February 15, 2012The Art of Aural Design – Make your hotel memorable through a unique soundscape

A luxurious lobby entryway. The scent of freshly cut flowers . The taste of a signature cocktail. A cozy, comfortable chair. While each of these alluring sensory experiences is unquestionably accounted for in developing a hotel’s unique design, one remaining sense often goes tragically unnoticed – sound.

“People often think that since you can’t really hear it, the music doesn’t matter,” says Allen Klevens, founder and CEO of Prescriptive Music. “But when you think about how a hotel is experienced, it’s all about sensory, and that includes sound.”

In other words, because music is in the background, it often gets treated like a second-class amenity. But just like any other element of hotel design, a musical selection that mismatches a property’s overall ambiance creates a discordant experience for the guest. A style that’s outdated, simple, stale or – worst of all – silent, will leave guests displeased or even uncomfortable.

“There is no sensory element more engaging on an emotional level than music,” says Brian Povinelli, global brand leader, Westin Hotels & Resorts, which recently created signature music programming to create a renewing, relaxing and welcoming atmosphere brand-wide.

So how can hotels make music that fits their guests’ needs? It’s the age-old question asked about every on-property element. And like other aspects of design, a successful music program is measured by balancing what your guests want, enhanced by something they don’t expect. But whether you’re thinking at the brand level or on-property, understanding how guests connect with their aural senses is essential.

While customized music programs are nothing new, they’re being rethought to intertwine guest experience both in the hotel and on a deeper level beyond a single stay. When branded playlists were first introduced, they were novel because they took generic elevator music out of the mix and put something different in people’s ears.

“Custom playlists were a whole new ‘wow’ for the properties,” says Klevens.  “But I travel a lot, and I started to notice songs that were the same, and I heard the same channels at Hyatt, Four Seasons and St. Regis, for example.”

And that’s how Prescriptive Music was born: built on an ambiance of foreground music, not background. “I don’t want someone walking into a 6-star resort and have it feel like ‘jazz channel 35,’” he adds.

Westin’s program, developed in partnership with DMX, Inc., is designed to address that particularity. By creating a common – yet unique – sound  across the brand portfolio worldwide, the musical experience becomes a consistent connection point for Westin guests everywhere.

“The playlists were developed to reflect the brand’s personality and unite Westin properties across geographies, cultures and time of day through music,” says Povinelli. “Guests have always asked ‘what is that soundtrack, where could I get it,’ and now they have to opportunity to take it with them.”

Through Westin’s Facebook page, any fans of the brand can stream or download the playlists at their leisure, creating the ability to take their hotel experience along with them – it’s like having the Heavenly Bed on the go.

Similarly, music is part of the DNA for Hyatt’s Andaz brand, says Phillip Dailey, GM at the Andaz West Hollywood. However, the Andaz DNA is about diversity, rather than an encompassing the global consistency requisite for a larger, ubiquitous brand like Westin.

“We’re all about curating destination experiences, so the question is how you bring the neighborhood into your hotel so the guest feels like they’re part of New York, West Hollywood, San Diego or London,” says Dailey. “With a lot of brands today, the more they try to be different, the more they become the same. Your experience has to be authentic, and has to have a story behind it. If you can do that, then it becomes memorable.”

At Dailey’s property on the Sunset Strip, the Andaz reflects its rich heritage as the “Riot Hyatt,” the hotel where famous bands stayed when they were in L.A. in the 60s and 70s. The wild parties, the motorcycle in the hallway, all those stories originate at this location. And as a result, music is embedded in the fibers of the hotel’s history.

So when Dailey arrived, he wanted to expose that experience. Partnering with The Playlist Generation, the hotel completely redid its background music to intertwine the spirit of the Sunset Strip in the hotel design.

And like any effective design, there’s a nod to a classic concept – the music has some classic rock in there to take a step back to the hotel’s roots – but then they take it a step past and wow guests with something that’s emerging on the scene.

“We take on a fashion designer’s perspective when we craft our musical experience: a fashion show is nothing more than telling us what we’re going to be wearing next spring, summer and fall,” says Dailey. “They don’t send out customer surveys beforehand, but at the same time hopefully they have their finger on the pulse of what the people want.”

Taking it to the next level to connect with the local neighborhood, Andaz West Hollywood has partnered with hallowed music haunt The Roxy. Together they created Pillow Talk & Under the Cover Sessions, a line-up of live acoustic performances. Each session consists of a selection of cover songs, including some from iconic bands who stayed at the property. Following each act, a podcast is available for streaming including the performance, a “Pillow Talk” conversation with The Roxy owner Nic Adler, along with a photo slide show featuring original photography of each act by local photographers.

“Our hotel has always housed rock ‘n’ rollers, but we’ve never really held performances,” says Dailey. “It’s a way to invite the local neighborhood in and connect it to the West Hollywood spirit.”

These property-level examples show just a snapshot of what you can do to set up a sonic experience for your guests. But the challenge doesn’t stop with meticulously putting together a playlist because you like a few songs and think your guests will too. The balance has to be right, and the music has to flow into the overall ambiance.

“Background music has to be seamless – not only the selection, but also the volume,” says Brian McKinley, vice president of marketing for DMX.  “It has to flow just like all the other fixtures. If you have a clean lobby with steel and aluminum that has an industrial feel, your guests will expect that style of music.”

If this sounds like a no-brainer, that’s because it is. But so are many elements of good service that go ignored every day. While the background music may not necessarily make someone’s stay, like any other nuanced element, a poorly chosen or generic playlist can throw the entire aesthetic off-balance, as it did for Klevens recently.

“There I am checking into this gorgeous hotel, and through the dead silence all I heard was ‘you’re hearing 8 on 80 Sirius XM radio,’” he says. “I know I notice these things because it’s my job, but if I’m the guest, I’m going to ask why I’m paying X amount of dollars to hear what I just had in my rental car. It’s a big disconnect.”

While there are myriad styles of sights, scents, tastes and touch points to consider, music perhaps uniquely fulfills the soundscape. (Apologies to jungle safaris that allow lobby animals to provide the ambiance.) Therefore, it’s crucial  that the songs, style and sound from your speakers fit into the flow of your common space. While generic music isn’t something that would necessary STOP someone from staying, it can help you stand out and make the difference in providing the sense of comfort that every guest desires.