Henry Steiner on hotel brand and identity

By Nadia Sheng,

As I’m on the phone with Henry Steiner I imagine him siting in his Mid-Levels office looking out into the wide blue yonder, a yonder that’s heavily branded with Steiner’s designs mind you, with a distorted feeling of ambition. He despises the word logo and perceives it as the dumbing down of a brand. “If it [logos] had a grown-up name maybe people would take it seriously”. Corporate identity and brand are the PC terms ad men, like himself, use. “Anyone can do a logo. You can get logos upwards of US$25 online”.

From left: Singapore Hyatt Hotel, Marco Polo Hotel, The Hong Kong Hotel, The Ambassador Hotel Taipei, Hong Kong Hyatt, The Hong Kong Hilton Hotel, The Peninsula (Scene), Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong The Peninsula.

Find out what his favourite design is below ☟

Above are some of Steiner’s hotel designs back in the day when there weren’t universalised hotel brands. Recognise the Singapore Hyatt? “Back then frou-frou type faces represented anything French while Gothic script was to be the choice for German names”. Typography throughout a hotel wasn’t consistent.

The practice at the time was to have the brand reflect the part of the world the hotel was in. While evident in Steiner’s designs above, it wasn’t a reflection of Steiner’s beliefs. When it was time for him to do the Hyatt, it occurred to him that instead of having an ethnic difference, the whole chain should have one identity. “I presented to the Hyatt but the concept wasn’t taken any further.” This what one of the catalysts for change that brought about the universal brand we see today.

Henry and I work through a lot of misconceptions people, like myself, have regarding branding; namely that interior design falls under branding when in fact there’s a clear distinction between the two. He cites a formula:

corporate identity = brand
corporate image = brand + reputation

Steiner asks me to imagine a hotel with the worst service in the world and then juxtapose that thought with the fact that the hotel brand is known to be good. “It just doesn’t add up does it?”. Interior and service add up to image whereas the brand on its own can only reflect the hotel.

Design can make a crummy hotel room feel comfortable. In Taiwan, there are a lot of design hotels where rooms are tiny, but the elements of design make up for what it lacks. I asked Steiner if he thought this was why boutique hotels often turned to design (art hotels are often more expensive than 1-3 star hotels) and if he thought this was a successful business move. “If the delivery of your product isn’t good, then design doesn’t matter” was his response which, we can agree, is universal.

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Ambassador Taipei

Tables turned and I asked him where in the decision-making funnel, when deciding on hotels to stay in, the brand comes into play for him. “While it’s nice to stay with one-of-a-kind brands like the Ambassador Hotel, for instance, if I were deciding between two hotels that were absolute equals, I’d be inclined to go with the image”.

So, I’d imagine you’d always pick the best hotels when travelling? 

“Depends whose paying. If it’s a client then I’d stay at a better hotel”. When on business, his PA usually goes through a list and recommends hotels.

steiner-profileWhen it comes out of his pocket, then he’s all for straightforward hotels. “There’s an awful snobbishness about which hotel you stay in. People judge you”. “Sometimes there’s too much room in 5-stars. If you’re going there for 2 nights, you’re not going to hold a banquet. The service is over the top”. Steiner cites the ibis Hong Kong Central & Sheung Wan as an example of a straightforward hotel. “With the Starbucks downstairs it works nicely”. Though oftentimes Steiner doesn’t stay at hotels but at private members clubs such as the Oriental Club in London, Yale Clubs across the world, Yale being his alma mater, and reciprocal clubs to The Hong Kong Club, of which he’s a member.

As for travel habits, as one can suppose of someone who’s owned their own design consultancy for the last several decades, Steiner’s trips are often multi-purposed. “I’m attending a conference in Seoul soon and, as it happens, a colleague is having their opening exhibition in Gangham the week after so I thought may as well stay a few days longer”. He usually looks up friends in whichever city he’s brought to on business and stays the weekend. Steiner’s affinity for formulas becomes apparent when he recites his trip-taking formula:

Take care of business first, then do the civilian stuff.

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Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong

That’s two misconceptions down; the second being Steiner’s straightforwardness when it comes to the choice of his travel accommodation. But wait, we said he wasn’t fussed, not that he didn’t have favourites! “I’m a fan of the Mandarin. It has a nice balance between exoticism and modernity. The quality is there.” To Steiner, the way in which the Mandarin Group incorporates the iconic fan design in their advertisements, by using the humourous play on words in their celebrity fans campaign, is telltale of their maturity.

Your favourite design of all time?

“The Hong Kong Hilton (see above). It was trailblazing. It electrified people.”

If you liked this article, check out Hong Kong’s forgotten hotel-club scene which features The Scene – Hong Kong’s most famous disco for which Steiner designed the promotional materials for…