Biophilia and Social Activation: Designing Amenities That Attract Internet-Savvy Travelers

By Joshua Zinder, AIA Principal, JZA+D | November 17, 2019

Increasingly we live in a world where people are heads-down focused on their personal devices, posting or commenting on social media. To many this condition is lamentable, but there are unexpected consequences of this trend that demonstrate the resilience of certain innate human desires and motivations.

Consider millennials and post-millennials, the age groups most familiar with and devoted to regular online engagement. Because of their growing economic importance – according to research from Generational Edge millennials will make up 46% of the U.S. workforce by 2020 while post-millennials are already entering college and the workforce – their habits and wants are the subject of considerable discussion and study.

Perhaps counterintuitively, members of these always-online age groups consistently express a desire for more in-person social interaction and for authentic experiences, when asked. For developers these trends are likely familiar, as they have been driving attention to amenity spaces in workplace and corporate office design, residential development, and even in places of worship. Thoughtful approaches to amenities programs deliver a home-away-from-home feel that encourages more frequent and lengthier visits and often creates new, robust revenue streams.

For hotels, shared amenities and public spaces have become essential to establishing one's brand and fostering a sense of place, welcome and community – put simply, fostering engagement within the venue makes for a more fulfilling experience. The owner should consider investing in design strategies that energize and activate amenity spaces to make them memorable, shareable, and even iconic – strategies that put the amenity to work for the hotel brand by creating online buzz and branding the venue as a destination.

Biophilia and Authenticity

On a recent family fishing trip in the Berkshires, we stayed at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Great Barrington, Mass. The hotel itself is very high-quality, but particularly memorable was the gas fireplace in the lobby lounge. The design incorporated an artful feature in the wall next to the hearth showing the circular cut ends of stacked firewood. To either side of these elements and inset were displays of standing limbs of wood in planters, illuminated from above with recessed lighting. The displays were charming enough and the lounge appointed comfortably in a colorful yet understated contemporary style, but when I brought out my phone to take pictures it was the faux firewood stack that I found myself documenting in photos.

Fairfield Inn & Suites, Great Barrington, Mass. gas fireplace in the lobby lounge

The idea behind biophilia is a simple one – almost a truism – that human beings will tend to respond positively to things that connect them to nature. But in our technological age the power of these connections is surprising, both relaxing and stimulative at the same time. This was certainly the case with the firewood feature in this Berkshires hotel lounge. The visual of the cut wood was soothing, and at the same time made me want to take a photo.

Our integrated design practice looks for opportunities in every project to connect occupants to nature, and many options are surprisingly cost-effective. For example, one company offers "maintenance-free vertical garden installations" - composed of green moss, the installations can live for up to seven years with no watering.

Hospitality projects are particularly apt for introducing biophilic materials, finishes and features, because these elements tend to make a space warmer and more inviting. Combining biophilic design principles with strategies for making venue amenities and public areas into socially activated environments can result in a robust synergy: While attracting guests of all kinds, these spaces will appeal to millennials and post-millennials in particular, who in turn will likely engage on social media platforms to share their experiences.

The opportunity for this synergy evolves from the fact that these age groups are notable for subscribing to certain values, including:

  •     Environmentally sustainable practices
  •         A focus on personal wellbeing
  •         Authenticity
  •         A preference for socially activated environments (i.e. "urban lifestyle")

Incorporating biophilic elements such as stone and wood, plantings and vegetation, figurative forms that evoke flora and fauna, water features, exterior views of trees and landscape, and natural daylight all reinforce the first three of the values above. Drawing a connection to nature suggests to the guest that the space is designed to have a positive environmental impact and to support mental and physical wellness.

At the same time, these materials and features suggest an "authentic" experience, especially if the elements are drawn from the local geology and landscape. The hoped-for synergy emerges when the space is crafted to generate informal or unexpected positive social interactions.

Consider the common space of a commercial office building our firm recently redesigned, for which we drew inspiration from our own hospitality portfolio. The goal of the owner group was to reposition the property as Class A office space in order to improve their prospects for tenant firms. The focus of the project was a vaulted atrium that was underutilized by employees of tenant companies and surprisingly dark in spite of sky lighting overhead.

Our concept for the repositioning added stairs from the first floor to a pedestrian bridge that crossed the space above, while shrinking the massings of columns and structural forms and introducing light-colored finishes to take full advantage of the skylights and make the space feel airier and brighter.

But a significant portion of the project's success stems from integration of biophilic elements. The sights and sounds of a waterfall feature, adjacent to a lounge area with colorful contemporary furnishings, introduce a pleasing connection to nature. (Water features draw people in much as a roaring fire in a fireplace does – people want to experience it.) Just above, a distinctive sculptural wood canopy creates a visual focal point over the pedestrian bridge and stone tiles enhance the feel of the new stairs.

