Match character with destination

Jeremy Hildreth thinks the design for tourism market is set to grow as people express themselves through their choice of holiday destination

Many years ago, when I was still a naive young Californian dude, I was so captivated by the Las Vegas hotel version of a far-off land that I later took a trip to the real place.

The hotel was the Mandalay Bay on Sunset Strip. I couldn’t afford to stay there, but I went for the buffet, and became so enamoured of the cane-bottomed chairs, slow-turning ceiling fans and faux teakwood that, by the time I’d finished eating, I’d decided to visit Burma.

You’ll not be surprised to learn – I certainly wasn’t – that the actual city of Mandalay was not much like its hotel pastiche (for a start, it’s miles from the sea, so there ain’t no bay). However, various bits of the real place resembled the fakery I’d fallen for, so, as a visitor, I did not feel let down.

This is an extreme example, but it makes my point – the chief power of design in tourism lies in its ability to evoke a sense of place that is both profound and valid.

In truth, of course, evoking a sense of place for the traveller is important not just before a journey, but also during and after it – from the brochures that stoke the imagination, to the hotel rooms, to the souvenirs and postcards sent home. Indeed, in tourism, there are thousands of touchpoints and there’s an opportunity at every single one of them for design to enhance our experience.

There is no doubt that tourism will continue to offer more business opportunities for designers. This is true, partly, for economic reasons – the sector is growing solidly and competition is hotting up. Spend a few hours at one of the major travel expos, such as the World Travel Market in London (held every November) and you’ll see, from the magnificence of the booths to the quality and content of the brochures, how earnestly destinations are working to attract attention – and how much they’re prepared to spend doing it. For designers, clearly there’s gold in them hills – and on those beaches and in those Alps.

When it comes to the business of branding a tourist destination, the process we go through does not differ that much from any other process of brand creation – first we do the thinking behind the brand and then we articulate it. A significant part of the articulation phase is design – not just design in the visual sense, but also in terms of language and experience.

A crucial tenet is that design for the tourism sector works better if there’s a clear idea behind it. It’s easy to get carried away making a place seem foreign and exotic, but that is not enough. It must be portrayed as foreign and exotic in a particular kind of way, a way attached (and even better, unique) to the place.

In my case, the Mandalay Bay hotel served tourism well only because its clichés turned out to be rooted in a Burmese fantasy that was, to a degree, verifiable. To achieve this effect means that, even when design exaggerates, it must reflect reality. It cannot lie outright. We have found that most tourism clients understand this, perhaps even better than their fellows in the private sector.

Perhaps the subtlest art, when designing in tourism, is using the stereotypes of a place without abusing them. As Jimmy Buffet (appropriately enough) sings, ‘Clichés are good ways to say what you mean and mean what you say.’ But there is a fine line, especially where a place and an aesthetic have become tightly bound. ‘Bali style’, for instance – in architecture, furniture, textiles – is unequivocally Balinese and almost frighteningly recognisable as such. If you’re working for a Balinese client, you might well take advantage of this fact. But you’ll want to do it carefully – to split the difference, you might say, between unaided reality and a Vegas-themed hotel.

Finally, in addition to the economic rationale for why tourism will prove to be a boon to the design industry, there are also philosophical reasons. As the World Tourism Organisation predicts, ‘The next century will mark the emergence of tourism destinations as a fashion accessory. The choice of destination will help define the identity of the traveller and, in an increasingly homogeneous world, set him apart from the hordes of other tourists.’

In other words, you are where you go. As in any other area of our lives where factors like clarity, personality, taste and distinctiveness matter, it is design that will guide the way.

Jeremy Hildreth is a brand consultant at Saffron and co-author of Brand America

Opportunities in the tourism sector

• Clients in the tourism sector usually understand well what they are buying from design groups

• Design groups could look to exploit more of their clients’ touchpoints with print, interiors and product innovations

• Last year Britain received more visitors than ever before, according to Visit Britain, though lengths of stay have shortened and average spends are falling

• According to the trade organisation UK Inbound, the number of visitors to the UK will increase again by 2 per cent this year

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