Designing Balanced Hospitality Brands and Experiences: A Q&A with Kate Tews

News & Insights

Earlier this year the American Hotel & Lodging Association shared its forecast for the hotel industry in 2023, and its positive outlook underscores why Altitude Design Office has been busy working on multiple hospitality projects this year: “2023 room-night demand is projected to surpass pre-pandemic levels.” People are traveling and seeking experiences that feel fresh and new. Hotels must be prepared to meet this demand.

Altitude’s studio director, senior project director and brand strategist, Kate Tews, has decades of experience working with hospitality brands to shape their positioning strategies and design guest experiences. In a recent conversation, Kate offered her perspective on the opportunities facing hotels and other hospitality brands in 2023:

As hotel demand rises, how can hospitality brands be prepared to meet this demand?

There is never a one-size-fits-all solution, but in general, refreshing and/or renovating a hotel is often one of the best ways to strengthen a property’s appeal. In 2023, this doesn’t simply mean making a hotel Covid safe – that has become a baseline expectation – but really means asking “how can we enhance the overall experience?” and then working to find the unique and specific answer that will help this hotel stand apart from its competitors.

This is the kind of work we’re seeing quite a bit of today, as numerous property owners and operators are investing in updates that set them up for success in 2023 and beyond. For example, in recent months we’ve been working closely with a client on several of their hotel and resort properties. At the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina, where a renovation is being implemented in phases, the current focus has been updating revenue drivers like conference and event spaces and other amenities that have direct impact on the hotel’s room rates.

What kind of design interventions can enhance the guest experience and move the needle for the client’s bottom line?

Sometimes it’s the simple things that create a difference. In conference and event spaces, like the Sheraton’s, something as simple as digital event signage can have a meaningful impact, not only because it helps the space feel more current, but also because it creates a clear communication touchpoint with guests and an easier workflow for the staff who’s in charge of keeping that sign up to date. It also reduces the clutter of stanchion signs and poster boards, which look outdated and require labor to maintain.

Monarch Beach Resort directional signage

Monarch Beach Resort brand signage

Monarch Beach Resort Aveo Restaurant signage

Monarch Beach Resort Miraval Spa signage

Monarch Beach Resort Wine Cave signage

Monarch Beach Resort Bourbon Steak signage

To design the best experience, we map the customer’s journey throughout the property, as well as the operational flow, to identify meaningful and relevant touchpoints. Then our goal is to give people directional cues where they need them along that journey and to strike the right balance between subtle and intentional – to gently invite the guest in some directions, and to very clearly provide information and instruction in others.

Good signage will communicate clearly and establish a hierarchy of information to distinguish among different types of spaces and amenities. Consistency is important, but wayfinding actually becomes more difficult when all of the signs look the same. We have to modulate the volume with a variety of design features that range from highly sophisticated and artistic brand elements to very simple and straightforward messages that meet code requirements or even budget limitations.

How do you strike that balance between subtle and direct, as well as beautiful and budget-friendly, within a signage and wayfinding system?

This is where Altitude’s expertise and experience make a difference. We first listen and work with our clients to understand their goals, as well as guest needs and expectations. Then we layer in the sense of place and the personality of the brand or the property, and apply our deep knowledge of communication design, colors, typography, materials, finishes, lighting, durability and more, as we recommend specific solutions. And we back up those recommendations based on real metrics, including the material and/or installation costs, as well as the maintenance that might be required in a hotel’s high-traffic areas, for example. If a sign is beautiful and unique but is going to disrupt the budget and become an operational headache for the hotel staff, then that’s probably not the right sign. That’s why we work hard to balance design with clarity and cost from the start – and why we believe that balance is achievable.

The Fairmont Grand Del Mar is another property in the San Diego region under renovation, where we’re helping to enhance the guest experience through improved signage and wayfinding. This classic, luxury property is already well known for the high-end experience it delivers, and yet these enhancements will help it feel fresh and new and encourage guests and their families to keep returning for generations.

The hotel’s magnificent 400-acre site is a central part of its appeal, so we’ve taken design cues from the coastal canyon landscape and native plants as we’ve created directional signage and maps that encourage guests to get outside and explore. The communication is clear and yet subtle – an invitation to enjoy this unique and special Southern California destination – and it reflects the culture of the Fairmont brand, which similarly balances high-touch hospitality with a hands-off private retreat. The exemplary staff understands when to engage directly with guests and when to stand back to let them explore.

In what ways do corporate brand standards impact design decisions at specific hotel properties?

Helping our clients adapt their properties to new or updated corporate standards is another big part of the work we do, but here again it’s about finding balance. At some level there’s comfort in the familiarity you might find across a brand’s portfolio. To Altitude, though, the opportunity comes from helping a property owner define the position their hotel can have in its specific market or location and then making a case to bend the rules. We might shift fonts or color palettes to be regionally appropriate or recommend the infusion of local art and other site-specific design elements that contribute to the hotel’s uniqueness and enrich the guest’s experience.

Within the hospitality sector, guests are typically seeking experiences that they can’t have at home, so fresh and new really does make a difference. This is also why many boutique hotel brands have more flexible brand standards that empower more unique guest experiences. Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach, for example, is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection – a corporate brand that empowers individual properties to develop their own custom branding within limited corporate constraints. Since our client acquired the property last year, we’ve been working with them to express the beachfront resort’s understated elegance in redesigned signage and graphics.

Hotel Indigo 18 Social branding

Hotel Indigo 18 Social branding

Hotel Indigo 18 Social branding

Hotel Indigo 18 Social signage

Hotel Indigo 18 Social branding

Hotel Indigo is another boutique brand – this one under the IHG Hotels & Resorts umbrella – where there’s an opportunity to design specifically to each property’s desired positioning. When Altitude worked on the Hotel Indigo in Downtown Los Angeles, the goal was to celebrate the heritage of a historic neighborhood while simultaneously creating a modern flagship for the brand, integrating different eras and influences into a cohesive visual language. When you visit the hotel or its bar or restaurant, you can read this right away – the nod to Los Angeles’ glamorous past and the neighborhood’s popular speakeasies – yet it’s not heavy handed. You might even grasp it at a subconscious level.

This is the beauty of balance, and why I love designing with hospitality brands. Our work can be clear and purposeful without overcommunicating. We want guests to feel a sense of discovery and delight and apply their own perspective and interpretation of their hospitality experience. Our goal is to support a hotel’s brand personality and location without dictating it. Guests end up finding themselves as they wander, explore, and enjoy the spirit of discovery, moving through the journey we’ve designed.

Kate Tews has spent her career fusing meaning with design. Armed with a degree in English from Harvard University, she has enjoyed a career ranging from positioning artists at major record labels to helping shape some of Southern California’s most prominent hotel brands. At Altitude Design Office, Kate wears several hats, including running our team as Studio Director, crafting corporate and lifestyle brand strategies, and managing accounts and projects both large and small.