Combined with a new food kiosk (adding a new revenue stream) and public WiFi, the completed design fully activates the space. Employees not only take breaks in this appealing setting but also use the lounge and cafe seating as alternative work areas. The stairs create a circulation point that fosters informal interaction among employees from different companies. The owner group reports higher per-square-foot rental rates even as their tenants report increased overall satisfaction, in large part because their employees voluntarily spend longer hours at work thanks to this attractive amenity space.

Biophilic elements such as natural wood and stone finish materials at the Nomad Pizza restaurant, Princeton, NJ

The Instagram-able Moment

Hotels owners and brands are already applying these same principles to create places activated by social interaction blended with biophilic elements. In fact, they typically have more opportunities for this type of occupant engagement than most commercial office properties: consider the room that may serve as a breakfast bar in the morning that can become an activity area or even a cocktail bar later in the day.

These are spaces that bring guests out of their rooms to relax, to get work done, to meet new people or to participate in goings-on. Introducing connections to nature can elevates these spaces from merely serviceable to memorable, and even shareable.

Achieving a design that makes guests want to record and share their experience in the moment is particularly valuable, transforming the guest into an unpaid brand representative. Plus, social media has value greater than word-of-mouth because it is a visual medium – the old slide carousel and 8-millimeter home movies from Grand Canyon vacations now potentially reach a global online audience instead of a handful of friends and family members. To elevate an amenity space to a destination and capitalize on this idea, the design strategy should include multiple spaces that create "Instagram-able moments" – places that encourage the guest to snap a selfie and share it online.

The strategy starts with a concept that includes biophilic components to suggest a connection to nature and then integrating elements that activate the space. Food and drink offerings are essential and, depending on the type of venue, things like WiFi, charging and USB ports integrated directly into the furnishings, and a variety of seating and table options contribute to a 'something for everyone' approach that is highly effective in generating informal interactions and social activity. We also recommend considering elements like golf simulators, fitness equipment, or anything that will appeal to the likely visitor.

Last, the space needs to include striking, compelling design features such as artwork or sculptural elements that are conspicuously photographable.

As of this writing we are currently putting the finishing touches on a major renovation project for the three-acre pool deck at a major resort-casino in Las Vegas that follows this recipe, and the results are already generating considerable online sharing activity. Our project team faced several challenges related to installation of five new swimming pools (plus plunge pools for guests in the private cabanas) related to the structurally sensitive location above the resort's casinos and indoor shops, entertainment and dining. The deck's layout locates certain features where the structure can comfortably bear the weight, whether water, palm trees (each with thousands of pounds of soil) or architectural features.

In collaboration with a renowned design studio and a major landscape architecture firm, we were able to meet these challenges and produce a pool deck design that feels luxurious and timeless. The renovated space is also filled with Instagram-able moments. Borrowing from the landscape and architecture of the Neopolitan island of Capri, the concept revolves around the idea of a 'found garden'. Beyond the many palm trees, biophilic elements include walls crafted from limestone with integrated planters, metal trellises for supporting the growth of vines, and accents of garden-inspired green and gold. Over time, the pool deck will become even more lush and restful as the palms reach full height and the vines take over the trellises.

The deck is socially activated in a number of ways, but especially through the entry sequence. Guests enter through an oculus-like arbor then make their way through a series of rooms finished in Venetian stucco and plaster to arrive at the bar at the center of the pool deck, rather than arriving at the amenity's edge. This immediately places the guest in a social environment, energizing the experience. Other ways of socially activating the space include sunbathing decks that extend out into the pools themselves like little peninsulas, and a range of gathering spaces and coves.

The Instagram-able moments are many: the oculus-arbor mentioned above makes for an eminently shareable entry moment. So too does the arrival at the central bar, or the sunbathing decks that appear to float on the surface of the pools. The design team also created a garden cove with a sculptural installation of a pair of large, gilded wings unfurling – guests standing in front of the installation appear to have their own pair of gold wings, inspiring selfies and portraits to be snapped and shared.

Ultimately any application of this strategy should produce a design unique to the property and brand image. But conceived and executed properly, these kinds of engagement-oriented amenities will generate memorable moments, inspire loyalty and repeat visits, and penetrate social media platforms and sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp and others to develop an organic appreciation of the venue as a destination for the next trip.

Mr. Zinder, AIA Joshua Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, founder and principal of JZA+D received a Bachelor of Architecture from Syracuse University and a Masters of Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. His 20-plus years of experience working for many design firms includes six years as an Associate with Michael Graves & Associates. Mr. Zinder has worked on a diverse range of projects, such as: The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Wyndham Hotel Prototypes, The Bedford Central School District, Irvington Union Free Schools and many others. In 2006, he opened his practice to pursue contemporary and sustainable design. He has designed projects worldwide. Mr. Zinder, AIA can be contacted at 609-924-5004 or jzinder@joshuazinder.com Extended Biography

HotelExecutive retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by HotelExecutive.

