Chris Webb – Senior Director of Interior Design EMEA, Hilton

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When we first started putting together this Spotlight feature on the hospitality market, top of our wish list was an in-depth conversation with a leading designer from a leading hotel chain. Our wish was well and truly granted, as we were fortunate enough to discuss the current and future state of the hotel market with Chris Webb, Senior Director of Interior Design EMEA, Hilton.

Five years ago, Hilton established an internal design team to create its hotels. We ask Chris why the group had taken this decision.

‘Unlike many other international hotel operators, Hilton has a dedicated team of interior designers and architects, responsible for leading the design of both new-build and restoration projects, working closely with local partners,’ Chris explains. ‘We took the decision to bring the design process under one roof because we wanted greater ownership over the look and feel of our hotels.

‘More and more guests are looking for authentic, standout places to stay that truly reflect their locations. We responded to that demand by building a team of design specialists who have the expertise to bring to life each project’s surroundings.’

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So what are the main trends that Chris and the team have identified in current hotel interior design?

‘The integration of technology and the increasing influence of residential design are two of the stronger themes to emerge in recent years within the hotel interior space,’ he tells us.

‘The evolution of personal technology and the rise of the ‘Internet of Things’ are having a profound effect on the way in which we design and build modern hotels.

‘However, incorporating new technologies into the layout of private and communal hotel spaces in a way that doesn’t compromise on the overall aesthetic can be a significant challenge.

‘A good example of where our team has combined old with new with great success is in the Reichshof Hamburg, part of Curio – A Collection by Hilton.

‘The hotel was originally built in 1910 and in 2015, as part of a full refurbishment, our team reworked the interiors to showcase the Art Deco design, highlighting the style of the ‘golden 20s’. Just as there was a need to preserve an important local building, we also needed to ensure that it functioned in a way that suited our guests’ tastes today, and sensitively introduced cutting-edge modern design elements.

‘Stunning marble columns, delicate wooden panelling and art-deco lighting are presented next to state-of-the-art LED lighting technology and flat-screen TVs, which feature musical performances and movies.

‘The 278 rooms, junior suites and one bedroom suites have been completely renovated and offer leisure and business travellers a relaxing retreat in the heart of Hamburg that speaks to the building’s history but serves the modern traveller too – the Reichshof Hamburg combines Hanseatic Art-Deco elegance with contemporary design.

‘The second emerging theme we’re seeing is a greater influence from the residential sector in the design of new hotel room interiors. Guests are now paying much more attention to the inspiration we can take from residential spaces to make guest experiences more relaxing and familiar.

‘Travellers and business guests are now looking for more than just a place to rest their head while travelling – they want a home away from home. For example, there’s a big emphasis amongst most major hoteliers now to introduce textured fabrics and soft furnishings for a sumptuous layering effect.

‘Guest rooms in particular have become extensions of well-proportioned homes with zoning that responds to areas of the home and as we continue to develop our narratives for our brands these values are increasingly reinforced.

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‘We have also found that business guests are choosing to complete work, which would have traditionally always been done at the room desk, in communal areas instead. Therefore, we’ve reconsidered the public spaces in some of our hotels to provide opportunities in the lobby and other spaces in our hotels for guests to work and relax.

‘Many are working and surfing the internet on multiple mobile and tablet devices, so in some Hilton hotels – like the Conrad Dublin – we’ve deliberately created a residential table or desk to allow for a bigger chaise or sofa. We’ve also introduced USB ports next to wall sockets in public and private spaces to provide more flexibility in how people use our hotels.’

How does the Hilton design team capture the essence of a culture / location within a hotel’s interior design?

‘Our focus is on providing guest experiences that bring to life the character of either the hotel building, the surrounding area, or both,’ Chris considers. ‘We want to move away from the notion that a hotel serves only to put a roof over your head for a night. Hotels can and should be so much more.

‘When a brief comes in, my team and I spend a lot of time either researching the history of the restoration project ahead of refurbishment, or getting out into the local area to soak up the culture, which can spark ideas for interior themes that thread throughout a project or a key feature that might form a focal point in the hotel.

‘A good example of this is the recent refurbishment of Conrad Dublin this year. This building, which has served as a hotel for some 27 years, has undergone a major refurbishment, to give the hotel a sophisticated, yet locally inspired, luxurious update.

