Architecture and design off the beaten track: The GCH Hotel Group adds the department Design & Construction to its portfolio

An interview with Dipl.Ing.Arch. Frank Weber

Design & Construction @ GCH Hotel Group | © GCH Hotel Group

Frank Weber is in charge of the Design & Construction department at the GCH Hotel Group, and, together with his team, is responsible for the individual planning and realisation of design and renovation concepts for the hotels in the company’s portfolio. We asked the architecture expert about current trends and hotel design projects as well as the new challenges that arise due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Mr. Weber, the appearance and the interior design of a hotel largely contribute to its identity. In your perception, is there such thing as the “perfect hotel design”?

There is no such thing as the comprehensively perfect hotel design, because every hotel and the tasks involved are very diverse for planners. Very often, owners and managers asked me for a universal hotel design that could be directly implemented as such in a large number of hotels. For years, some brands strictly followed this through. However, this is only feasible for new buildings and not for the renovation of existing hotels, which we usually do at GCH. The individual design requirements for each hotel vary a lot and are influenced e.g. by the location (city centre or beach), the target group (business, family or urban individuals) and, last but not least, the planned investment based on the ROI. Our Design & Construction team is experienced in tailoring the design to the individual hotel’s needs by incorporating the aforementioned conditions.

Do you recognise certain trends in hotel design?

The design of a hotel should always be contemporary. Guests expect change in a technical sense but also in terms of colours and materials. Thus, there are always trends in hotel design, but they last much longer than in fashion or industrial design. One trend that has been around for a long time already, for example, is the homeliness of a hotel: Hotel guests are not abstract tourists in a never-changing hotel environment. They experience the stay at a hotel in the same way they would experience a visit to an acquaintance or friend. The rooms are homely and the public areas are welcoming and comfortable at any time of the day, so that different activities can be carried out in a laid-back atmosphere. The lobby, the café, the bar and also the restaurant are common zones where I, the guest, am able to work, surf the web, eat, have a discussion or play with my family without having to change the location for each activity.

What has been your favourite project so far?

We implemented so many beautiful projects over the past years; for hotels right in the heart of a city or directly at the beachfront. Our team has always enjoyed the projects the most where we had the opportunity to give the hotel a comprehensive design and to implement the above-mentioned ideas and atmospheres. To design a beachside hotel in a modern and maritime way and to bring the beach and the sea really close to the guest is a wonderful experience. As is creating a new hotel and gastronomy hotspot in the city centre that generates an urban vibrancy throughout the day and into the night. We also realise smaller designs for partial renovations, but really the reconstruction and renovation of entire hotels are the most interesting challenges.

Your in-house team creates entire design concepts or partial concepts for individual hotel areas like lobby, gastronomy, conference and spa areas. What is particularly important during the planning stage?

This might sound banal, but what matters the most is to integrate the complex demands of every stakeholder into a sophisticated and functional design. For us it is very important to have an intensive exchange with everyone involved right from the beginning. This starts with the investment volume of the owner company, the existing or aspired hotel brand, the gastronomic concepts and ends with the guests’ profile. The construction of sample rooms is particularly important in this process, in order to avoid surprises at a later stage. The room design is decisive, also in other areas, and it makes the largest share of the reconstruction volume. The room design also provides a direction for the design of the hallways and lobbies. It is usually a continuous process that requires a good communication flow between all stakeholders in order to achieve the best possible outcome.

What are the biggest challenges when implementing these ideas?

There are usually two challenges that we encounter in many projects. The first is dealing with what is there: the technical equipment, installations or the building structure can exhibit severe deficiencies. Our goal is not only to make everything look nice. We want to hand over an impeccable hotel after the renovation, both in terms of design and technology. However, it is a huge challenge when previously invisible defects appear during the construction phase, since these require a much larger interference. By the way, not only for us but also for the hotel operator and the owner company. This leads us to the second challenge: the reconstruction timeframe. A closed hotel always results in a challenging economic situation. This is why we try to carry out the renovation works in an operating environment wherever possible. This requires a high degree of coordination between the hotel and the project lead and sometimes causes conflicts that prolong the renovation timeframe and can entail further economic consequences.

