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Thinking of a five-star future

Paul Finch gets to grips with 'Thinking outside the box', the European hotel design and management conference held at the Royal Lancaster in London last week

Imagine an office development where you have to lease every single square metre every day - starting from scratch. Impossible, you say; yet there is an element of the development world where you have to do just that.

It is called the hotel market. Moreover, the market consists of two quite distinct elements (which admittedly sometimes combine): the developer/site owner and the hotel owner/operator. There is ample scope for commercial friction before the hotel guest even comes into the equation.

Last week's conference on European hotel design and management, 'Thinking outside the box', was aptly named, since so much hotel activity is contained within sealed areas, a hymn to the art of the services engineer and a stranger to natural light and ventilation.

The concluding session of the conference concerned the extent to which green policies will, and should, impact on future hotel development and renovation projects - could there be more natural light, more natural ventilation, less heating up and cooling down of interior spaces (always remembering that it takes three times as much energy to cool an area down by 1infinity than up by 1infinity)?

The panel discussing this were fairly pessimistic - but for the future impact of the European directives on sustainable buildings and the requirement for assessments to be made public, rather like the system for refrigerators, where evidence suggests that everyone wants A- or B-rated kit.

On the whole, however, it is returns per square metre, rather than energy costs per square metre, which seem to obsess most corporate developers and operators.

This view was most honestly and plainly expressed by Tanya Geller of Strategic Hotel Capital, who wowed last year's conference and did so again this time by observing that the justification for investment in design quality was the return on investment, no more and no less. This refreshing honesty cut through worthy stuff about valuing soft measures, though disappointingly there was an assumption that 'functional design' and 'design' were two different things.

The potential value of the architect's contribution was brought home in a brilliant short session chaired by Sir James Devitt of Richard Ellis Hotels, in which a developer (Ian Livingstone of London and Regional) and Tony Troy (hotel consultant) exposed the hideous truth about much of the hotel market: it is tired old space in urgent need of architectural analysis to boost the number or rooms and the profitable provision of additional space. Particular areas of wastage seemed to be car parks (often used by staff rather than for profitable purposes), old plant rooms, space used for administration that could be more valuable as additional rooms, and facilities yielding less than what could be achieved by, for example, hiring meeting spaces across the road and giving the hotel more rooms. The interesting prospect was raised of incorporating more retail elements in hotel lobbies, rather than the little boxes you usually find - why not, when the return might be 300 per cent? And why shouldn't guests (and others) be able to buy hotel-branded items on the spot?

The question of brand ran through the day, with speculation as to whether brand values might be a substitute for green ratings, and indeed in respect of the dreaded star system for defining hotel quality. Specialist hoteliers, in a session led by hotel guru Herbert Ypma, condemned stars as a meaningless con-trick, varying between countries and cultures, while quite incapable of dealing with the values of the boutique hotel as opposed to five-star service, for which read perfect room service 24 hours a day.

You might say that in terms of strategy (ie what and why), the specialist hoteliers started from wanting to produce something very special in order to generate profit to do another one. The more corporate approach started with a desire to make profit in order to please shareholders, the tactics (how and when) being to run a successful hotel. But are the corporates missing some tricks? Could they be more bespoke while maintaining or increasing profitability? An excellent session chaired by Jonathan Glancey gazed into the hotel future; Greg Chikaher of Arup showed a video envisaging a hotel room type in which individual customer need could be accommodated at will, from visual settings to room configuration (a bed that could sink meant the room could be transformed into an office if required).

Most impressive was Francesco Caio, chief executive of Cable and Wireless, who speculated on the way in which, using existing technology, hotel companies could customise the service they offered, so that time and space could be sidelined by a technology that could provide you with the same concierge wherever you, the customer, happened to be located; where room service and home delivery were indistinguishable; where you could choose room options such as home format (ie you could adjust controls in your home remotely); and where your hotel destination could be predetermined on the basis of known preferences. Bed and breakfast with technology could be as good as a five-star hotel. 'The best hotel of the future may be the best of the past, ' he declared.

Other sessions dealt with the dilemmas and difficulties associated with planning (Westminster council's Graham King gave an intelligent and convincing performance); how to deal with the foyer opportunity; and what it is that drives the sector - nicely portrayed by keynote speaker Bob Burns, a legendary hotelier whose latest development on Lake Garda won several plaudits. He gave a rousing presentation, including the intelligence that hotel lighting often made people look old, and the way to combat this was to use pink lampshades!

He criticised 'icon' designs, proclaimed the virtues of the 'self-cleaning room', and left us feeling cheery.

As for the role of the designer beyond normal design activity, speaker Yasmine Mahmoudieh quoted Corb: 'Architects are sleeping while the world around them moves on' (1923). She envisaged new materials, new forms, new environments. In a global market, there is plenty to play for.

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