Culture and Connection in Hospitality Design

If you dig the journey and the epic tales of destinations beyond flashy glam, Clint Nagata, founder of BLINK, gets you: “The more I travel the world, the more convinced I am that a sense of place is everything.” His take? Luxury hospitality should embrace its roots. It’s time to blend heritage with modern design, crafting spots that ‘click’ with travellers.

The BLINK team is currently working on a hospitality project in Azerbaijan. “We have been trying to understand their history and the importance of the Caspian Sea in it”, Clint Nagata, Founder and Creative Partner at BLINK posits, filling us in on the studio’s current affairs. “The more I travel the world, the more convinced I am that a sense of place is everything.”

In his experience, the contemporary traveller seeks more than opulent accommodations; they crave authenticity and a genuine connection to the places they visit. They gravitate towards unique, lesser-known locales in emerging destinations. “I see a shift towards what I’d call purposeful travel. It’s the journey as much as the destination,” explains Clint. This change has spurred hotels to become destinations in their own right, offering authentic experiences that immerse guests in local culture and community life.

But there are other implications of #wanderlust – some of which earn Millennials and Gen-Z peculiar looks from their elders.

In these times, the power of social media cannot be underestimated. We have been faced with requests to create Instagram-worthy assets for guests. This brings me to a point where I am not sure if, as designers, we are doing them a favour or disfavour.

– Clint Nagata

Millennials, Gen Z, and Social Media

Overall, designing hotels and restaurants can be rewarding. Some might even think it’s noble to curate a memorable stay, thoughtfully articulated for a growing family or a wide-eyed young adult. But there is more impetus in curating an experience today. Social media shapes travels significantly. Millennials and Gen Z seek out ‘Instagrammable’ moments, influencing design preferences towards visually striking spaces.

“In these times, the power of social media cannot be underestimated”, Clint sighs. One can almost hear the light dejection in his voice. “We have been faced with requests to create Instagram-worthy assets for guests. This brings me to a point where I am not sure if, as designers, we are doing them a favour or disfavour. I have been lured to places that look amazing on Instagram but once you get there it is a huge disappointment.” 

He cautions against prioritising social media appeal alone. “We should be focusing on creating inspirational guest moments without getting caught in the web of needing to be a social media sensation.”

W Dubai Mina Seyahi

In a world where travellers have seen it all, there is a desire for experiences steeped in simplicity, authenticity, sustainability and a perfectly imagined ‘sense of place’. Bringing all of this to life is our mission.

– Clint Nagata

The cohort at BLINK has Gen-Z and Millennials, too. And Clint feels this need to capture the perfect moment is a result of their underlying desire to belong and live diverse experiences. “They [Millenial and Gen-Z] seek out hotels that are not just places to stay, but destinations in themselves,” he says. This shift has prompted BLINK to innovate with designs that blend local heritage with modern comforts, offering guests an enriching experience that goes beyond superfluous luxury. And the motivation? To wow patrons such that they forget the arresting world of social media – even if it’s for a few moments.

Reflecting on projects like the W Dubai Mina Seyahi, Clint discusses, “We strive to create spaces that feel both timeless and contemporary. Our work emphasises storytelling through a ‘place making’ philosophy.”

“At the W Dubai Mina Seyahi, the hotel’s signature dining experience, Ginger Moon, has been created as an eclectic and bohemian space for travellers, traders and modern nomads to gather”, he explains. The space features a split-level ocean deck connected to the sparkling waters of the bay, with a restaurant and pool bar overlooking Palm Island. But the fable does not stop there; the theme continues into BAR-B, the exotic spa experience.

“In a world where travellers have seen it all, there is a desire for experiences steeped in simplicity, authenticity, sustainability and a perfectly imagined ‘sense of place’. Bringing all of this to life is our mission”, Clint avers.

W Dubai Mina Seyahi

Respecting Cultures and Place-Making

Today’s guests might have their noses buried in their phone, but they are also quick to communicate what makes them uncomfortable. They value spaces that are not only beautiful but also respectful of local cultures and traditions. “Respect is the key word, and we strive to be respectful in the way we treat our designs,” Clint emphasises. This approach ensures that the environments created are both meaningful and connected to the local culture.

Clint is especially assiduous; even though by his own admission – ‘cultural appropriation’ is new to his generation. “As someone of Japanese descent and Hawaiian upbringing, I’ve often encountered designs that tend to be gimmicky, shaped largely by media portrayals,” Clint laments. He is committed to authenticity and respect in design, ensuring that each project at BLINK transcends superficial trends to resonate deeply with cultural roots.

“In today’s globalised world,” Nagata reflects, “it’s more important than ever to honour the cultures we draw inspiration from.”

As someone of Japanese descent and Hawaiian upbringing, I’ve often encountered designs that tend to be gimmicky, shaped largely by media portrayals.

– Clint Nagata

At the Six Senses Kyoto in Japan, BLINK collaborated with local artisans to create a space that reflects the region’s rich cultural heritage. Traditional Japanese craftsmanship is evident in every detail, from the handcrafted furniture to the use of natural materials that blend seamlessly with the surrounding landscape. This approach not only enhances the guest experience but also fosters a deeper appreciation for Japanese culture among visitors.

He highlights the pitfalls of superficial approaches, noting that well-intentioned designs can inadvertently trivialise or objectify cultures. “Research, knowledge, and local connections are indispensable,” Clint asserts.

“I believe the local audiences are also lured by hotels showcasing their own heritage, if well represented. One good case study is the Raffles Singapore which has been well restored and a hotel that locals are proud to take overseas visitors to.”

Designing for a New Era

Advancements in technology have also influenced luxury hospitality design. “Advances in technology are here to stay, and we as designers need to incorporate it as part of our design ethos,” Clint remarks. “Travellers in their early twenties and thirties work on the go (even on holiday) and accessible technology is important for them to remain connected,” Clint notes.

Technology has also abolished demographic norms concerned with wealth. Gen-Z and Millennials are living, breathing, exploiting and monetising technology.  “The last few years has seen the rise of tech entrepreneurs – a new generation of wealthy young individuals who can afford modern day luxuries including a travel lifestyle that may not be flashy opulence but still shows off the latest in technology,” says Clint.

We are dealing with a new era of Hospitality Entrepreneurs who are from HNWF (High Net Worth Families) and have now ventured into the hotel business and are looking to define their niche in a rather crowded marketplace. We are enablers in helping them realise their story.

– Clint Nagata

Besides, there is also a crop of clients that designers need to guide. Clint informs, “We are dealing with a new era of Hospitality Entrepreneurs who are from HNWF (High Net Worth Families) and have now ventured into the hotel business and are looking to define their niche in a rather crowded marketplace. We are enablers in helping them realise their story.”

As a designer, a painstaking awareness of culturally and technologically relevant nuance is warranted. “Our goal is to take clients on this journey of creating a bespoke design that is never repeated or duplicated,” Clint concludes. “Fast changing trends with the Gen-Z and Millenials are something we need to grapple with. Individuality is king. More than ever, designers must not be afraid to take risks and to fail. Dive deep, immerse your-self, ask questions, and push boundaries. Live by design.”


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9 July, 2024

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