The Acupunctural Effect Of Holistic Design In Hospitality

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QUESTION From Darby in PA:

“My husband and I have been very successful with a few rental properties by listing them with AirBnB. We just paid them off and decided to borrow against them and open a boutique hotel with a restaurant & bar (near a large university campus). What steps would you recommend we take during the design & planning stages to ensure this location appeals to students and visitors without hiring an expensive consultant / NYC design firm?”


HH Answer:

Design consultants (and hospitality consultants) are expensive and whether it’s for: physical space, product packaging, uniforms, smallwares or the buffer area where an entryway meets the sidewalk… they’re worth it. Reach out to a few in your area and explain your budgetary limitations upfront - you might be surprised by how much they’re willing to work with you…they may even have newer / less-experienced associates that can manage your project for a reduced rate.

Other Avenues Of Inspiration: Visit other hotels, restaurants and bars you like (online and in person) and keep a binder full of photos that showcase: furniture, flooring, accent / feature walls, color schemes, windows, doors, handles, materials, lighting, seating, etc…that appeals to you. Most other owners / operators are happy to share information with regard to their FF& E…especially with regard to how well it’s held-up over time. Once you have identified products and materials that fit your aesthetic, you can probably source most of them on Google if their vendors are out of your financial reach. It may take awhile but it’ll save you tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars.

Also consider attending industry specific workshops & seminars like the ILC Indie Congress or searching: Pinterest, Magazines (think Food Network, Travel & Leisure, Conté Nast Traveler, Airline Magazines, Architectural Digest, etc…), NRA Publications, Movie sets/scenes and try tapping students in nearby design / art schools or local artisans/makers for ideas and commissioned pieces inspired by the ones you’ve identified. Even vendors and salespeople at local furniture or flooring stores can provide ideas & inspiration rooted in an educated perspective… especially with regard to applicability for commercial use (i.e., greater wear and tear).

If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into design and what makes some outlets more ‘addictive’ than others, you might enjoy the following (roughly written) article:


The Acupunctural Effect of Holistic Design In Hospitality: 

By Josh Sapienza

Just as an acupuncturist strategically places many tiny needles in specific locations to impact the whole body and trigger certain responses or a painter may apply tiny distinct dots of color in patterns to form an image in pointillism; when the smallest (and seemingly mundane) design details are intentionally and purposefully implemented, the collective (and often subconscious) impact often has a greater cumulative impact on one's experience than any one singular elements can elicit alone… regardless of it's size, cost or perceived importance (e.g., the assemblage of: real estate, fine details or elements of architecture (like the two towers at the Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman that serve as soft arms embracing their guests relaxing poolside) , accent lighting / up lighting in Buddakan NYC that creates an almost cinematic drama and air of excitement..air temperature and movement in Neiman Marcus retail stores, scents being used (in some of the world’s most successful hotels) to reinforce memory and an emotional sense of time and place (known as olfactive branding), background noise, the volume of music in the room, color palate, the finish on boardroom furniture or established flow patterns and travel paths within any restaurant or hotel.

I coined this term “Acupuncture Of Design” in an effort to illustrate and pay homage to the value in a multitude of ancillary design elements (and the skilled practitioners of them) that, when employed individually, may not amount to much but when used in concert, have a visceral effect on guests.

Artfully & synergistically implementing such small pieces of the puzzle first requires seeing guests not only as those personally welcomed into your home, but also as an audience whose escape from their routine life requires some sensual transport to aid in their ‘suspension of disbelief’. Providing a multi-leveled sensual yet social escape makes it possible to achieve such an escape (and appeal) to your brand which is often inexplicable to the untrained participant.

Much like the camera angles and musical scores / soundtracks used to evoke emotion in cinematography, the subtleties of design are rarely noted or quantified by a majority of the audience but are always on the minds of successful hospitality industry professionals... If you’re unfamiliar, I’m talking about the likes of Ian Schrager’s hotels, STARR Restaurants,  ACE hotels and Ritz Carlton properties. I recently took my first cruise to Walt Disney World and the Bahamas aboard The Disney Dream.


Using Design To Attract A Specific Market or Behavior

While some of the more conspicuous design elements have become staples of any retailer’s build-out (from lighting to sound dampening flooring) Las Vegas is famous for manipulating us with elements of design so well, that they are often referred to as “tactics”. Oxygenated air and dizzying patterns on the carpeting virtually intoxicate patrons (or ‘marks’) before their first complimentary Jack & Coke.

