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Updated: Apr 13, 2023

By: Doris Hager, Principal of Hager Design International Inc.

When walking into a restaurant or hotel we aren’t sure why we feel good in a space or why we have such great experiences or memories. Typically, one does not think too much about it, but we certainly would like to come back to a place where we felt welcome, comfortable or had a great time.

Besides the food or comfy bed there are little unconscious things that help with our experience of a space. Here are 5 things to look for the next time you are in a restaurant or hotel you enjoy and feel-good in.

1. The Experience

2. The Vibe

3. The Lighting

4. The Unexpected Uniqueness

5. The Cohesiveness

1. THE EXPERIENCE – How does the guest feel when entering the space? My philosophy - the experience starts with the door handle. How do we want the guest to feel; comfortable, energized, calm, serene, hyped? Is the space to feel elegant and sophisticated or comfortable and relaxed? Comfortable means many things to different people. It could mean cushy furniture to one person or a colorful modern room to another. As designers we must understand what the client wants in a project and reiterate the word ’comfortable’ into physical reality, geared toward the demographics of the clientele.

Everyone wants to be comfortable in their hotel room and feel safe in a restaurant or bar setting. It’s up to us to create physical environments that embody and create those feelings in a space. This starts with a space plan that creates movement and direction without signage or an information officer. The ease in how we maneuver a space means we avoid the feeling of frustration in our guests. The Four Seasons comes to mind as doing this extremely well.

When analyzing a hotel, is the exterior somewhat cohesive with the interior? There should not be a disconnect between the two. Stretching the boundaries is always good but we do not recommend an Art Nouveau exterior with a Victorian interior. Those styles just do not blend well.


That untouchable ‘can’t put my finger on it thing’ that makes a mood. Not just music, but also scents, shadows and textures. A Prohibition lounge provokes memories of dark corners, red or green velvet furnishings, wood walls and tables and smoky air. This ambience from the past is easily recreated today without the smoke.

An Art Deco theme brings forth thoughts of clean geometric lines, band and orchestra music, simple textures and bright lights. To recreate this, consider the effect desired on the finished product. When analyzing the vibe of a space, is the music jiving with the concept décor?  In other words, if the style is transitional modern, the music shouldn’t be hard acid rock. Is the art cohesive with the area or style, or are there baroque nudes in a family hotel?  Sometimes designers try so hard to be different by

coming up with new styles that their message becomes muddled.

3. THE LIGHTING Vibe is created through lighting. What is the point of having great design if you cannot see it or you can’t find your way to the room? Mood lighting is great, but you still need to find your room even if you have the vision of a 20-year-old, plus housekeeping needs to be able to see to clean properly.

A major pet peeve of mine is seeing the light source of a recessed light. This is a common mistake when cheap LED lights are used. The light source is proud of the ceiling, blinding the guest. Or when a chandelier is extremely bright and the rest of the space’s light level is dark or opaque, completely defeating the purpose of good lighting. Great lighting illuminates the area or object intended and the source of light is camouflaged to the eye. 


What is so unusual about this room? Is it the proximity of the tables to each other or is it the bar located right where you walk in the door?  Those are space planning items to take note of.  But what about the overall look? Is there a special art piece that is properly lit capturing your eye? How about that fun hanging chair, what a focal point! What is it that captured your eye and was it intentional?

As designers we strive to create areas that are memorable, or Instagram worthy in the past. For one project we intentionally placed unique, bright pinky-red, shiny leather chairs in the lobby for exactly that reason. The recognition and attention this brought the hotel was free and drove popularity and sales.


A successful hospitality space starts with a great layout or plan.  The ease on how one can maneuver a space and easily identify areas to visit. For instance, how easy is it to find the front desk or check in area in a hotel lobby? Is it hidden behind an elevator wall or behind massive planters or columns? Is signage required to find the front desk, or can I spot it easily, without stopping short in confusion causing a traffic jam in the hotel entrance. Are the adjacent areas easily accessible - can I see the lobby bar when I enter the hotel or turn from the front desk?  That view leading to an impulse decision and buy is critical for a successful restaurant and bar located in a hotel.

Once you make an entrance is the feeling consistent throughout the space or are there trends and styles mixed in a manner that is uncomfortable?  Mixing and matching is encouraged. Something should be slightly and intentionally off to make the space feel comfortable, but if the design is trying too hard or if there is a lack of scale, the space becomes awkward.

In one instance, while engaged early in the planning of a new-build hotel, we inherited a floorplan where pool guests had no choice but to walk past the front desk in their dripping wet bathing suits just to reach the elevators. Through careful planning and studying the floors above, we were able to suggest relocating the elevators more central to the pool, so they were easily visible and accessible from the front desk. At the same time, we relocated the lobby bar so the pool patrons could order drinks from the bar through an outside window. As a result, the bar remained a focal point to the lobby. 

Next time you fall in love with a hotel or restaurant, take a good look around, then ask yourself what is it that you really love about this space.  What makes you want to return time after time, besides the food or staff?  Is it the flow, the colors, the placement of the furniture or is it that everything in the space is consistent, cohesive and unique?


Doris Hager is the founder of Hager Design International Inc. an international interior design firm with hospitality projects throughout North America. Doris can be reached at

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