Forget AI-generated scores – this is the human touch your hotel’s soundscape needs

Hotels in the competitive South Tyrol market are family-owned operations, which gives these companies a lean advantage when it comes to making operational and creative decisions. A good example of that is the Silena hotel, where a one-woman hospitality lab has come up with some deeply local high-touch proposals to counterbalance the prevalence of tech-aided experiences in the hospitality sector. 

Vals, Italy – In the late afternoon, particularly during the cold months, the multi-sauna area in the lower level of the Silena hotel is a popular spot. But every day at five, unsuspecting guests hear a voice coming from the steam: a man with a recognisably Bolzanese German accent speaks of a death by horse in the Alpine pass between South Tyrol and Austria, a cruel act that cracks open several family secrets. 

The man is Lenz Koppelstätter, the author of the bestselling murder mysteries solved by Commissario Grauner, a fictional character that serves as stand-in for South Tyrol’s idiosyncrasies. But the track is no typical audiobook: it is a bespoke reading commissioned by the Silena, and one of the details most mentioned by guests during check-out. In a hospitality environment increasingly dominated by algorithmic soundscapes, this hotel makes a strong case for the highly personalised, hyper-local and certainly human-touched aural treats.

The recording exists thanks to Magdalena Mair, the hotel’s third-generation manager. The modest five-room guesthouse opened by her grandparents in the Puster Valley evolved into a three-star, 30-room hotel in 2002, under the watch of her mother and father. Asking prices, though, remained low, while competition increased from South Tyrol’s eagle-eyed hoteliers — as the lodging sector is entirely comprised of family-owned businesses, operations are exceptionally lean and decisions to update offerings are made at breakneck speed. Five years ago Mair, then in her early 20s, asked her parents to take a leap of faith: going from a mostly family-oriented winter-sports hotel to pulling in millennial and millennial-minded high-spenders, mostly couples and groups of friends, would require an ambitious overhaul. ‘We needed to become the place to go for people in the German-speaking market looking for a retreat, no matter the time of the year,’ she explained.

Mair found inspiration in her travels to Indonesia, where she experienced the holistic intersection of local architecture, health through food and age-old physical-spiritual practices. While most hotels in the north Italian province understandably double down on their Alpine DNA, Mair saw hybridisation as a way to stand out: the Silena would become a South Tyrol-Southeast Asia mix. She brought local architects Noa* on board, and the new concept launched in the autumn of 2017. The bet paid off: the occupancy rate is currently at 76 per cent (and quickly increasing), with an average stay of four nights throughout the year — mostly from the highly coveted German-Austrian-Swiss market — along with certified Excellent ratings on Booking and TripAdvisor. ‘We took a great risk by doing this, so had I known then what I know now, I would only change one thing: I would have renovated earlier!’ she laughed.

It was new for everybody: for the author, for the publishing company, for the public facilities administration

But as the design standard of millennial-minded hotels has substantially risen over the past five years, Mair knew food and activities were the way to earn repeat visits. That’s why the daily calendar at the hotel includes several sessions of yoga, mediation, qi gong, hiking, e-biking, forest bathing, food lessons, a three-course dinner and wine tastings — everything is already included in the stay, except for the latter. And that’s where details such as the sauna soundtrack come in: the Silena is actually a one-woman hospitality laboratory. ‘We know better than to say no when she comes up with one of her ideas,’ Ida, Magdalena’s mother, laughed. A piece of advice for the Aces and Mama Shelters of the world: send your creative team to the Silena for anonymous research, to see her at work. Exhibit A: she decided to renovate everything but the stube, the preciously maintained dining room that has been in the family for more than a century, and then turned it into a private space for a five-course dive into traditional South Tyrolese fare, featuring recipes from her grandmother’s cookbook. Exhibit B: as an avid bibliophile, the ground floor features a selection of more than a thousand personally selected tomes, from fiction to fashion, and guests can order their own personalised carts to be delivered to their rooms or pick up one of the books on the third-floor sleep library — it’s a selection of works meant to be easily devoured before bedtime.

And that’s precisely why the Koppelstätter touch works: books are already part of the Silena DNA, so the sound pop-up is by no means a gimmick. Nachts am Brenner, Der Tote am Gletscher and Die Still Der Lärchen, the three novels on loop, are available in the library, with several copies of each — intrigued by that day's 15-minute sample, guests usually rush from the sauna to the ground floor looking for the book, so the hotel has to keep a generous stock of each edition.

Getting the recordings in place was no small feat. Mair wanted to add a touch of entertainment to the saunas, but realised the high humidity of the spaces would be a challenge for anything tactile. That’s when she thought of using audio: it could connect the sauna to the library, introduce guests to one of her favourite authors and, in the process, also to South Tyrolese history and popular culture. In a couple of days, she had the entire concept drafted up. But the execution itself proved rocky: as it was a rather odd request, she had to go through a legal maze for several months. ‘The problem was that nobody had done it before,’ Mair remembered. ‘It was new for everybody: for the author, for the publishing company, for the public facilities administration. So it was quite an effort to finally get every permission in place.’ Once approved, Koppelstätter himself recorded the stories at the Funkhaus studio in Bolzano.

It wouldn’t be fair to compare that type of effort to the ubiquitous Spotify playlist or algorithmically generated radio station that most hip hotels turn to. It would be fair, though, to compare it to one of the most attention-grabbing sonic proposals of 2019: the first Sister City hotel, located in New York City, features a lobby score of ambient wave music, created as a collaboration between musician Julianna Barwick and Microsoft. It’s a self-described sound installation that, thanks to a custom AI-based programme turns into music the weather conditions captured by a sky camera — rain, snowfall, sunrise or sunset. According to the hotel’s creative team, they wanted to ‘see what new shapes music can take as a site-specific, living extension of place and space. How it can orient us in the world in new, exuberant ways.’ And what that actually sounds like is hip pablum, the type of fried-air nothing-language and intangible proposals that look great on press-release paper but fizzle out in person — file that under the many so-called interactive experiences borne out of Instagram thirst. If a guest is only in the lobby for 15 minutes, how does the fact that the music is never the same twice affect his or her particular time-limited experience? Does the matter of infinity really matter in a finite interaction?

That’s why it’s hard to beat the sensibility and democratic approach of Mair’s sonic proposal. It makes local, personal and cultural sense and, most importantly, it achieves the goal of intriguing and entertaining in a way that is easily explained and emotionally digested. It is a site-specific installation that, by way of steam and local culture, can only exist in the Silena saunas — the recording is not available anywhere else. It is charming and unexpected, but ends up becoming necessary. And given how the prevailing algorithmification and automatisation of everything is being touted as a positive feature, particularly in the hospitality sector, it is a much welcome and certainly memorable human touch. 

silena.com
noa.network

THE TAKEAWAY
Sound installations are gaining much popularity, as they provide a type of immersion that can only be experienced in person instead of via Instagram — thus creating a you-had-to-be-there halo around them. But falling for the siren song of open-ended tech-aided interaction can dilute the goodwill the medium currently has. Instead, personal and highly human should be the way to go.

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