Form and Function: Utilizing Experiential Design and Theming to Attract Guests

By Scott Acton CEO & Founder, Forte Specialty Contractors | November 18, 2018

Experiential design, what exactly is it? Well if you have ever been to an airport, hotel, casino, or even an everyday shopping mall, chances are you have engaged with this kind of design and not even been aware of it. This design discipline, which may be relatively unknown outside of architecture and construction circles, is meant to entice individual. More engaging than other types of design, it adds to the overall experience of a product or a place, just as the name implies.

This emerging design methodology has five major categories. Some of which have some necessary overlap in order to work in tandem, creating a fully formulated experience for the user through the use of multiple design mediums. The five key categories of experiential design can be found in many venues, especially entertainment or leisure-oriented spaces such as concerts and hotels. These include:

  • Exhibition Design: This category incorporates both the act of storytelling and the given environment. A great example of this category can be seen in museums and art galleries.
  • Environmental Graphics: The practice of using messages, information or imagery which both aligns and complements the given environment. This could be something as simple as a digital screen in a hotel that projects facts and imagery that is specific to the city of the hotel.
  • Entertainment: Concerts, performance art and music festivals dominate this category. Certain sporting events can also fit into this category. These experiences can be small and intimate, or massive and raging. Think lighting and acoustics when considering this experiential design category.
  • Marketing: This element is a little more specific, but can still add or subtract from the overall experience. Consider how you would feel traveling in Tokyo, your hotel surrounded by digital billboards in Japanese characters. Now compare that to how you might feel at a Texas rodeo, with banners showcasing Stetson hats and Wrangler jeans. Some might scoff at the notion of ads contributing to a sensory experience, but the fact is they have an impact. Guerilla marketing, product trials, samples and launches would also fit into this category.
  • Placemaking: Can refer to public installations and landmarks, but also to the way in which the overall space around us is defined. Consider what would make an everyday location like a hotel lobby special and worth remembering. Placemaking is intended to encourage people to connect to one another as well as to the place they share.

Where Do We See Experiential Design?

Experiential design is typically seen in spaces that we associate with fun and entertainment or leisure. However, this type of design can be applied anywhere to create an interactive and memorable experience. One industry where experiential design is especially common is the hotel industry. In Las Vegas, it might be safe to say that every major resort on the strip takes experiential design very seriously. To the untrained eye, this might be most apparent among only the themed resorts.

However, it is worth nothing that in the last decade, resorts on the Las Vegas Strip have largely moved away from this concept and began "de-theming" in the last decade. This might not be as apparent on the exterior, where redesigns can become full scale redevelopments that might require temporary closures. The interior, is where the commitment to de-theming is most apparent. Still, the de-theming of a resort on the Las Vegas Strip does not make the space void of experiential design potential.

Forte completed Momofuku's first West Coast restaurant, located in Las Vegas, in just 4 months. Strategic seating arrangements allow guests to enjoy a full-blown sensory experience.
Hell's Kitchen was completed by Forte for the Fox Network reality show of the same name. The Las Vegas location and the dark decor create the alluring environment.
View of Hell's Kitchen from the Las Vegas strip. Construction began in July, 2017, and because of the hard deadline for the show, Forte completed in five months.
One of the unique venues built by Forte, SUSHISAMBA's Carnival-inspired design uses an explosion of three-dimensional “ribbons” swirling from the center of the restaurant.

In fact, architects and interior designers must become a little more thoughtful and creative in their work when a resort has been de-themed. More attention must be paid to the layout of the room, the materials used, lighting and even music. This is especially true since consumers have generally gravitated towards a more immersive outing. If today's consumer is going to spend money, they want to be able to take an experience with them to remember.

While we have enjoyed an economic comeback in recent years, consumers have been a little slower to catch up to speed where spending habits are concerned. This shift in consumer behavior is likely a side effect of the Great Recession, people simply want, and have really come to simply expect, more for their money. Millennials who lived through this as children, grew up seeing the importance of being thrifty. While their parents, who are likely still traveling into their later years and into retirement, have adopted new habits.