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Payment for the services provided to you in, at, through or in association with HotelExecutive may be made by automatic credit card, debit card, direct debit, bankwire or Paypal and other approved payment means offered in, at, through or in association with HotelExecutive, and you hereby authorize HotelExecutive and its agents to transact such payments on your behalf.

You hereby authorize HotelExecutive's Internet Payment Service Provider to charge your credit card to pay for your membership to HotelExecutive. You further authorize HotelExecutive's Internet Payment Service Provider to charge your credit card for any and all purchases of products, services in association with HotelExecutive. You agree to be personally liable for all charges incurred by you in association with your access or other use of any content provided by HotelExecutive or any third party in association with HotelExecutive. You acknowledge and agree that your liability for all such charges shall continue after termination of your access or any type of membership arrangement with HotelExecutive.

In the event that you have chosen to have your membership automatically rebilled, unless and until you notify HotelExecutive that you wish to cancel or terminate your membership to HotelExecutive, you hereby agree and authorize HotelExecutive's Internet Payment Service Provider to automatically renew your membership to HotelExecutive on a continuing basis and to charge your credit card (or other payment means you have selected) to pay for the ongoing cost of your membership. You hereby further authorize HotelExecutive's Internet Payment Service Provider to charge your credit card (or other approved payment means you have selected) for any and all purchases of products, services and entertainment provided to in, at, through or in association with HotelExecutive.

13. PRIVACY POLICY

The following is the Privacy Policy for HotelExecutive

We can be reached via telephone, email, or online at our contact page. When you visit our site we do not log any information regarding your domain or email address. Information Sharing: We do not share user information with any third parties other than via press release distribution as described below.

Hotel Newswire is a newswire service that distributes press releases on behalf of our users. If you decide to submit a press release for distribution through our system we will transmit your entire press release including any personal information therein contained to our media contacts and online distribution points including search engines. This is the only redistribution of your information that we engage in. Your submission of press releases through our system indicates consent with this policy. The information we collect during your registration process is used to notify users about updates to our service and inform users of any special events hosted by Hotel Newswire. This information is not shared with other organizations for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

Cookies: Our system requires the use of cookies to enable the user to log back into our website to access information from the newswire, without having to log in each time using the required username and password.

If you do not want to receive email from us in the future, please let us know by following instructions included in our communication with you. Users who supply us with telephone numbers online may receive telephone contact from us regarding their account, or informing them of new products and services available on the HotelExecutive website. If you do not wish to receive such telephone calls, please edit your account and remove your phone number from your account profile. This can be done from your user account menu.

Ad Servers: We do not partner with or have any relationship with any ad server companies. From time to time, we may use customer information for new uses not previously disclosed in our privacy notice. If our information practices change at any time, we will post the policy changes to our website to notify you of these changes and provide you with the ability to opt out of these new uses. If you are concerned about how your information is used, you should check back at our website periodically.

Upon request we provide site visitors with access to all information (including proprietary information) that we maintain about them. Users can access this information by logging in to their account.

Security: We always use industry-standard encryption technologies while transferring and receiving user data exchanged with our site. We have appropriate security measures in place in our physical facilities to protect against the loss, misuse, or alteration of information that we have collected from you on our site. We do not store credit card information in our systems.

If you feel that this site is not following its stated information policy, you may contact us.

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Coming up in January 2020...

Mobile Technology: Meeting Tech Expectations

What once seemed futuristic is now the norm, owing to the escalating developments in mobile technology, and hotels must continue to innovate in order to meet guest expectations. In a recent study from Mower, 65 percent of guests said they would gladly pay more for a hotel that provides the mobile technology they deem essential. The same study shows that 44 percent of travelers are more likely to book a smart hotel, and nearly 7 in 10 want to use smart devices provided by the hotel. And how do guests wish to use all this technology? A majority expressed a desire for mobile check-in and check-out, and mobile payment options. They also want to be able to stream content from their phone to the TV; to make service requests of the hotel staff; to control in-room lighting, temperature and sound; to order food and beverages; and to request a wake-up call - all from their mobile device. Guests also expressed preferences for robust wi-fi and convenient device charging ports throughout the hotel. They also appreciate the use of hotel branded apps which allow a guest to book a room, access loyalty programs, receive discounts and rewards, and even use the app to choose the room, floor and view they prefer. Some hotel apps also allow a customer to track their charges throughout their stay, rather than waiting to receive a bill at the end. Finally, mobile tech lounges are popping up more frequently in some hotels. These lounges offer guests the opportunity to perform tasks like airline check-ins or access to local info guides, but they also provide a place where guests can comfortably get some work done outside their room. The January Hotel Business Review will report on what some hotels are doing to meet their customers' expectations in the mobile technology space.