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‘Multiple local influences, including The Iveagh Gardens and Dublin’s rich literary culture, have inspired Conrad Dublin’s multi-million Euro renovations.

‘The lobby redesign has been inspired by the work and vision of Ninian Niven, the architect of Iveagh Gardens, which is also known as Dublin’s ‘Secret Garden’.

‘It has been designed to illustrate the beauty of the nearby garden’s Rosarium and features an abundance of flora and natural, indigenous materials, which have been used to marry historical influences with a contemporary finish.

‘Other sources of inspiration for the luxury property can be seen in the ground floor lounge and bar, which has taken inspiration from Dublin-born Jonathan Swift’s work – Gulliver’s Travels. References to this international classic have been woven into every corner of this space with, for example, ironwork on the ceiling detailing some of the key islands mentioned in Swift’s book.

‘Similarly, an ancient mosaic floor was recently discovered in the basement of Hilton Antakya Turkey, which is set to open next year. Although the project was originally due to be completed within 18 months, during construction works we uncovered what experts consider to be the largest intact ancient mosaic floor in the world, in the basement of the hotel.

‘As such, we decided to turn the hotel into a hotel-museum – the second of its kind. The mosaic floors measure just over 9,000 sq ft, are over 2,000 years old and comprise a wide variety of geometric patterns in different colours. Rather than building on top of this or giving the mosaic to a museum, we chose to incorporate the archaeological site into the hotel to celebrate its history, and it has now become a focal point of the hotel in its own right.

What impact does all this have on a guest’s stay at the hotel? Do Chris and his colleagues get a lot of positive feedback about this unconventional approach to hotel design?

‘I think our guests certainly appreciate the attention to detail. It’s quite an undertaking and requires a lot of planning and research before the first brick is laid or wall knocked-through. In my view, Hilton London Bankside best sums up the work of the in-house design team. There are little touches throughout the building, a former bank vault, which sits in the heart of Southwark.

‘From the ‘Urban Fox’ motif referenced subtly more than 100 times throughout the hotel, including in the bedrooms – a nod to a fox that would visit the site during construction – to the work of young British artists present throughout the building in a tribute to the Tate Modern around the corner, we want our hotels to tell stories that intrigue and excite our guests.

What does Chris ultimately aspire to achieve for the design of Hilton hotels?

‘I want to push our design team to create a sense of place for each hotel we’re briefed to create or redevelop. As well as telling the story of the local area, we want to make our facilities a ‘home away from home’, without compromising on the practicality, comfort, and luxury that has come to be expected from our hotels. Two of Hilton’s most recently launched brands – Canopy by Hilton and Curio Collection by Hilton – reflect this approach.

How does sustainability manifest itself in hotel design? Is it a movement towards an eco-consciousness, or is it more about ensuring design will remain relevant (and not become outdated) for years to come?

‘Sustainability is of course a very important part of the design process, and it manifests itself in hotel design in various ways. For instance, Hilton London Bankside recently worked with British jewellery designer Alex Monroe to design some newly installed beehives on the roof terrace. The Meadow was created to help reintegrate greenery into the Bankside landscape and to contribute to London’s green infrastructure.

‘There are also a number of major initiatives we are deploying to control water usage and reduce heat loss, through installing more showers in place of baths and cutting edge glazing technology.

‘Lighting is also a key area we’re focusing heavily on to ensure we’re reducing our energy consumption. The advancement of LED technology is offering continued opportunity to reduce use whilst retaining atmosphere, quality of light and design.

Finally, how do Chris and the team preserve period features in some of their   more historically sensitive projects while ensuring that it remains a world-class, forward thinking destination?

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‘Heritage refurbishments represent the biggest test for the team,’ Chris admits. ‘Getting the balance right between preservation, comfort and modern design is hard to do right. Hilton Paris Opera in the French capital probably best sums up this challenge.

‘Built in 1889 (the same year as the Eiffel Tower), the hotel was originally created to welcome travellers arriving at Saint-Lazare station visiting the World Expo. It underwent a $50m restoration job over a two-year period, reopening in 2015.

‘Although Hotel Paris Opera oozes opulence and elegance, the hotel was refurbished last year to ensure it was suitable for the modern traveller. The listed features are still in place, but they’ve been carefully mixed with the necessities of a modern traveller so the heritage remains – but not at the price of convenience for the traveller.’