familiar aspects of hotels that are not well designed and poorly managed.
Understanding function of external spaces covers servicing of food and beverage, cleaning, accessibility, wayfinding and optimum utility locations, i.e. power cables, water reticulation, sewerage, emergency access, security and storage of just about anything.
Function requires a very good understanding of all the uses of hotel grounds, especially functions, kitchen capacity, and accessibility for setting up functions, for instance crane access for tents.
Unless the functions are clear and hotel management can participate in the design process, management and maintenance staff will eventually modify the grounds to suit practical convenience. Often this is at the expense of visual quality.
Hotels should last for at least 10 years before there is any substantial upgrade. This means the maintenance must work very well, and the hotel grounds age gracefully not progressively deteriorate.
Hotels such as Mina A'Salam in Dubai and the Ritz Carlton in Doha are very good examples of getting it right; however, there are just too many that get it wrong or almost get it right.
Some hotels are positioned on the street front and have very little space to work with but they still get it right.
The Shangri-La on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, the Fairmont nearby and the Novotel at the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre are good examples of simple, elegant design and good maintenance.
There are a few very fine hotels that are close to the right formula but have compromised the arrival process by using cheap signs, cheap barriers or cheap lamps or allow views to a pile of garden waste or have too many plants that look unhealthy.
Even a small detraction is enough to spoil the experience. I keep thinking that hotel managers must not see these distractions, otherwise they would fix them, or, they are unaware of how they directly or even subliminally affect the attitude of guests and visitors to their hotel.
Market advantage is as much to do with a good garden maintenance team as it is a good concierge, or a pleasant, personable reception team.We all have a vested interest in the pleasure of hotel stays so let's get it right.
Geoff Sanderson is principal of regional landscape practice Green Concepts, which has a specialist team to design hotel landscapes and related infrastructure.