Architecture and the science behind emotions: in conversation with Luciano Mazza

UK: HKS director of hospitality, Luciano Mazza, discusses the complexities of wellness in the hotel sector.

Luciano Mazza joined HKS in 2006, and has been working as director of hospitality for the past three years. His extensive experience designing five-star resorts and luxury hotels has welcomed global projects with operators of high-calibre, including Four Seasons, Shangri-La, and Hilton to name a few.

In this interview, Luciano talks in depth about designing wellness facilities, and how this is developing alongside the modern technological world. He also highlights the advantages and difficulties of working within the wellness industry.

Wellness is becoming increasingly relevant in terms of design. What are the challenges within the luxury hospitality industry at the moment?

“I always see challenges as opportunities to create something unique and different, and to not just copy and paste the solution that you used before. The notion to have challenges is for me, very positive.”

“Maybe the most important thing is that, in the last four-to-five years, I’ve noticed that wealthy people travelling amongst luxury resorts and hotels have become so knowledgeable about the wellness (and medical wellness) industry, that they’re really going to these resorts not only for a holiday, but with a real purpose. They know exactly what they want to find, and they’re extremely aware of the latest wellness trends.”

“This is a challenge because it means that we cannot just design a beautiful wellness facility thinking only about architecture and aesthetics. Our knowledge as architects has to go much, much deeper than in the past, because it means that we must be aware and continuously learn about trends and new techniques – for instance, how technology is evolving around treatments. It’s really the more complicated part of the resorts that we have to plan.”

What complications arise when designing a wellness resort? Can you please elaborate.

“We’ve always treated what was the spa or wellness as separate, as only part of the resort, without bothering too much to integrate wellness with the rest of that resort. Now, because we have a conscious knowledge of our customers, it’s not enough only to do an incredibly well-performing and effective wellness project – now, our guests want to feel a genuine feeling of wellness.”

“This is to do with wellness translating into wellbeing in general, and so it’s not just about perfecting specific spaces. Guests want to feel this wellbeing accuracy and sensibility even when they walk along the corridor, or when they go to the restaurant, or when they first arrive in the lobby. It’s really pushing the design of the architect to put a lot of care into every single corner of the resort.”

Why is it important that these emotions are measured? Are we putting too much emphasis on this aspect of qualitative design?

“In hospitality, we are dealing with human emotions. So the danger is that if we base everything and rely too much just on numbers, then we lose also the touch of emotional experience. You have to find the right balance. I don’t think that solutions are good when they are too extreme – you always have to find the medium.”

“It’s good to monitor essential aspects – for instance, the level of noise in a treatment room, or how clean is the air. But these are objective and can kill creativity. We need to let the creativity be spontaneous and to be original, otherwise if we all just plan just to the numbers, then we start to reproduce the same resort and the same experience.”

“We want every resort to be feeling very rooted and very appropriate to the location, and to the geography, and to the cultural pillars too. I call this distilling – to incorporate these elements within a contemporary design in order to present a new language, or reinvented vernacular language.”

How can you create a more wholesome experience?

“To go beyond the limits of the building. To me, landscape is equally important. Sometimes, landscape is even more important than architecture, especially if we do something within the tropics such as Sri Lanka or India. Life outside is slightly more important than life inside, and so it is paramount that designers think seamlessly about the experience within your room, but extending this also to the garden.”

“What is interesting is that, because of technological tools like TripAdvisor, guests are starting to think about their destination one year in advance. It’s important that as architects, we think: What is the experience from the day that the guest leaves their homeland?; How long does it take to travel?; How tired are they when they land?. It’s crucial that we keep these all in consideration when we design the resort. The journey is not just after passing the gate; the journey starts a couple of days before.”

Last week, at the GWI roundtable, you talked about putting science behind emotion. What did you mean by this?

“As designers, we’ve been asking ourselves two types of question. The first is related to the idea that we design to create emotions, and that we design to create memories. But have we ever tried to clarify whether our intentions are really being achieved with the guest? There’s value in looking back into the life of the place after one-to-three years and seeing a guest’s reaction. It’s about checking whether we’ve been right in creating emotion and memories.”

“The second is to see if we can make what we’ve designed around emotion a bit more informed – to understand whether there are things that scientifically can be explored. For instance, we know in a supermarket that if a shelf is of a particular colour, people are more attracted to go to that shelf and buy the product. Can architects and designers achieve the same result? It’s only the beginning.”

How are prospective investors, clients, and guests responding to this idea of wellness?

“My fear is that when a particular business starts to become so financially important (we’re talking about $4 trillion worth of industry) we know that, for sure, we will have all types of people in all sectors trying to jump on it.”

“The difficult thing is first for the customer, and then as a concept for all those related and concerned. The risk of something becoming so big and so diffused is that, at some point, it can be difficult to distinguish between a real expert, and people who are just jumping on the wagon and trying to sell a similar product or service. I see this as a real danger.”

Could this cause a potential risk in the future in terms of valuing wellness?

“I already think that wellness is becoming accepted within the valuation process. Of course, there are wellness experts and operators, but this is where a firm like HKS also has a duty to play an important role. We can be for the client an advisor that not only designs hotels, but also informs whether they are in line with the market.”

“This is extremely important because now everyone wants to do wellness. It’s a bit like the medieval times with people selling water that makes you look younger. There is the danger that people are miss-sold values and treatments, but there is also the danger that people think they want to do wellness when in fact, they are just following a trend. In reality, they don’t believe in what they do.”

Is consumer demand at a sufficient level to make expenditure worthwhile?

“The positive thing is that operators like Ananada have proven that you can do nice, appropriate things in the world of wellness, whilst also making money. The key to making money is that more and more people who can spend are aware that there are some benefits in changing their lifestyle.”

“For example, a resort which is counting on wellness does not really need to charge that much for the bedroom itself – you can have a large guest room that is luxuriously appointed, but you don’t need to charge $700-800 like Four Seasons or Mandarin Oriental. If you have a strong wellness company, you can charge between $200-300 for the room, because what happens is that every single person staying in the resort are spending hundreds on treatments every day.”

“At Ananda, people stay six-to-eight weeks. When you put two and two together, you see that if you are doing wellness properly and guests are feeling the benefits, you can be a very good business.”

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