Hong Kong – In the past few years, here at the Frame editorial team we’ve developed a country-specific type of fact-checking – we call it ‘China checking.’ Almost without fail, every time we run an article on a new hospitality project in a tier-one or tier-two city in the country, we have to go back and thoroughly confirm its use and purpose with the designers. Most times, it’s a service completely new to our western eyes, the result of combining China’s unmatched speed in consumer demand and a set of unpredictably evolving idiosyncratic elements.
That’s where experts such as Joe Cheng come in. For more than two decades, the founder of Cheng Chung Design has been an active witness to the evolution of the Chinese hospitality industry, with projects for Hilton, Sheraton, Marriott and Sofitel under his belt. Cheng brings his sharp experience to the panel of juries of the Hospitality category of the Frame Awards 2020, which will take place this February here in Amsterdam.
In the meantime, we asked him: Will China be influencing the rest of the world by creating new hospitality categories? And what can designers do to prevent death by social media?
Do you think a hotel, a bar or a restaurant can be too Instagrammable or Weibo-able? Can we now speak of the death-by-social-media of hospitality spaces? Or is high-visibility always a boon in today’s landscape?
JOE CHENG: No – nothing can be called too Instagrammable. People want to Instagram places because either they like the design, the product or the atmosphere.
For example, many people know the Grand Hyatt Shenzhen because of its 1881 Chinese restaurant, and they know the Hyatt Regency Shenzhen Airport because of its Xiangyue Chinese restaurant. Some people may worry about how too many customers could have a negative impact on a business operation. Generally, a five-star hotel restaurant provides limited seats and uses a reservation system, so that the number of customers will not exceed 100. Furthermore, the threat of oversaturation can be solved in the early planning stage, having the restaurant separated from lobby lounge in the circulation design.
However, there have definitely been some failures on that side, mostly due to operational and managerial problems. For instance, people love Michelin-starred restaurants, but a lot of them close down due to too much exposure. Unless the manager controls the reservation system, an increase in sales might sometimes mean a decrease in service and food quality. So, in reality, nothing is wrong with a hospitality space that’s too photogenic. After all, design is about positioning, packaging and presentation. In these connected times, everyone acts as a disseminator. It’s not our original purpose as designers to make a hotel social-media-friendly, but it does expand the hotel’s influence. Therefore, it’s acceptable that our work becomes Instagrammable. But that also means that we as designers need to be held accountable: we must anticipate the effects of passenger flow on a hotel operation or its management after this exposure, and adjust circulation design as early as possible.
Designers need to be held accountable for the operational impact of Instagram exposure
The five hospitality sub-categories we have at the Frame Awards are relatively straightforward, but some, particularly in the entertainment and restaurant fields, seem to defy typology in China. In the past year alone we’ve seen clinics that double as cafes and bakeries that double as classrooms. Why are we seeing so much experimentation and hyper-segmentation in the country, at a rate that doesn’t happen in other large markets?
I think it’s because Chinese lifestyles have rapidly changed, and people desire a better quality of life. For example, there are different types of clinics, and some of them have introduced advanced equipments and medical tech, while others adopt traditional Chinese medicine, such as manual physiotherapy. Thus, people who visit these centres may just want to lead a healthier life or have a better personal image instead of going for an emergency treatment. So it’s a kind of pleasant experience, where several friends can go together to get – so many add a café for these groups of people to socialize and relax.
So, for example, you mention these mixed bakeries: we all know that a bakery needs a very clean, quiet and warm environment, which also happens to be auspicious for reading and thinking. So apart from a gathering place and a spot to grab refreshments, these bakeries also offer specialised classes, which provide visitors with an opportunity to study and share. Moreover, here’s an idiosyncratic component: Chinese people realize and believe that lifelong learning is the way to achieve sustainable development. Any type of training that can improve professional skills, and thus quality of life, are booming – there’s a surge in painting classes, calligraphy classes and flower arrangement workshops.
Generally, a multi-functional space can achieve high efficiency in terms of spatial use, and those functions then have the added effect of increasing the number of customers. It’s a win-win situation. As China is a fast-growing and vibrant market, it’s not surprising that people seek both convenience and efficiency.