What is the advantage of having both the planning and the execution centralised and in-house at the GCH Hotel Group?

One advantage is that the decision-making paths are short. We bundle the individual projects’ lines of communication and can therefore directly influence the planning and execution without detours. With external designers we have often found that we had to calculate a larger timeframe to develop or communicate a common ground of the project goals. Cost and time are fundamental aspects of a successful renovation. If we carry out projects in-house, we enjoy more flexibility and have the opportunity to directly influence the construction process with our own planning and designs. In addition, we can count on our long-term collaborator ProCure as a strong procurement partner.

Could you explain this to us more in detail, based on one of your current projects?

We are currently planning the renovation of the ibis Styles Hotel in Berlin Treptow. The design was created by our GCH in-house team. We built a sample room and are now in the process of incorporating all suggestions into a design modification. The sample room has been realised together with our renovation team, the furniture comes directly from a nearby furniture manufacturer and ProCure has provided us with all the renovation materials. This gives us the opportunity to influence the design right up to the construction site and still make fast progress. At the same time, we are able to visualise and adapt the cost of each individual component. This means that we have been very quick and economical in terms of expenses and implementation since the project start.

The individuality and uniqueness of brands and hotels is becoming increasingly important. Be it a classic, a modern or a new and extravagant solution – how freely can you choose the designs and materials?

We are not restricted in any way when it comes to choosing the design and the materials. The design is presented as a concept; first internally and, if required, to the brand owners. This means that it has to be convincing. There is no automatism that directly puts our plan into action. The draft design has to meet the assessment criteria of operational functionality, design acceptance and costs. This process changes the design but makes it stronger at the same time. We like to use unusual elements and materials. These usually play a significant role in the design of a room or public areas. The aim is to convey the extraordinary and uncommon aspect in a room to our guests.

Where do you see the most potential for a good hotel design in the future?

Usually, I would now name the integration of changing technology in communication and its impact on hotel rooms and public hotel areas. In fact, I believe that we will have to deal with our experiences from the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic for some time to come. We are currently seeing many makeshift solutions for infection protection in hotels and experience enormous difficulties with business concepts targeting group travel or congresses. The idea of guests visiting a lively hotel bar or a full restaurant seems very far-fetched at the moment. I assume that there will be more individualised offers targeting smaller groups, for example. This will also affect the conference areas: There will be much less meetings or training sessions for large groups in the future. At the same time, the demand for homely banquet rooms where a closed group can meet to eat and celebrate in a safe environment is likely to increase. The VIP area as an exclusive space for a group of people is becoming a hot topic again – not in terms of exclusion, but rather for safety reasons.

Will these new “social distancing” requirements entail changes in the design process?

In my opinion, it depends very much on how much longer these changed living conditions will continue to dominate our everyday live. Since the hotel business is an international one, I assume that hygiene standards with the relevant certifications will develop across borders in a timely manner. I expect these certifications to become just as important to hotels as their star categories are. The larger brands will probably implement these within the next 6 months. However, the impact on the hotel rooms and their designs is not yet fully predictable. A development towards more privacy with more time spent in the rooms is to be expected. Business travellers will also prefer a safe environment such as the hotel room, which will then have to meet even higher quality requirements (comfort, technical equipment, etc.). Spa and fitness areas in hotels could experience a higher demand, as long as they are hygienically safe. In the budget hotel sector, I expect a reduction in service contacts, more technical solutions and self-service.

You have been working in this industry for a long time and have carried out a lot of interesting design projects. What kind of accommodation do you prefer for your private travels?

As a private person, I like to travel with my family without knowing all of our overnight stops along the way in advance. To us, the locations are more important and we only take care of finding a suitable accommodation later. This is also why we have not really been travelling since the beginning of the pandemic. We will see when this will be possible again. I hope soon.

Thank you for your time and best of luck for your upcoming projects!

Editor: Thomas Lerike
Translation: Bea Lehofer