When working for high-concept restaurant companies on the East and West Coasts, I would instruct restaurant managers in younger sexier concepts (that catered to twenty and thirty-somethings) to keep it "loud, dark and cold". Those are the number one turn-offs for (and complaints from) older guests who will either get up and leave a restaurant or simply never enter….due to their not being able to read a menu, not being able to have a quiet conversation or being "far too cold in here!".

You don’t want to ask a party of senior citizens to leave any restaurant or club and yet you don’t want to discourage the young beautiful people with expendable income from filling the place either…and those young good-time seekers won't sit down for even one drink if they see a place filled with patrons that remind them of their parents.


Identifying Your Target Market Is Key

There is a huge and profitable market in satisfying everyone with one concept but unless your selling cheeseburgers, tacos and ice cream… taking on the job of satisfying everyone offers a bigger opportunity for failure or worse - mediocrity.

Even Facebook’s popularity among Millennials has waned since more moms, dads and even grandparents are now posting. If you want to experience Snapchat kind of growth as the most popular place in town, you have to be fresh, cool, fun and exclusive. After all, if there isn't a significant population of older wealthy patrons in your demographic, you likely need to make your numbers by filling the place with younger people who are able to spend money more frequently. Clientele, regardless of their age or demographic, are typically more comfortable with people their own age. The trick is attraction and retention...and there are a lot of small details that can be manipulated in order to accomplish both.

This holds true in venues where operators have a significant number of affluent baby boomers in the market to capture as well. Larger menus with bolder font, softer music, warmer room temperatures and brighter lights are gateways to lingering mature guests and higher check averages. Higher price points are an absolute advantage when you have a specialized service or menu and are charging $45-$100 per plate or upwards of $350-$650 for a chef’s tasting menu...which in itself is an effective barrier to younger more boisterous customers which makes the atmosphere unappealing for that particular demographic.


Hospitality Is Entertainment

At Disney, every detail from sight lines and other sense-perceptions that affect every moment of one’s experience seems to be scientifically calculated to provide the most memorable experience for every guest. Multi-generational concepts harmoniously coexist and oftentimes work symbiotically to keep all guests (young and old alike) entertained and entrenched within their own personal escapes.

No detail gets overlooked. From being royally "presented" upon arrival in the grand lobby of the Disney Dream Cruise Ship to the authentic visual balance created by rescue boats perched along side the ship that are painted the exact same shade of yellow as Mickey Mouse’s shoes.

And the parks are no different from the cruise line. Wonderful surprises await guests around every corner. Granted, there are no spontaneous encounters with Goofy hopping into your stateroom elevator at the park... but the park staff (including those in character suits and those performing ‘routine grounds maintenance’) are equally friendly and uniquely engaging.

Play areas are incorporated into the waiting lines for rides and “Splash-n-Soak” stations are strategically placed to cool off the small (and big) kids in-between attractions. Even the transportation throughout the Magic Kingdom is provided on a tram that has been transformed into an old steam locomotive for those who remember a time gone past and for others whose only reference may be a film or a Lionel Train set beneath a Christmas trees as. Details like these aid in transporting guests elsewhere. Away from the ordinary and mundane...into a suspension of disbelief and an openness to magic.

Just as hospitality goes far beyond comfortable accommodations, fantastic decor and high thread counts, restaurants are not just about cooking food and delivering it to customers. My tour with the Executive Sous Chef, through the main galley / kitchen on The Disney Dream displayed Disney's same recognition. An equal level of importance was placed on consistency and quality from the kitchen as it was on entertaining the youngest guests in various themed dining rooms. The unobtrusive (almost invisible) beverage service is on equal footing with the timing of food coming out of the kitchen proving that the creation of any enjoyable experience that defies conventional dining is where the magic resides.

Like Disney, restaurants (and most physical retail experiences) exist to entertain and transport us beyond convenience and into to some experience or escape. Extraordinary restaurants and hotels aren't simply selling a food product or a room as much as they are selling an experience synonymous with luxury - a feeling of being important / appreciated and being entertained all at once.

