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Lighting Up Our Social Lives
By Penny Jones


There has never been a better time to be a lighting designer in the hospitality space
as it throws open its arms to welcome LEDs, with all their potentialities, and begins to recognise the true significance of lighting in the overall design process. Today’s hotel, bar and restaurant operators are actively seeking to differentiate themselves from their competitors with a significant focus on aesthetic as well as functional lighting.

A 2015 Megaman® sponsored survey* of hospitality professionals found the lighting is an “integral part of the package when it comes to encouraging guests to stay longer and make repeat visits to a restaurant, hotel or bar.” In fact, the survey found that 74% of respondents have stayed longer than planned because the lighting made them feel relaxed and welcome and 72% have left a venue earlier than planned because it was too brightly or poorly lit.

Those are arresting statistics for anyone thinking of opening a bar, restaurant or hotel, not to mention a lighting designer with a big imagination. So, what are some of the things industry professionals are seeing in the day to day?

Donn Salisbury, Director of international lighting design consultancy Electrolight, says one of the biggest changes has been the steady adoption of light-emitting diodes over incandescent and halogen (and to a lesser extent fluorescent luminaires).

“Those older methods are just not acceptable anymore due to energy efficiency and sustainability issues,” he says. “At Electrolight, we’ve embraced LED technology, but have done so very carefully. We’ve found that, although LEDs are not as perfect in terms of colour, warmth and the ability to dim easily, what they do provide is an incredible opportunity to be accurate and succinct with how you use, place and control light. Integration is a good example of this where you need light sources to be minute in order to be integrated within tight, discrete details,” Salisbury continues.

Given the choice, Mark Elliott, Principal at international lighting consultancy Point Of View, would still be using halogen, but he says Point Of View is now using LEDs in almost 100% of their projects. “The energy codes in Australian standards now make the use of LED essential. Otherwise you just can’t meet the energy usage requirements,” he explains. “Sustainability is not really a question these days, it’s a given. And LED is the sustainable solution.”

For the last few years, Elliott says Point Of View has been working closely with manufacturers to improve LED WarmDim technology to make LED more usable in hospitality, something he says is absolutely vital. WarmDim basically mimics the dimming characteristics of halogen to create that warmer tone the further you dim it down.

LEDs have been widely embraced across the Pacific too. Avraham Mor is a Partner at international lighting consultancy Lightswitch in Chicago, and is emphatic that designers no longer have to choose between energy
efficiency and aesthetics. “Absolutely both can be accommodated,” he says. “Many of the really successful projects we’ve done recently have come in well below energy code requirements. Even really complex lighting
projects, like one we did recently for AceBounce ping pong club that switches from a warm white
light during happy hour to UV black light at night, we were able to achieve under the energy code.”

Branding is obviously a key part of the identity of a hospitality space, but according to Elliott, it’s not typically something that directs the way they design. “I think when people talk about branding, the first thing that comes to mind is specific colours and graphics,” he says. “But what tends to direct our design is looking at the project as a whole in terms of how opulent or minimal the interior design is. Branding just comes down to the style of
the space, which we follow through with the lighting,” he explains.

Of utmost importance to any hospitality space, be it a small intimate bar, a large warehouse restaurant or an enormous conference room, is the ability to create the right mood. Mor says his team spends a good deal of time talking about “creating the experience” of what their clientele want for their customers when they walk in the door, and how they can help make that happen through light. With a background in lighting design for the theatre, he says he often draws on the tips and tricks of that trade to create the right mood.

“I think the hospitality environment connects really well to the idea of a theatrical production. For example, instead of spotlighting an actor on one side of the stage to draw attention away from a scene change on the other, you’re putting a little more light in one corner of a hotel to keep people from looking at the other corner where the luggage racks are stored,” he says.

Elliott says creating mood boils down to the old adage of mixing and layering light to create the contrast and drama of the experience and his thoughts are echoed by Salisbury who says he spends a lot of time with his clients coaching them on the concepts of layering and colour temperature to help them understand the many ways to enhance the space using light.

“One of the keys to a great lighting scheme is knowing what not to light and enabling a scheme to have depth through a deliberate approach to darkness and contrast,” Salisbury says. “We tend to receive a lot of praise at the end of the day for helping clients appreciate what we do and the importance of lighting in the whole design process.”

According to Elliott, creating traffic flow through a space is also driven by creating contrast as well as by giving people points of visual interest and destination by highlighting certain elements. “In a bar, for example, the key point is always the bar. That’s why they are always well lit, the bottles on the shelves are gleaming and sparkling to invite customers in. From there, the hierarchy is determined by the different features of the space, and the balance between those elements to create that circulation that brings people together and helps them spend money – something of obvious importance to our clients.”

One of the most flexible of spaces in the hospitality realm are the large ballrooms and conference rooms found in hotels. These spaces require a considerable amount of thought as regards lighting solutions as they can be used for anything from a lecture, which is effectively an office lighting solution, to the more ambient, colour-changing requirements of a conference or banquet.

In these spaces, Elliott says that multiple layers of lights are the solution. “Depending on the function, you may only use half of the lighting capabilities at any one time but having the flexibility is important. Our clients often on-sell these spaces for functions and it is great for them to be able to offer the opportunity to brand the space, for example, in the corporate colour of their clients.”

Smarter lighting control systems are also gaining in popularity in the hospitality sector, allowing hoteliers, restaurant and bar owners to regulate and control the use of light, resulting in significantly reduced energy consumption and cost savings. Mor is certainly pushing for this change and says about three years ago he instituted a policy in Lightswitch’s Chicago office of installing 100% digital controls.

“We no longer analoguely dim digital technology because of the problems we’ve had with LEDs and dimming in older buildings,” he says. “In Chicago, hospitality is spreading into warehouse type areas, like the old meatpacking district where the power coming in can be quite ugly. As a lighting designer, putting in an LED but not being sure of how it’s going to perform is a lot of risk.”

Mor says the benefits of digital control systems boils down to three simple things: “With a control system I can pretty much guarantee the lights will dim low enough, they won’t flicker and the system itself will be quiet. I can’t do that if we’re talking about sine-wave dimming, forward phase or reverse phase dimming, or even 0-10V. But, I can have a very comfortable understanding that that’s going to work if I use digital control using DALI or DMX.”

So, what kind of themes are around the corner in hospitality lighting design? According to the experts, the emerging themes we need to look out for include illuminated ceilings, lines (of all lengths and widths) and something that has taken Salisbury rather by surprise: neon.

“Everyone seems to have a sudden penchant for neon elements and the application of neon in a sort of retro-fashion sense. I think it’s playful and it’s got a certain vibe and energy to it. It’s certainly been received quite well. The clients love it and so do the guests,” he says.