Winning Wellness Strategies in Hotel Design
Tom Ito in Hospitality, Hotels

Image © Gensler

This post first appeared in HOTELS on 11/12/2013

The first thing I do when I walk into a hotel room is open the curtains. I want to know what’s outside my room and where I am in relation to the city. The ritual is like oxygen to me; I need that deep breath and that visual information to be at peace with my surroundings. I also need to know where the fitness center is, what kind of equipment it offers and where the closest running path is outside. These actions reflect an underlying desire to shake off the discomforts of travel and be restored to my normal self.

I’m not alone in my quest for well-being when I’m traveling. Within the last 18 months, there’s been a spike in news about travel products targeted to the health- and wellness-conscious traveler — and not just vacationers, but business travelers too.

IHG launched a new wellness brand called Even Hotels “to meet a new and growing customer demand in the U.S. for healthier travel,” as IHG puts it. Two flagship properties (jointly owned by Frank Chan and Lance Steinberg and managed by IHG) are expected to open in New York City mid-year 2015. And in the meantime, the first Even Hotels will open in Rockville, Maryland, and Norwalk, Connecticut (both owned by IHG) in early 2014 with a four-pronged wellness approach that covers the bases of healthier food, better rest, better workouts and faster services so guests can accomplish more and feel better about their day.

Then there’s Whole Foods Market. The natural and organic foods grocer is exploring the idea of opening a health resort — a place where people could come to learn about healthy eating, nutrition and wellness. The model and location for the concept have not been finalized.

Already up and running — and being expanded — is the new Stay Well room concept at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The luxe hotel initially redesigned 42 rooms and suites in one wing of the 14th floor (with the help of Delos Living in conjunction with the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Deepak Chopra) around this very concept of healthfulness to give guests a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall wellness experience within the guestroom. The concept has been well received. The occupancy rate in those rooms, which cost an extra US$30 a night on top of the regular room rate, is around 92%, according to a spokeswoman for the company. The entire 14th floor — some 171 room — is now being converted to Stay Well rooms. Completion is expected by the end of this year.

As someone who designs hotels for a living and believes the best hotels give people an experience, I believe the larger wellness trend that’s underway reveals useful information for hotel owners and managers. It does not matter whether hoteliers package and market “wellness” or not — we’re all in the business of making guests feel good, right? Here’s what the wellness operators are doing masterfully: Honor — really honor — a good night’s sleep.

I couldn’t tell you what was special about the mattress or pillow or linens in the Stay Well room I stayed in recently at the MGM Grand, other than they felt great. What was more tangible to me were the other, invisible things that people need to get good rest: the calm-inducing quiet, seamless darkness and absolute right temperature. Often overlooked, a really good thermostat control system that keeps guests in bed (and not jumping up and down to adjust the thermostat) is critical.

Create a cocoon of comfort.

Along with that really good thermostat, the Stay Well room had excellent air. I’m serious. I immediately noticed that the air in the room felt different and fresher than the air in the hallway, and, no doubt, the special air-purification system and subtle/nondescript scent coming from an (adjustable/optional) aromatherapy “cube” had something to do with it. The point is, I was drawn into this cocoon of comfort one foot in the door.

Lighting is integral to the cocoon as well. It’s important to give guests a variety of options — task lighting so they can work, ambient lighting for relaxing, natural light (by all means) and obvious controls for all of them. Light switches should be apparent. Too many over-designed hotels hide them in their enthusiasm to create a clean, minimal “look” — and end up frustrating guests. The cocoon must be easy to operate and intuitive for guests. Nothing in the room should require an instruction manual.

Make the fitness experience special.

That could involve adding better equipment to your facility or some in-room equipment. It might involve moving the fitness room/facility to more precious real estate within the hotel — an upper floor with a spectacular view or the lobby itself. It also could mean forging a better connection to your outdoors. There’s something healthful and “fit” about nature.

Give healthy food options.

In the restaurants. In the minibar. Through room service.


The first time I experienced this was at a hotel in Chennai, India: in-floor, directional, night lighting that guided me to the bathroom in the darkness, without me having to turn on a big, nasty light. That intrigued and reassured me at the same time. This hotel had really considered my well-being. I had those same feelings in my Stay Well room with its Vitamin C-infused shower, wake-up light therapy (said to increase energy and reverse the effects of jetlag), photo-catalytic coating on surfaces that’s supposed to break down bacteria and viruses, etc., etc. The list of wellness amenities in this room was long and lush. But perhaps even more important than any one of them was the grander notion that I was not just being pampered, I was being cared for.

Savvy hotel owners and managers are figuring out how to tailor their particular guest experience to include these factors. In the end, that’s what wellness is about: giving guests the feeling someone else has thought about their health and well-being and they’re being cared for. That’s what will make guests return again and again.

Tom Ito is a principal in Gensler’s Los Angeles office and a leader in the firm’s global hospitality practice. Tom launched that practice at Gensler with the renovation of The Beverly Hills Hotel in the early 1990s and has since developed it on an international scale with clients throughout Asia, the UK, Middle East and Americas. This is the first in a series of blogs that Tom is contributing on design—and its value. Contact him at
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