In today’s ultra-competitive hospitality market, differentiation is everything. When a visitor to any given city can choose between dozens of options in their price bracket – from the big brands to bohemian boutiques – any point of separation from a hotel’s competitors can be an advantage.

It wasn’t always this way. Looking back three or four decades, the hotel’s job was to provide the basics and little more. Piers Schmidt, founder of London-based high-end branding consultancy Luxury Branding, notes that the historic, iconic campaign slogan for Hilton – ‘take me to the Hilton’ – was essentially shorthand for ‘any port in a storm’, reflecting the need for a predictable source of shelter and security in an unfamiliar place.

As the global travel market exploded in the late 20th century and onwards, driven by the increasing affordability of international travel and prompting the entry of dozens of new hospitality players, simply providing room and board was no longer enough.

“Hoteliers very quickly learned that it was no longer enough to just provide a shoebox space with a bed in it, clean water and a burger downstairs,” Schmidt says. “They had to start producing a competitive edge. I guess this is where all of the trends that we’ve observed in hospitality in the last 30-35 years originate from, this need to differentiate from one another, and to differentiate from a pure utilitarian offer to a much more emotional or lifestyle or psychological relationship with the guest.”

When it comes to differentiation, a residential twist that blurs the line between hotel and home to make guests feel more comfortable might be the oldest trick in the hospitality playbook.

What defines ‘residential’ in hotels?

But what does ‘residential’ actually mean in the context of hotel interior design and branding? Home is the kind of nebulous concept that could mean any number of things depending on who you ask. The sheer malleability of the concept helps explain why ‘home away from home’ has become one of the industry’s time-honoured – and essentially meaningless – tropes.

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“I don’t know a hotel or a hotel brand that doesn’t proudly stand up and say, ‘The thing that sets us apart is we offer our guests a home away from home,’” says Schmidt. “The other great cliché is, ‘We develop our hotels with a sense of place.’ These are the two generics.”

As New York-based architecture firm Turett Collaborative’s director of interior design Jessica Shaw acknowledges, ‘home from home’ is a fluctuating idea in hospitality design, with more modern live-work trends jostling against more aspirational styles.

“[The residential] curve is taking on a bit of a different thing now, with more of an emphasis on live-work,” says Shaw, who has worked on interiors for New York hotel projects including Ramada Inn Manhattan and Broadway @ Times Square. “I think there’s still a category of the five-star hotel or even four-star experience, which is very much about emulating a desired residential, ‘if you had the money to’ kind of vibe. But there’s also this other tangent that hospitality is taking, which is more towards a millennial kind of experience, I would say, and it’s all about live-work. It’s less of an emphasis on the actual room experience, and more about the communal experience.”

The Airbnb effect?

Speaking of millennials – not to mention the emerging Gen Z crowd – the rise of home-sharing apps such as Airbnb, or OneFineStay at the luxury end of the market, has catered to typically younger travellers’ desire for a truly residential experience when they travel, a trend that will not have escaped the notice of the hotel chains.

Shaw sees the influence of the casual, domestic Airbnb-type arrangement in the more permissive attitudes on show in hotel marketing. “A nicely kitted-out hotel that allows pets, where they might not have before, is a very particular thing that I’ve seen come up in certain hotel brands’ marketing,” she says. “Putting that at the forefront, that you can extend your home lifestyle here in our hotel.”

While Schmidt believes the influence of the Airbnbs of the world on the hospitality sector can easily be overstated, he recognises that younger travellers “are increasingly having their travel experiences, at least some of the time, based in actual domestic residences when they travel, and therefore the benefits of that sort of home stay starts to become part of the expectation for when they’re in hotels”.

“It’s definitely something the hotel companies are thinking about,” he adds. “They’re either buying stakes in those kinds of companies or denying their existence – there are various responses to it.”

The residential trend in hotel interior design

From a visual perspective, hoteliers with a residential atmosphere in mind work to find a balance between furniture, fixtures and equipment that meets industry’s standards on criteria like durability and fire safety, while also creating a personal touch that can evoke the lived-in comforts of home. Fine details like bed linens, mattress quality and in-room espresso machines all add to the effect.

“Wall-to-wall carpeting as opposed to hard wood flooring with area rugs,” Shaw suggests. “Flooring choices in general, to soften that touch and feel. The furniture that you see in the lounge spaces [is] feeling less like that cookie-cutter feel, very heavy-handed things in the hospitality environment; now you’re seeing them be more like what you’d expect to find in your own home.”

Indeed, residential and hotel furniture are increasingly blurring into one, with the likes of Marriott teaming up with high-street furniture retailers such as West Elm and Ikea in recent years to bring some extra familiarity and on-trend home styles to hotels. West Elm even has designs of its own for the hospitality sector, and is planning to launch five boutique hotels across the US from 2021, starting in Indianapolis.

Smart technologies – from programmable lighting to app-controlled doors – are often seen as a facilitator of guest convenience, another potential hallmark of home. But according to Shaw, complex tech offerings have as much chance of alienating guests as reminding them of the convenience of home.

“You just need to have stupid-simple operational devices,” she says. “Smart home technology, at least at this stage, does not translate well in the hospitality world, starting with the fact that if anything breaks down, as a hotel management issue, you’re basically screwed.”

Home is a feeling

The premium and luxury end of the hotel sector, where Schmidt operates, can act in the same way that Formula 1 influences the wider automotive industry, with ideas intended to satisfy the most demanding customers in the world gradually filtering down to more affordable market segments, from premium hotels to serviced apartments. When it comes to luxury residential trends for ultra-high net worth travellers, the aim is increasingly to blend the best virtues of residential and hotel ambience.

“We’re seeing now this blend of wanting all the mod cons of my private home – I want it to feel like a home and not like a cookie-cutter corporate chain, but I want that home to be open to people like me,” Schmidt says. “So it’s this new thing that is partly behaving like a domestic residence – the scale, the grandeur, the size of rooms, the non-corporate design, more random in a way, more lived-in. And yet they want the sociability, the buzz of the hotel experience to bring some animation into those quasi-domestic spaces.”

Accounting for the human factor and social dynamics in the hotel residential theme is certainly trickier than judging the right curtain material or the perfect sofa set for the lobby, but it can be all-important. ‘Home’ has always been more of a feeling than a structure, and more about people than things. In this way, the residential trend isn’t simply a box that hoteliers must tick – it’s a frustratingly intangible quality that all hotels should try to blend with other design and branding objectives, all in the service of boosting human connections.

“From three-star to five-star, that what makes the hotel experience memorable for guests is their exchange with human beings, not technology,” Shaw argues. “You want them to feel like they’re at home, but you also want them to feel like they’re getting the best service ever.”

Striking the right balance between home comforts and the memorable experience that hotels can provide will always be tough, especially as the hospitality industry continues to drill down towards the core of what customers expect. Branding experts like Schmidt are paid to stare into the industry’s crystal ball in search of revelations, but there are no easy answers.

“I think the industry is struggling to find [a balance], and I’ll admit we are too,” Schmidt says. “We’re working on a project where we’re trying to find what this next thing is. I don’t have the answer yet; we’re literally working on it as we speak. We’re trying to find that space where there is exchange, there is dialogue, there is conversation going on between the hotel, the community and the guests, but at the same time the hotel becomes slightly more reclusive, can be less open.”