Lighting design is essential to guests’ experience. A recent poll found that out of 10,000 Tripadvisor reviews of properties in London, more than half of the complaints concerned lighting. It’s clear that from the rooms to the lobby, lighting can and does often define a stay. Despite this, it’s one of the first aspects of design to lose funding when budgets are cut and belts are tightened, and is not nearly given the attention many believe it deserves.

So how can hoteliers make sure that they really are getting value for money when it comes to lighting? And where is the industry heading? These were just some of the key questions discussed at Hotel Management International’s dining club event, in partnership with Megaman – a global brand in high-performance, energy-efficient lighting, and a leader in LED lamp design – on 1 October at the Hotel Corinthia London, by luminaries from across the industry gathering for dinner and a lively round-table discussion.

It was fitting that the conversation took place basked in lighting planned and designed by the moderator of the discussion herself: Sally Storey, design director at Lighting Design International. Simplicity is her mantra, and it shines through in the low-key sophistication of the Corinthia’s lighting scheme. Storey also brought her decades of experience in the field to the panel. She has designed lighting for Alipina in Gstaad, Fera at Claridge’s, The Savoy and many others, as well as authoring three widely praised books on the subject.

"Lighting’s so important for mood," she said in her opening remarks. "I think compared with five years ago we’re in a totally different situation."

Storey’s been through two major transformations in the lighting world, or "revolutions" as she put it, from the development of halogen bulbs in the 1990s to their rapid replacement with LED lights in the late 2000s, a shift that exemplifies the way the field has been impacted by environmental considerations.

In a field that’s so tied to developments in software and technology, it’s no surprise that the industry is constantly in a state of flux, and a key theme under discussion was the need for hoteliers to stay on top of the changes while considering practicalities and economics. A developing trend is convergence, according to Fred Bass, director at Megaman.

"In the lighting industry, you’ve got everything from fittings to sources all converging, and you’ve got controls coming together," Bass said. "The sector used to have sources and fixtures in two separate businesses, now they’re all coming together as one. It’s just moving so fast."

Software changes

Another is the growth of increasingly smart software, which gives guests significant control over their lighting experience, from changing the mood to reflecting the time of day and their general preferences. This is what Emma Lindsay, director of interior design at IHG, described as "Big Brother lighting", and said that changes made to the way the software works gives hotels a whole new degree of choice and complexity when it comes to what’s available but that this could be a double-edged sword.

Andrew Baker, vice-president for design, construction and engineering EMEA at Starwood, argued that there’s a tendency to overcomplicate arrangements, making things more complex for customers than they need to be. Serviceability is important, so there’s little point spending big money on a lighting system that a guest finds impossible to use. The solution is services that are easy to use and practical, and accessing online feedback on platforms such as Tripadvisor, which has created a whole new way to keep up to speed with what guests are saying, argued IHG’s Lindsay.

Convincing partners to spend enough on illumination, while making sure everything remains sustainable and energy efficient, however, is often an uphill struggle. While many hotels are happy to spend large amounts on marble and other fine finishes, lighting often gets the short straw, particularly outside of Europe and the US, and it is an area which has been neglected in the past.

Night light

"You see in Moscow, beautiful historic buildings that at night look dead, because the lighting hasn’t been done correctly," said Peter-John Gilbert, who works as director of projects for EAME at Starwood. "And it’s a challenge that you see not only in Russia. I go back to the UK and find the same thing."

Gilbert says that too often, there is a lack of appreciation for the difficulties that beset the lighting designers. Injecting atmosphere and life into a building is not a simple task.

The impact that good lighting has on bringing guests into the hotel, and coming back again, is hard to deny. For one thing, a building’s external lights can make a huge difference.

Hotels should be inviting from the outside first, and outdoor lighting is something that can attract customers. 

"Hotels should be inviting from the outside first, and outdoor lighting is something that can attract customers," said Krzysztof Kaszubowksi, an interior architect at Anita Rosato Interior Design. "When it comes to the evening, especially in Northern Europe when it starts to get dark at 4pm; when you see a beautiful building you just want to go in and see inside."

From the point of view of Ciaran Kiely, international project marketing manager at Megaman, lighting is about first impressions. He said that the role it can play in building brand loyalty is often underestimated.

"You need good brand recognition outside, you need the lighting to be sympathetic to the environment, you need to consider your neighbours. And if you’re looking at outdoor spaces, you need good orientation lighting for safety.

"What I always say is when you walk into a hotel it should either be an ‘ooh’ or ‘ahh’, and not an ‘oh’."

The benefits of good investments are evident. Crucial to Megaman’s mission is the idea that high-quality lighting can provide hotels with the "home away from home" feeling, and that creating this ambiance is essential to managing guest retention. Whatever amount of money is spent on lavish decors, goes the industry argument, it is the lighting of the space that makes all the difference.

"You have to help people understand that," said Storey. "I could make white tiles look sexier than a marble wall lit badly!"

With such a wide range of expertise across the industry, it’s no surprise that there was diversity of perspective from the panel, and panellists weren’t always in agreement about the best ways to manage the changing landscape.

Some saw the challenges from a purely aesthetic perspective, some from a purely technological one, some from the commercial side and some from a mix of all three. But with such a jovial atmosphere, and such wide-ranging conversation, it’s obvious that the lessons of the night shone new light on a number of complex challenges they face.