Creating a Sense of Place in Hotel

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.

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.

First, just as perceptions are different for everyone, so is sense of place. Those up-lights are one of mine, but they were never my husband’s. While he lovingly remembered our walks beneath those trees, he found his sense of place stepping onto the first tee at any golf course. Second, a sense of place needs a place. That is, it has to have a geographic location. Here is where hotels, inns, resorts, and B&Bs can have a leg-up on other businesses. By definition, you already have a physical place. Yours is an airport hotel, or an ocean-side resort, or an inn like Bob Newhart ran on his 1970s TV sitcom. The question is whether it also has an emotional sense of place. Third, places that have a strong sense of place have a distinctive identity that locals and/or visitors can’t necessarily explain, but can feel. The key ingredients here are unique, authentic, and character. It is this third point over which you probably have the most control, but it may also be the hardest for you to implement.

It seems that, with the exploding global hotel industry, finding that unique and authentic concept to establish the property’s distinctive character becomes more challenging. But those hotels who have successfully done it and are reaping the benefits.

For instance, the Hotel Monteleone gives guests a sense of a paranormal place by leveraging its friendly ghosts who have appeared to guests and employees. Of course, this 19th-Century Hotel in New Orleans French Quarter boasts its historic gilded chandeliers, carved paneling, and soaring ceilings as the backdrop for it sense of place. And, oh yes, the actual 13th floor, where most of the ghostly actions happen, is called the 14th floor. In a similar vein, the quaint 1649 Three Chimneys Inn in New Hampshire, established its strong sense of place by exploiting the paranormal sounds and sightings of a young girl who drowned in a nearby Oyster River. And it, too, reinforces its sense of place with antique furnishings.

But a property doesn’t have to rely on ghosts, or historical happenings for a sense of place. It can build its own much like the famous 110 room Madonna Inn did in San Luis Obispo, California. The original 12 room property was not nearly as ostentatious as today’s inn. But after it burned down in the sixties, it was rebuilt as the “most ridiculous and amazing motel you’re likely to find anywhere” with individually themed rooms bearing such names as Caveman, Rock Bottom, and William Tell. And, having had the opportunity to be stay there, I can attest to the fact that it does establish its clear sense of place its guests.

There is no question that the understanding how a sense of place develops and becomes relevant to your guests is not an easy thing to do. Social psychologists, geographers, designers, and marketers have been trying to figure how to do it for years. All we can do is take what they have learned so far and work to integrate it into every aspect of our hotel’s operations. First, a sense of place is actually an emotional bond between a person and his/her surroundings. This comes back to the truism that perception is reality. Second, its three key components are unique, authentic, and character. It is another truism that you can’t try to be something you are not; people will see right through you. It follows then, that an additional truism is: You can fool some of the people all of the time; all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. And third, your guest’s sense of place is often rooted in past experience. This last truism comes down to the notion of banked memories and takes us back to my story of Alka Seltzer containers and up-lights.