There are innumerable five-star hotels, and on the six- and seven-star market there is the Dubai Burj Al-Arab, recently joined by the Mandarin Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. Claims to be the most luxurious or most exclusive hotel are made every year, but the criteria are hard to define. Is it upscale due to the location or expense lavished on the project (with designer-labelled staff uniforms or exclusive fabrics for the guestrooms)? Or is it uniqueness (the new undersea hotels)? Or could it even be physical remoteness, ensuring that only those with private jets or yachts can gain access?

Although in some cases the budgets for refurbishment or construction may be huge, this does not always translate into a hotel that is exclusive or desirable. Again, the reason why one hotel is perceived as upscale while another is not, even if it appears to be similarly styled, sometimes seems quite arbitrary.

We often talk of lifestyle and boutique hotels in the upscale hotel sector, but the idea was around for a long time before those words became commonplace. Gentlemen’s and military clubs provided an upmarket, exclusive hotel-type service throughout the twentieth century and before. The design of the interiors was not necessarily what set them apart, but personal service was the key.

The title of this presentation, which supposedly gives a clue to the latest trends for upmarket hotels, cannot ignore that the provision of guest service is the main differentiator for the class of hotel. This personal and tailored level of service and understanding of the guests’ needs, together with comfortable interiors and exclusivity, is where the market has always positioned itself.

Guest expectations have risen as the standards of frequent flyer lounges, executive club floors and standard facilities have risen (spas are replacing the old-style gym, for instance). Even once little-known destinations are now equipped with modern international-standard hotels and with such familiarity the ‘exclusive’ and the ‘special’ becomes more difficult to achieve. ‘Timeless elegance’, easily achieved if one is converting a former palace or an ultra-chic modern design, can provide an upscale hotel experience only if the service lives up to the design.


Typically, upscale hotels with a discerning clientele do not contain a large number of guestrooms – 80 to 100 would be ideal. Less than this and the cost of providing services can be prohibitive. More than this and exclusivity and occupancy rates are difficulty to maintain. Comfortable design and relaxing spaces which calm the guest, rather than cutting-edge design, are the watchword for upscale hotels. Upscale hotels today have a similar clientele to what they have always had.

Design in the upper market sector is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Perhaps the fastest changes are occasioned by technological changes. The high net worth individuals frequenting these upper echelon hotels do not expect anything less than the latest technology. Even if they do not use it themselves, their staff need to be able to find that whatever they are used to at home is available in the ‘home away from home’.

What follows are some of the new developments that may be adopted in some form in future hotel designs. As happens throughout the hospitality industry, the early adopters are often the upscale hotels, as they have the budgets to pioneer the latest developments. It also gives them the edge and the marketing ‘plus points’.


The integration of radio frequency identification (RFID) may be the biggest change to come along in recent years. Developed and now being adopted more rapidly due to changes in international security, the proximity sensor is already being incorporated into passports in Singapore and Australia. In January 2006, San Francisco Airport started trials to speed up immigration.

What this may mean in the future, depending on privacy rights issues, is that a hotel with RFID detectors would know, even on a first time visit, all of a guest’s details. The check-in process would be made quicker and more personalised, as any allergies and specific preferences would be indicated and the guest could be addressed by name from the outset.

RFID on key cards can also alert the butler to the fact that the guest has left the room, enabling rapid housekeeping turnarounds or the provision of fresh flowers while the guest is breakfasting.


We are also looking at what will replace plasma and LCD screens in guest rooms. Holo TVs, commercially available for several years, are projectors which direct the image onto a special film applied to a glass sheet. When switched off, it is a normal pane of glass; when switched on, it seems to float in space. 3D TV developments include using lenticular screens with special coatings and filters where multiple images are weaved in vertical stripes (an out-of-phase image). Although cheap to produce, the problem is that it is tiring on the guest’s eyes and brain. Most have a maximum viewing period of one to two hours before nausea ensues.

An alternative 3D technology uses spinning screens as a projector flashes more than 200 different views of an image on the screen; by stacking more than 20 flat, thin screens in front of one another, the image can be flashed on each one, building up the display. Also in development are holographic displays, which may have the most commercial potential.

“Comfortable design and relaxing spaces which calm the guest, rather than cutting-edge design, are the watchword for upscale hotels.”

A more relaxing development is the use of laser sources mounted in the ceiling projecting onto a fog or mist, which rises from a slot in a table and is drawn out from an extract grille in the ceiling. The effect is like steam in the bathroom, but controlled so it does not fill the room, which creates a vertical ‘wall’ that can be walked through but also provides a projection screen.

Of course, the driver of development of all these new technologies will be the content provider. So far the only popular 3D movie is Polar Express by Steven Spielberg.


Some new technology is already being adopted. At the Semiramis Hotel in Athens, the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign is replaced by a scrolling LED, which can display almost any message the guest wishes. At the Oriental, New York, via converged networks, where all hotel information is sent down the same cable, rooms automatically store guests’ preferences for heating, lighting and wake up calls as well as their phone contacts book. The system makes re-visits easy and enables the hotel to tailor services better for each guest. Obviously all of this is designed to make sure the guest becomes a return visitor.

At the Nine Zero, Boston, the Cloud Nine suite can swap room key for iris recognition, so that staring at a scanner unlocks the door. The TriBeca Grand, New York has iStudio rooms where guests can use a mini-movie studio built around an Apple G5 Powermac. At Santa Monica’s Viceroy Hotel they also have ‘tech butlers’ to assist with all this new technology, and Portable Sony Playstations by the pool. As I said at the beginning, though as designers we can assist and provide the interior quality, it is ultimately the standard of service that differentiates the upscale hotel.

No matter how quickly design fashions are adopted, it is the hotels that can deliver a high and personalised standard of service which will maintain their status in the upscale hotel market.

Presented by Martin Hawthornthwaite to the EHMA general meeting in Budapest, 3 February 2006.