Creating a Sense of Place in Your Hotel

By Bonnie Knutson Professor, The School of Hospitality Business/MSU | December 17, 2017

My husband and I got married when we were just 19.  We were still in college.  Like many young couples of our era, managing school, two jobs, and family didn't leave a lot of discretionary time nor money.  But we were always good savers, even if it was only a quarter here or a dollar there.  This bring me to the old Alka Seltzer containers.  Some of you may remember them.  They looked like little glass tubes and contained the round tablets that gave rise to the memorable jingle: Plop.  Plop.  Fizz.  Fizz.  Oh what a relief it is. (These classic containers are now categorized as "vintage" collectables on eBay.  To go back down memory lane, find a spare minute to view the distinctive 1969 television commercial at the bottom of this article.

When the glass tube was empty of its tablets, it became the perfect size to hold quarters.  The diameter of the container was just big enough to let a quarter easily slide down inside, effortlessly stacking one on top of the other until the tube was full.  Then it was on to filling the next one.  Thus, Alka Seltzer became our own little bank and the glass tubes became our own little vacation savings account.  As we packed each one, it was stored in the bottom drawer of our dresser.

I can vividly remember the first time we opened that drawer and realized that we had finally saved enough for our first weekend away.  We were like two kids anticipating Christmas morning.   Needless to say, we did our homework to find the perfect place so we could stretch our Alka Seltzer allotment as far as possible.  Remember that this was pre-Internet with its Trip Advisor, its Yelp, and its Groupon so it definitely took some work.  When the Friday afternoon finally came, off we went to what we hoped would be a magical time together.  And it was.  While I can well recall our room, the little restaurant where we had dinner, and lounging by the pool, it is walking through the resort's grounds at night holding hands that holds my most vivid and fairy-tale memory.  You see, that was the first time I had ever seen trees up-lit.  It seemed as if the leaves on each tall, stately elm, maple, and ash were dancing, making irreplaceable patterns above us.  It was truly magical.

Since that weekend, every home in which we have lived has incorporated tree up-lights in its landscaping.  Why do I tell you this story?  Because these up-lights give me a sense of place.  

Sense of Place has become one of marketing's more recent hot buzzwords.  It's been used to promote everything from a national park to a housing development.  And, yes, it is also used to promote hotel bookings.  The truth, however, is that we can't really define the phrase so we don't really know how to leverage it effectively.  Trying to define it is akin to what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in his 1964 test for obscenity, "I shall not today attempt further to define [it]…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so, but I know it when I see it…"  

Geographers look at sense of place from a locational perspective with its topographical characteristics.  Anthropologists see it in terms of the relationship between culture and symbols.  Sociologists think of it in terms of a feeling of belonging.  Urban Planners try to figure out how they can design and build it.  And marketers just want to use it to increase sales.  But no matter what the viewpoint, there are three fundamental points to remember in developing your property's sense of place.

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The hotel industry has undertaken a long-term effort to build more responsible and socially conscious businesses. What began with small efforts to reduce waste - such as paperless checkouts and refillable soap dispensers - has evolved into an international movement toward implementing sustainable development practices. In addition to establishing themselves as good corporate citizens, adopting eco-friendly practices is sound business for hotels. According to a recent report from Deloitte, 95% of business travelers believe the hotel industry should be undertaking “green” initiatives, and Millennials are twice as likely to support brands with strong management of environmental and social issues. Given these conclusions, hotels are continuing to innovate in the areas of environmental sustainability. For example, one leading hotel chain has designed special elevators that collect kinetic energy from the moving lift and in the process, they have reduced their energy consumption by 50%  over conventional elevators. Also, they installed an advanced air conditioning system which employs a magnetic mechanical system that makes them more energy efficient. Other hotels are installing Intelligent Building Systems which monitor and control temperatures in rooms, common areas and swimming pools, as well as ventilation and cold water systems. Some hotels are installing Electric Vehicle charging stations, planting rooftop gardens, implementing stringent recycling programs, and insisting on the use of biodegradable materials. Another trend is the creation of Green Teams within a hotel's operation that are tasked to implement earth-friendly practices and manage budgets for green projects. Some hotels have even gone so far as to curtail or eliminate room service, believing that keeping the kitchen open 24/7 isn't terribly sustainable. The May issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some hotels are doing to integrate sustainable practices into their operations and how they are benefiting from them.