Their customers are their audience and their audience is the boss (or as Emerson may have put it, “gods in ruins”). This time honored concept of intelligent and ‘next-level’ transcendent design has been illustrated everywhere in restaurants like those run by Thomas Keller and Patrick O'Connell. It's why those institutions overseen by the likes of Stephen Starr & Bradley Bartram, Eric Ripert, Danny Meyer, Thomas Keller, Chef Daniel Humm & Will Guidara are almost-instant classics alongside those their more established counterparts like Bern's Steakhouse (In Tampa FLA) and Delmonico's or Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s namesake restaurant (both in NYC)...but Disney Theme Parks equally epitomize hospitality and they do it on a grander scale… both in the park and in every restaurant aboard their cruise ships.

This sense of positioning products and services with good old fashioned showmanship is lyrically echoed in the Disney's classic: Bedknobs and Broomsticks:

“…The future is ours

As the shine sells the boot

And the blossoms the fruit

All you need to succeed in your plan

Is the proper ally

Upon whom to rely

And I'm your man…

With my expert pantomiming

The proper taste and timing

I'll introduce you in the monogram

I'll wet their appetite for you

I'll set the scene so right for you

We'll have the beggars eating out of your hand

As the words sell the tune

And the moon beams the moon.”


Hospitality’s Intrinsic Appeal & The Science Behind It

When restaurants successfully create a special "sizzle" for their steak, and anticipate your needs - it facilitates that escape from the ordinary. The goal is to create a distraction from customers’ everyday responsibilities, stresses and obligations so that they might focus less on needing a spoon… or cream for their coffee and instead, dedicate more of their focus on their company… and connect on a deeper more meaningful level with them - whether it be their family, friends, colleagues, members of their community or their own thoughts. In many ways, I guess you could say that genuine hospitality requires a deep appreciation for and investment in people (known in Transcendentalism as an appreciation for “the greatness of [hu]man”).

These aren't just industry tricks and manipulations of the subconscious employed to extract money or brand loyalty from guests. It’s a means of delivering a genuine well-being. Beyond delivering pleasure, affirmation, escape, entertainment and comfort - great service is a selfless and constructive gift to not only those being served - but to those whose lives intersect with those who have been served.

If I had to reduce every retailer’s, restaurateur's or hotelier's mission statement to just three words…they would be “Make People Happy”. Hospitality is about creating a time and place where people feel relaxed, welcomed and individually well-cared for.

After all, providing guest service means providing mass personalization…and while you can’t be everything to everyone, you can appeal to the mass of your target market with strategies scientifically proven to be effective.

To better emphasize this, one might consider Maslow’s Theory of Human Hierarchy of Needs and Human Motivation.

Each need level is "evoked" to the degree that the organism is "threatened" or "unsatisfied" at that level.

In general, lower levels supersede higher levels when the organism's "degree of satisfaction" at the lower level is "threatened".

A need that has been satisfied for a long time may lose the ability to assert itself.

An individual may become "fixated" at a given level.

These needs tend to be more unconsciously realized than consciously realized:

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7. Physiological - Aesthetic / I like this place

6. Knowledge & Understanding / I know where I am

5. Safety & Security / I am safe here

4. Love & Belonging / I am valued here

3. Esteem or Ego / I fit in here

2. Self-Actualization / I belong here. This is my place

1. Transcendental Experience / I am part of something bigger - collective

Although many may disagree, I believe that (as far as the average guest is concerned) food quality is often the less-important offering in a restaurant. Don’t get me wrong…if the food is bad, they’re not coming back, but restaurants exist to provide a far deeper form of sustenance. Depending on how well that sustenance is delivered… it can actually make the food taste “better”. If you’ve ever been on a vacation in the islands and enjoyed a frozen rum runner or pina colada while sitting on the beach enjoying the tropical breezes and the sounds of steel drum music playing as the sun goes down… and then consumed that same exact drink six months later in your kitchen or garage, I guarantee that it wouldn't taste half as good.

Much of appreciation is sensual (ergo “The Acupuncture Of Design”). It comes along with being in that tropical paradise and smelling the tropical air. Those small details and a million others are experienced simultaneously with the frozen cocktail... and the overall impact touches us far more deeply than the simple recipe.

Much like a science fiction novel or film that caters to our innate desire for escape and plays our body’s involuntary release of serotonin and tryptophan upon fantasizing about adventure or victory; a well-thought out restaurant or hotel experience can transport a customer into an alternate realm.

Studies have shown that measurable amounts of endorphins are released and overall optimism surges when test groups are asked to imagine ways of spending lottery winnings.