Consumers Just Want More for their Money

Today, it is simply not enough to have a clean and mildly visually appealing hotel lobby. Now, hotels strive for their lobbies to incorporate aspects of experiential design in order to further impress the guest and keep them coming back. Something designers must take into consideration when designing a lobby, or any commercial building, is what kind of people will be using it most? Are they of a certain age, or traveling for a specific purpose or event?

If the hotel is in an entertainment district, known for hosting large events or concerts, the lobby would likely be open and inviting. Plenty of seats situated around an interactive game or object to promote conversation between strangers. Maybe also have select music playing and entertainment lighting.

Or, on the other end of the spectrum, maybe the hotel serves rock climbers or other outdoor enthusiasts. This kind of traveler is likely to spend very little time in their room, or in the hotel at all. This kind of lobby should be clean and inviting, but can afford to be smaller. Information about the surrounding nature attractions would be helpful and memorable to this kind of traveler. Decor resembling the immediate natural environment would also be ideal in this setting.

What this has meant for the "de-theming" of Las Vegas resorts is that there has been both a trend and continual desire towards attracting an increasingly upscale traveler. This kind of traveler is likely to have seen the real Eiffel Tower, the real Pyramids of Giza, and other monuments in between. They will likely not be impressed, but rather turned off, at the sight of artificial simulations.

However, while we often use the term "de-theming" it is not completely accurate in all cases. Some resorts on the strip, such as Caesar's Palace have always stayed true to their theme, and have been able to make it remain profitable and attractive. They have updated certain facades and interiors in order to move towards a more sophisticated appearance. This move toward a less gauche environment is typical of the industry's desire to attract a more upscale traveler.

Other hotels, such as the Luxor and Excalibur, might have a harder time with the concept of de-theming, due to their unapologetically themed exteriors. Still, they have shown some success on the interior of the building. It might be more appropriate to think of some "de-themed" resorts as still themed, but re-branded for the modern hotel guest.

Experiential Design Beyond the Hotel

Of course, this concept of theming and experiential design goes beyond resorts on the Las Vegas Strip. Restaurants are another commonly themed establishment which implement experiential design. Restaurants use experiential design to attract customers by taking a multi-sensory approach to the five elements of experiential design.

 For some customers, a restaurant is not just a part of their night out, it is the entire reason for their night out. This caliber of customer is most likely going to be looking for a unique and authentic experience, rather than just highly-rated cuisine and prompt service. As a result, strategies used to attract food-savvy consumers have had to push their limits in terms of creativity and innovation.

 Some restaurants have been using elements of experiential design for quite some time, thus it is not a completely new phenomenon. For example, tableside food or drink preparation has been utilized in a variety of restaurants for years. Think of cafe diablo at a steakhouse, tableside guacamole at a Mexican restaurant, or the more interactive hibachi style of cooking at some Japanese restaurants. This style of cooking, which is known for including dinner and a show might be one of the more recognizable forms of experiential design. While the cooking in and of itself, is not design, the interior of the building must be designed to complement facilitate such an engagement.

Experiential design is recently receiving more attention among design professionals and business owners alike. As consumers have become more conscious of their spending, our society is moving towards more of an experience economy, rather than one of pure consumption, such as in previous generations. Since consumers are quite frankly, expecting more bang for their buck, businesses have no choice but to cater to their needs.

We will likely see more incorporation of experiential design in many types of commercial buildings, not just hospitality and entertainment spaces. One constant that remains unchanged is a business owner's desire to not only attract customers, but to acquire repeat and regular customers. A full understanding of experiential design and its benefits can be what makes or breaks a business in today's "full experience" driven consumer market. Those who have a strong understanding of what it takes, will lead to a stronger, more profitable venue.

Mr. Acton Scott Acton is CEO and founder of Forte Specialty Contractors, built on three generations of creative execution of some of the globe's iconic experiential spaces. Forte Specialty Contractors in Las Vegas, is a construction firm specializing in the hospitality, restaurant, retail, nightlife and entertainment industries. Mr. Acton is known for tackling some of the most difficult and high profile construction challenges in the industry. Mr. Acton attended "Disney University" where he learned the business and leadership skills needed to build a successful career. In 2002, Mr. Acton started his own company, Trevi Manufacturing. He is a 20-year resident of Las Vegas. Scott Acton can be contacted at 702-697-2000 or Please visit for more information. Extended Biography retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by

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