Is experience creation the new reality in the hospitality business?
For the greater part of the twentieth century, the hospitality industry focused on creating cocoons of comfort where travellers could repose, nurture, and refresh themselves, while safely exploring the exoticism of other cities, cultures, and customs. The goal of the hospitality industry at the time was simply to create a safety zone where one might dip one’s toe in a bit of strangeness during the daytime— with the guarantee of a warm bed and an equally warm (and recognizable) meal at night. Hoteliers and restauranteurs scrambled to advertise themselves as a ‘home away from home’ which, during those days, was code for an American-style hotel: a safe haven, duly insulated from too much nasty foreignness. Back in the day, a hamburger with fries typically appeared on every major hotel menu from Kansas City to Peking.
But with the turn of the 21st century, the hospitality industry has changed dramatically. Witness the advent of airbnb.com. Travellers today actively seek out authenticity, home living, the real experience— warts and all. A certain level of discomfort is almost a plus. Nowadays, the explorer inside all of us wants to be challenged with the new and the unfamiliar.
The island of Cuba offers exactly that.
In Cuba, the world seems to be frozen in the year 1959.
Eight months ago, we were both invited to travel to an educational architecture trip in Cuba for the very first time. Even though our fathers are both Cuban by birth, and from early childhood, we were both raised with a clear consciousness and deep respect for the suffering they endured, we had never stepped foot on to the island where our forefathers were born.
Our first trip proved to be a journey of discovery.
What we found there was eye-opening. The Cuban travel experience, contrary to what the local government would like to portray, is totally chaotic. The rawness. The disorder. The mystery. The complications. While, every aspect of the journey proved to be difficult, the overall experience was mystical, compelling and hypnotic at the same time. The many odd and astonishing things we witnessed, did not alienate us— it made us enjoy the journey even more. The very authenticity of the experience was what made it memorable —and ultimately, made us want to return.
As designers, we both realized why Cuba had so seduced us. Living the raw reality of Cuba put into bold relief for us something we had always known and understood but perhaps never verbalized. In Cuba, it was clear to see how the new challenge in design—and in the hospitality field in general—is no longer simply one of imparting beauty—or even comfort. Rather, as designers, we must all dig deeper and become experts in the art of experience creation.
Perhaps even more importantly, we need to understand that we are no longer the manufacturers of the experience, à la Disney or Hilton. As professionals, we cannot design ‘authenticity’, we can only curate it. Ultimately, we are simply the facilitators, the translators, the interpreters of the experience.
The hospitality industry must take note.
More and more, post-millennial travellers do not want any cushioning. What they crave is exoticism and adventure. The fact of the matter is that creating experiences through being authentic is the new design rule of the hospitality experience.
Soon we will go back to Cuba for our second visit. We look forward to the second part of this journey, —and yes, even a dash of unpredictability and chaos.