Test subjects' bodies physically respond in similar ways to the way they would if they had actually won. It’s easy for most of us to surrender ourselves to that fantasy. Its easy to imagine winning if we've ever won anything...and having a lot of money to manage if we've ever had any. Just as a cinematographer or stage performer seeks to evoke excitement, comedy, drama and/or sheer wonder and joy, If a chef sends food out from the kitchen that doesn't meet or exceed expectations, it’s like the premise of a film being so far beyond the realm of possibility that it’s simply too fantastic to believe…but if the multitude of other stimuli is entertaining, comforting, engaging and/or pleasurable… it becomes possible to suspend disbelief for a moment (as is the case in most sci-fi films and music concerts) or in the case of a restaurant, not notice or care how over-cooked the burger might be.

Just as the many facets of a film or music production affect our emotional responses, every incalculable detail within a physical space affects our comfort (or discomfort) level as well...whether its immediately distinguishable or not. We are creatures who respond to stimulus whether it’s consciously or sub-consciously. Ask any seasoned poker player about “tells” and they will explain how our bodies, independent of our will, respond to stimuli whether we want them to or not.

If you can make someone feel welcomed and comfortable, you’ll be satiating them on a level that they may not even realize they instinctively crave…and as Maslow concludes, may be mistaking for hunger:

“It should be pointed out again that any of the physiological needs and the consummatory behavior involved with them serve as channels for all sorts of other needs as well. That is to say, the person who thinks he is hungry may actually be seeking more for comfort, or dependence, than for vitamins or proteins. Conversely, it is possible to satisfy the hunger need in part by other activities such as drinking water or smoking cigarettes. In other words, relatively isolable as these physiological needs are, they are not completely so.

Undoubtedly these physiological needs are the most proponent of all needs. What this means specifically is that in the human being who is missing everything in life in an extreme fashion, it is most likely that the major motivation would be the physiological needs rather than any others. A person who is lacking food, safety, love, and esteem would most probably hunger for food more strongly than for anything else.

If all the needs are unsatisfied, and the organism is then dominated by the physiological needs, all other needs may become simply nonexistent or be pushed into the background. It is then fair to characterize the whole organism by saying simply that it is hungry, for consciousness is almost completely preempted by hunger. All capacities are put into the service of hunger-satisfaction, and the organization of these capacities is almost entirely determined by the one purpose of satisfying hunger. The receptors and effectors, the intelligence, memory, habits, all may now be defined simply as hunger-gratifying tools”.

Quoted from Motivation and Personality, Chapter 4

© 1970 by Abraham H. Maslow


The Role Of Behavioral Economics In Hospitality

Because people don’t always behave rationally or employ sound logic when making decisions where to dine (or drink) you have to consider the less tangible aspects of how to position your restaurant or bar. While there are people who will go follow the lowest priced wings or strongest cocktails for their dollar, many will pay more for the same product and develop a strong sense of loyalty if incentives beyond economics are introduced…like incredible guest service, personal acknowledgement and a greater attention to design in the space. All of that makes a guest feel important and more inexplicably comfortable.

Even veterinarian, Dr. Joseph Spoo in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, told me recently:

"...the reason we have so many obese dogs is that, in our increasingly busy lives, there is such a lack of personal contact and connection with our pets that the most significant amount of interaction [and thus perceptible happiness or excitability] dogs often get is at mealtimes or when we give them treats...why we see so many dogs licking their bowls clean and being over-fed"

There is so much small stimuli that affects behavior, thought and emotion....including things like: body language, the color of our clothing, the color of a room, where we position ourselves in a room…even particular scents in the air. The many ways in which we subtly affect those around us, be it neighbors, children or customers, results in how they feel...and feelings (rather than logic) often drive perception.

See: The Road Less Traveled, How to Win Friends and Influence People & Adam Alter's Drunk Tank Pink.

While there’s no substitute for substance, perception plays a significant role. Comedian Eddie Izzard makes light of the old adage: “It’s not what you say (or sell) by how you say it.” in his "Dressed To Kill" stand-up routine and uses “historical evidence” to support the theory that: [It’s not what you say as much as how you say it. It’s 70% How You Look, 20% How You Sound and only 10% What You Say...]

The point is, I see all of these variables as tiny pins or acupuncture needles that, alone, are so small and insignificant but when they are all applied at the right time and in the right place with a high level of awareness and elevated EQ - they can have an overwhelmingly significant impact on brand perception.