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The Intersection of Hospitality and Retail

05.11.2018

Jackson Thilenius, AIA

The intersection of hospitality and retail has become a hot topic, and many clients are now asking about the implications. It’s such a fascinating subject to explore. Having worked extensively in both the hospitality and retail spaces for a variety of leading brands, I’m always excited to share my insights into this extraordinary evolution of both industries.

The Desire to Experience

The hospitality industry has long understood that creating memorable experiences is the key ingredient to achieving long-term success. Using thoughtful design and creative branding, hotels have become adept at differentiating themselves by telling interesting stories about their brand identities and/or their host properties. Most of this storytelling is focused on embracing a romanticized notion of what hospitality means and highlighting how it links to the human condition.

Through unique arrival experiences, guest journeys, and "Instagrammable" or "Instastory" moments, hotels have essentially created a formula to ensure guests feel locally connected, proactively responsible, and relevant. They reassure guests that their stays matter and celebrate the notion that they are uniquely meaningful. Likewise, when people enter a retail environment today, they now desire an authentic, interactive experience that speaks to their individuality and lifestyle interests. Much of this has been driven by the millennial generation which seeks out experiences and opportunities to express who they are.

At Retail Design Collaborative (RDC), we’ve been at the forefront of helping retail operators adopt hospitality-based interfaces with their customers so they can provide more personalized experiences. The retail sector is learning from the successes of the hospitality industry and we are reassessing where the retail experience actually begins and ends. Savvy retailers understand that the journey to enjoying a shopping experience extends well beyond the physical store and that people crave something unique and meaningful from the entire transaction. 

Hospitality at its finest: the Sheraton Grand Downtown Los Angeles.

Consequently, we’re seeing the storytelling aspect of the retail experience imitate and expand upon the formulas that hospitality has spent years developing. You see it in product branding everywhere you look, from coffee and groceries to apparel, chocolatiers, and brewers — the common thread is that they all have an origin story to tell, stories that often support their commitment to the community and sustainable practices, which are increasingly driving consumer purchases.

Helping customers feel connected, enjoy an experience, and understand the origin of that experience are great strategies to increase customer engagement and promote sales, but it doesn’t end there. Many customers are also choosing to align themselves with brands that represent their own core value systems.

More now than ever, people are motivated to invest in the values a brand represents rather than the discounts or guarantees a brand can offer. This has been an expanding phenomenon in recent years and has proven to be very impactful in both hospitality and retail industries. It’s a radical shift in current brand strategies and can often polarize specific retailers (and hotels) that occupy the same market space.

Political platforms and activist ownership may seem risky, but in today’s politically charged environments, “picking a side” seems to be driving many investment decisions from big to small. We see design as an integral part of telling the story, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in our clients’ desires to use and represent sustainable materials and practices, social activism, and wellness-focused interiors.

For a while, the hospitality and specialty retail industries both tried to economize their labor models by making the guest experience more automated. Both industries forgot that personal interaction is key to a meaningful experience and have now gone full circle on their strategies to ensure guest loyalty. Investing in smaller, more personalized guest experiences that people connect with has been the primary driving force behind the boutique hotel industry’s success. While there will always be a place for automation, nothing can replace the blissful unpredictability of social interaction with fellow human beings.

We spend a lot of time finding ways to remove traditional barriers within our designs. To offer more personalized interactions, we are intentionally creating ways to blur boundaries and promote connectivity between the guest and host. Hotel check-in podiums are nearly extinct and more retail merchants welcome transactional exchanges with handheld devices and proximity readers. Both industries now understand that a curated experience led by an ambassador of the brand feels more personalized and unique.

Our clients are discovering that there is real value behind curating an authentic experience for their customers. While online shopping has decimated many traditional retail models, the curated retail experience is definitely on the rise.

Local Representation and Flexible Environments

Local representation, flexible environments, and hybridized services continue to be major trends that we’ve seen in both the retail and hospitality industries. Local representation has practically become a mandate and embodies resistance to urban sprawl while supporting the movement surrounding community and the preservation of culture.

In their attempts to differentiate and create unique experiences, both hospitality and retail industries are also choosing to align themselves with local talent. Displaying locally sourced products and using neighborhood artists to create a unique and authentic atmosphere, retailers and hoteliers are finding ways to showcase their commitment to community engagement.

Hospitality at its finest: the Sheraton Grand Downtown Los Angeles.

Our clients are constantly seeking new ways to exhibit a variety of services, products and amenities in ways that allow fluidity of purpose. They don’t want spatial restraints and insist on the ability to expand and contract as their needs and partnerships evolve. As a result, flexibility and scalability dominate the conversations we have around programming.

As retailers and hoteliers continue to develop strategies to hybridize products and/or their service offerings, we are tasked with being inventive and revolutionary in our design approach. The exploration of transformative environments, and the original design elements we create as a result, can often help to define the actual brand identity.

The Need to be Different

What’s not unique to either industry is that brands are always seeking differentiation within their competitive set. Our clients are very sophisticated and it’s not enough to create a unique “look” anymore. They’ve done their homework and have come to understand that great design employs the tailored integration of human interactivity with unique form to create something original.

They also insist on efficiency of purpose and scrutinize their labor models. As a result, we are constantly developing ways to reduce redundancies within the space and highlight instead the opportunities associated with combining offerings. We work with our clients to define ways to integrate technology and branding, using our holistic design approach that focuses on continuity. We believe that great design should tell a story and that the user experience should feel seamless, memorable, and inspired.

Our company has been around for 40 years. As specialists in hospitality and retail, we’ve seen dramatic shifts in design philosophies. Where the market seems to be suffering with the closings of major brands, we have seen a massive uptick in design investment and the intrinsic value therein. I believe our capacity to identify growing trends and interpret them in a way that allows us to execute original, progressive design stems directly from the constantly evolving world of interiors.

There’s a “short burn” on interior refreshes and new builds, so you really have to be on top of your game to keep ahead of the curve and stay relevant. With new products, processes, and technological advances surfacing every day, there is plenty of room in this space to push the envelope and be creative. The emergence of new technologies within the construction and design industries has allowed us to create environments and interactions that simply weren’t possible as recent as 10 years ago.

The intersection of hospitality retail is undoubtedly growing more and more relevant as societal priorities shift and consumers seek out more all-encompassing experiences. The importance of creating environments that encourage social interaction can’t be stressed enough. Hoteliers and retailers alike have gone to great lengths to expand their social presence. They gain social relevance using media platforms to leverage their investment in the physical spaces we design.

Consequently, there has been an increased appreciation for thoughtful, differentiated hospitality design that promotes lively discourse and interactivity. By providing inspired design that creates memorable experiences, we guarantee our future as creative professionals, and maximize ROI and future success for our clients.


Jackson Thilenius is a principal at Retail Design Collaborative. After successfully running his own architectural practice for over 14 years, Thilenius joined Retail Design Collaborative (RDC) to help further develop the firm’s interior design studio.