For SB Architects president Scott Lee, luxury hotel design is about creating a sense of place. Destination hotels are no longer about kitschy design and tacky décor, but about creating a one-of-a-kind experience.
Designing hotels has long been Lee’s passion. At Cal Polytechnic State University, his thesis was on large-scale real estate development with an emphasis on hotels. He joined SB Architects 17 years ago because the firm wanted to build a hospitality practice. When Lee started, about 5% of the practice was hospitality; now hospitality makes up over half of the firm’s portfolio.
His firm is site-specific and responds to the natural topography and vegetation instead of adhering to a preconceived notion about a place.
Over the last 15 years, destination resorts have become overly themed and provide less of an authentic experience, Lee said. Calistoga Ranch and Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve are two examples of hotels his firm designed that blend well within their settings.
Calistoga Ranch was developed on 23 acres in Napa Valley as a resort and private residence club. The rest of the 157 acres were left undeveloped to create a bungalow-in-the-woods experience. The resort was designed so the natural environment is an amenity.
Living rooms and bedrooms encompass private cabanas with outdoor fireplaces, lighting and furniture. Each unit ranges from 600 to 2,400 SF and fractional ownership units are about 3,200 SF. The architecture mixes natural materials with steel and glass elements. The resort contains 47 guest lodges and 27 ownership lodges.
The Dorado Beach property in Puerto Rico is the second Ritz-Carlton Reserve and the first in the Western Hemisphere. The 127-room hotel, which was built on the site of the Dorado Beach Hotel originally developed by Laurance Rockefeller, incorporates influences from the site itself and the history of Puerto Rico and Dorado Beach. The property also includ es 96 beachfront condos and 52 golf villas.
“We’re toning it down and understanding the culture and the flora and fauna [and incorporating] artists and crafts and doing it in a modern way,” Lee said. “People want to feel like they are in the place, but not necessarily going back in time with a replica of the past.”
Amenities at high-end hotels are becoming their own entities. Lee said the spa has evolved from a windowless afterthought into almost a resort within a resort. He said at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, the spa is on its own site and was designed separately. Spas like this one often invite the user to have meals there and to rest and have multiple treatments.
Hotel restaurants also are evolving into gourmet restaurants headed by celebrity chefs such as Jean-Georges and José Andres.
“We’re trying to design that restaurant to be more about the place than about the hotel and give the guest what they want,” Lee said.
Meeting spaces are no longer just large windowless ballrooms. Meeting rooms are becoming smaller with natural light and terraces that are less about conferences and more about social and intimate events. Hotels still accommodate large groups, but space for more social events is becoming popular, Lee said. Among the unique social event amenities at Calistoga Ranch is a wine cave.
Lines also are blurring between residential and hospitality with resorts incorporating more residential aspects and residential feeling more like resorts. High-end amenities, like housekeeping and fitness centers, are being added to residential that previously could only be found at a resort. As SB Architects works in both multifamily and hospitality, it has already been incorporating these aspects into its projects.
“Hospitality is trending toward becoming more residential and more approachable and less massive and institutional,” Lee said. The means increasing walkability, providing more of a residential feel and more approachable design.
Hospitality also incorporates more experiences — providing not just wine and gourmet food to travelers, but showing how they are made, for example. Lee said this has led to guests harvesting organic vegetables or helping pick grapes and crush them to make wine.
“[Guests] like to feel they are part of the process and we’re trying to design hotels and resorts to be a forum for that,” Lee said.
Part of the authentic experience comes from brand management, something SB Architects also provides. The firm takes design ideas and flows them into graphics and packaging to provide a consistent message throughout the property. A promise is being made when a customer looks at a website and considers a hotel, and branding is about making sure promises are delivered on when the guest arrives and when they leave, Lee said.
SB Architects has designed hotels in the U.S. and in 22 countries. The firm has offices in San Francisco, Miami and Shenzhen, China.