Interior designer and branding expert Susan Manrao found inspiration for her latest hotel project while watching an interactive play, Sleep No More, in New York City. During the immersive production, theatergoers follow characters in and out of guestrooms and get to poke around bookcases, trunks, desk drawers, and other nooks of the detailed hotel stage set.
“I thought to myself, how fantastic would it be, instead of doing a standard hotel design, to create these layers in a story so that the longer you were in the room, the more you would discover?” says Manrao, principal of her namesake design firm in Los Angeles.
The Beverly Hills Conference and Visitors Bureau had enlisted Manrao to develop the creative aspects of Suite 100, a 2014 program in honor of the city’s centennial. Julie Wagner, the CVB’s CEO, wanted to take guests back in time at five luxury hotel suites. As project director, Manrao helped conceive multisensory experiences that hark back to a designated era for each property: The Montage (1940s), The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows (1950s), The Beverly Hilton (1960s), L’Ermitage (1970s), and The Peninsula Beverly Hills (the modern era). And as with a stage production, the sets will come down once the run of Suite 100 wraps in December.
“It was important that it wouldn’t just be a redesign, that it would also involve a food and beverage component, an arrival component, even down to various rituals and service touchpoints and language the staff would use in interacting with these specific guests staying in the suites,” Manrao says of the project.
For instance, The Montage installed a press-for-champagne button in its film noir suite for guests. “The fact the project is temporary allowed for a high degree of creativity. How can we really make something that’s immersive and compels people to return again and again?”
At The Beverly Hilton, they recreated in-room collateral—such as the do-not-disturb sign and room service menu—using old graphic designs to ensure an authentic 1960s experience. “The idea behind it is to take these nuances and opportunities when guests will be not expecting the surprise,” Manrao says. “And really tailor the experience to see not just the big things but also the subtle things that resonate with people.”
It was a concerted effort to communicate the vision effectively to the hotels and the city so they could envision the possibilities the program presented. “It was really important to get the hotels to buy into the program and to believe in the legs that it had,” Manrao explains. “Each hotel made its own investment into the project.”
Manrao got her first taste of the hotel industry at 12 years old, working in her parents’ collection of boutique hotels in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her tasks included creating direct mail campaigns, working the front desk, and inspecting rooms. “I did the gamut, and I hated it,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m never going to work in hotels.’”
After majoring in communications and working in advertising for six years, Manrao went back to school to earn a degree in interior design. That led her to join Starwood Hotels and Resorts in New York City in 2004 to oversee the creative direction of the W Hotel brand. In 2007, she was awarded leadership of the St. Regis and Luxury Collection brands. During her tenure at Starwood, Manrao honed her creative skill set across the disciplines of graphic design, hospitality, and interior design.
“I really became this kind of liaison between how the brand would express itself through anything visual or sensory,” she says. “It’s really that trifecta of the experience I’ve had. I can understand things from a design perspective and my eye is very attuned to that, but at the same time, I have this foundation of hospitality and an inclination toward a marketing big picture process.”
In 2008, Manrao returned to her native California as the senior director of luxury and lifestyle design for Hilton Worldwide, where she oversaw the repositioning of the Waldorf Astoria, Waldorf Astoria Collection, and Conrad Hotels.
Manrao’s ultimate goal would be to take over and relaunch her parents’ hotels one day. But for now, she’s relishing in the success of Suite 100. “It’s definitely the hotel project I’m by far most proud of because of its uniqueness and also the herculean challenge it was to bring everyone together to make it happen.”