In an effort to simplify and optimize for expansion, hotels have become monoliths of templates and algorithms, built and refined and enhanced and copied within an inch of their lives.

Note: This story was originally published in MediaPost on July 15, 2016.

Great destinations create great stories that so personally shape you that you want to take a piece of them home. That’s why, since I was seven years old, I’ve been amassing a life’s collection of items that I call “honestly stolen.” From high to low design and all manner of kitsch, these artifacts represent times and places and adventures so indelible that I wanted to possess something to remind me of them. Now, as a designer, I have a deep appreciation for the power these artifacts have to inspire a memory.

Hotels used to contribute to the mystique that made destinations and travel so enticing and memorable, but not anymore. In an effort to simplify and optimize for expansion, hotels have become monoliths of templates and algorithms, built and refined and enhanced and copied within an inch of their lives. These systems have been implemented solely for profit-generation, focused on getting more butts in beds, more room service ordered and more mini bars emptied.

While this approach is sadly proliferating across the industry, there are ways to fix the problem. Brave hotels can power a mini-revolution through story-making. Many hotels, and brands in general, are very good at storytelling: weaving a beautiful narrative about the features and amenities. But fewer are good at story-making: creating a curated experience born of a bespoke design or approach. It’s placemaking on steroids. What if hotels weren’t a signal of your tourist status, but instead an integral, additive, part of the trip?

Feels like home

Hotels can learn from Airbnb’s latest home-sharing message about feeling local and integrated into a neighborhood.

Luxury resort group Aman has done this flawlessly by creating an experience out of its location. In a city known for its harried atmosphere, Aman Tokyo’s lobby is built at the 33rd floor, high above the busy city below in order to facilitate a peaceful, airy experience for travelers. By also integrating local materials like washi paper into the room designs, Aman Tokyo creates a curated experience for visitors that immerses them in the local aesthetic.

Hilton has taken a similar approach in the form of Canopy, a new line of neighborhood-centric hotels that will be built and designed with the consumer at the heart of everything. At check-in, guests are given a welcome snack, a local product like Garrett’s Popcorn in Chicago. Artwork in guest rooms reflects local attractions, and even the room design is tailored to creating a homier, more local feel.

Extend the narrative

Staking value on providing a hospitable experience isn’t enough for a hotel to stand out in a crowded market. Instead, hotels need to seek out a story and voice that can unite every aspect of the hotel experience. Richmond’s The Quirk Hotel has found ways to weave art and design into every element; from unexpected installations made of coffee cup lids and onsite gallery to hand-stitched throw pillows on the beds, art and design ties the experience together while also creating a memorable experience for guests that feels more like theatre than identity.

Disney Hotels and Resorts were some of the pioneers in this field; the Polynesian Village Resort goes tiki-meta to its core, promising a trip to Polynesia that never really was. Each property is not only themed but a guest experience designed to inspire memories and keep the Disney story going throughout every moment of your vacation.

Creating an entire narrative that influences every aspect of the visitor’s experience is critical to making the hotel part of a visit. By investing in design, from the visual identity to check-in to the flatware in the onsite restaurant, each moment lets you be a part of the story.

Is there anyone out there who feels the same way? Who wants to create a story and destination that actually matters to people? I’m not talking about walking away from decades of best practices or years of testing to determine the optimal way to get someone to book. But the pendulum has swung too far. There must be a happy medium between art and science, between efficiency and creating something meaningful.