Paul McAleer

You can learn a lot about design from Hotel Impossible

Paul McAleer

Last night my wife and I watched an episode of Hotel Impossible. The premise is similar to Restaurant: Impossible but with hotels and without a semicolon: a particular hotel is on the brink of failure for some reason, and an expert is brought in to fix it, along with a designer.

The expert in this case is Anthony Melchiorri. He comes from the hospitality industry, so I trust he’s bona fide. The lead designer is Casey Noble, former host of Design on a Dime; she also has a background in hospitality. So, both seem like good fits.

As we watched the episode focusing on the Periwinkle Inn I couldn’t help but notice a lot - and I mean a lot! - of similarities between Anthony and Casey’s work and the work of experience designers. I encourage you to watch the show: it’s entertaining reality fare, and Anthony also hates ALL CAPS SIGNAGE just like I do (bonus!)

The lessons I took from this show absolutely apply to experience design. And here are five key points I found while watching.

1. Understanding what your users do is essential.
The Periwinkle Inn is a family business, and the current owner had been running the show in some way for about 50 years. Her son and daughter had been involved for over 20 years. Over time the Inn’s customer base had become smaller and smaller. Policies such as cash only during high season (!) were keeping new customers away, and existing customers were coming back and back… but not bringing in substantial new business. 

In one scene, Anthony spoke with a person staying at the hotel - and later took his feedback verbatim to the manager/owner. Seeing that was powerful stuff, because it’s a direct (and unscientific, etc.) version of what we do: we represent the users. Anthony was a user advocate.

In another scene, Anthony spoke with the pool maintenance man to learn how often he cleaned the pool (daily, although no one was using it that often) and how the crew catered to guests. The hotel had no pool towels, so guests had to remember to bring a towel from their room down to the pool, and then walk across a parking lot to hang it out to dry outside… and, oh yeah, all of the towels are identical too. It was fascinating seeing Tony do this because he was essentially doing role play for typical user behavior.

They did get pool towels, by the way, in yellow as to distinguish them from room towels.

2: Aesthetic design is only one part of the challenge.
Casey and Anthony did a fabulous job given their constraints. But in the end, Casey’s fully redecorated lobby - a huge upgrade from the old one - was gutted by the owners. They changed it back.

The owners also didn’t have any technology involved in the day-to-day. Like, none. No computers - the sentiment was, “They crash; paper doesn’t.” Well, sure, but paper can burn or rot, you know? 

To me this demonstrated how focusing only on visual or aesthetic design is folly, unless that’s all that’s needed in a particular situation. In this case, Casey’s excellent work was only one part of the equation: there also needed to be real process change and willingness to make tradeoffs. The show focuses on the aesthetics because, well, that’s what we look at and in hotels, that’s vital. But, it’s not everything and can’t be.

3: Stakeholders and owners may not change their minds, so you need to work within your constraints.
While Casey’s team ripped up the godawful lobby carpet they uncovered a huge crack in the underlying slab. She brought this to Anthony, saying that this was a blocker (essentially) and would add another week of time and labor to the project. He said no and told her to find another way to solve it.

It’s done for dramatic flair on the show, but this is a very real constraint we face. We have deadlines and we have needs that must be met. There are some people we need to make happy during a project, and some people that simply need to be informed of what’s going on. In this case Anthony needed to be happy, so Casey had to come up with another option for the floor. (She did, of course; she’s a professional.)

4: You are your product, and you are your culture. It all matters.
The Periwinkle Inn was in good shape from the outside, but looked dated and sad inside. The lobby was taken up by a gorgeous check-in desk that had… plexiglass, like a crime-ridden convenience store. The rooms were cobbled together without an overarching theme. Add on to that a mess of policies, SHOUTING SIGNS EVERYWHERE!, and not effectively marketing anywhere online, it added up to a big messy product that had no idea what it wanted to be when it grew up.

As an aside, I’m going to stretch and add that the hotel’s staff, at least on the show, was dressed horribly. In one scene, Anthony arranged a meeting with a marketing manager at a local arts museum. The manager ended up donating all sorts of advertising to the Inn. But in the meeting the marketing head and Anthony were wearing suits; the owners of the hotel were wearing ill-fitting clothing, jeans, and sneakers. In situations like that, this matters. I will admit that this may have been a curveball the show threw in for the sake of entertainment, but it looked like the owners didn’t take things seriously.

Anthony and Casey brought a sense of cohesiveness to the hotel’s design and attempted to extend that to the culture and the staff. It all matters.

5: Change or die.
You know the drill. If you stick to your old patterns, you’re putting yourself at risk. If you run a business the same way in 2013 as you did in 1983, you’re at risk. If you have no digital presence in 2013, you’re at risk. If you don’t understand that your customer base may change, you’re at risk.

All told, I was surprised and impressed at how much of my work I saw in this show. Experience is everything; everything is experience.