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Atmosphere: The Key Ingredient for Hotel Success?

The Sentosa Development Review, conducted by the Development Authority of the Pacific Area Travel Association (PATA) in 1980, earmarked a site on northeast Sentosa for the construction of a luxury hotel. Located near the slopes of Mt. Serapong, the hotel would present guests with vistas of the mainland's towering cityscape and the harbour, foregrounded by a newly created lake.[1]

Fig. 1: Development plan for Sentosa showing land planning: the historic zone, day use zone, and resort zone.

As a design benchmark for the new luxury hotel, the Development Review team recommended the Sheraton Maui in Hawaii and the Hotel Tahara'a in Papetee, Tahiti.[2] Both hotels were designed by the Honolulu-based architecture firm Wimberly, Whisenand, Allison, Tong, & Goo (WWAT&G). It was renamed Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo (WATG) in 1988.

Fig. 2: Bird's-eye view of the Apollo Sentosa complex.

At the time there was only one hotel accommodation on the island, the Apollo Sentosa (1978-86). Converted from former British army barracks, the Apollo Sentosa hotel received guests in 161 rooms across 24 uniformed low-rise buildings. Other amenities bring the count up to a total of 33 buildings spread over 12 hectares.[3]

While the PATA team found the hotel satisfactory and that with 'some additional attention and amenities, it could be considered a first class semi-luxury hotel', they were not so fond of the 1000-seater convention hall. 'Unfortunately, the architectural style of the conventional hall bears no relationship to any of the other architecture on the island' lamented the authors.[4] The newly built convention facilities were not compatible with the adjacent architecture of the Apollo Sentosa's lobby building.

Fig. 3: Apollo Sentosa lobby building reconstructed out of an older military building.
Fig. 4: Apollo Hotel convention hall.

Architectural disharmony, between buildings and with the environment, seems to be an issue that the PATA team picked up on. The hotels suggested for the future luxury hotel site remedy this by paying close attention to the physical environment and to indigenous cultures of the destination.

Stephen W. Brener, a hotel consultant and then-senior vice president of Helmsley-Spear Inc., a real estate firm, claims that 'atmosphere' is the most important requirement for a hotel's success. Atmosphere has both a scenographic approach and a psychological approach - the space has to cause affect in the subject who sees or walks through it. According to Brener, the site of the hotel is important because nature, first and foremost, provides atmosphere. Nevertheless, it is also possible to create atmosphere through architecture.[5] As such, in hotels that depend on views or the quality of the natural surroundings, it is of paramount importance that overdevelopment or the degradation of the nature does not occur. 

Fig. 5: Sheraton Maui in the 1960s

Common to the Sheraton Maui, the Hotel Tahara’a, and the Mt. Serapong plot is the presence of elevated land and the ocean. The Hotel Tahara'a sits on a ridge about 200 feet above sea level while the Sheraton Maui is perched on top of a lava promontory, Black Rock (known as Pu‘u Keka‘a in Hawaiian). Their architectural designs integrate and blend the structures into the landscape.

Fig. 6: View of Hotel Tahara'a from the bay.

The main building of the Hotel Tahara'a is a single storey building which adopts elements from vernacular Tahitian architecture, alluding to the longhouse. Most impressive is perhaps the 200 guest rooms which cascade down the slopes of the hill towards the black sand beach beneath, inverting the typical flow of buildings. Each room has a balcony or lanai, a Hawaiian style veranda or patio, which looks out into the vast ocean. Planters in the balconies contain vegetation which will blend the hotel into the hillside as they grow out.

Fig. 7: Hotel Tahara'a building and floor plans.

The lanai features prominently in WWAT&G's designs, appearing also in the Sheraton Maui, a hanging garden hotel with 212 rooms in the same inverted form as the Hotel Tahara'a. Both a private lookout point and a place for outdoor relaxation, the lanai serves as another apparatus to bolster the atmosphere of the destination through the view, solidifying the idea of paradise which had been constructed in the minds of guest through the mass media: promotional posters, travel magazines, books by James Michener, and movies such as Blue Hawaii starring Elvis Presley.

Fig. 8: Hotel Tahara'a postcard featuring the tiered lanai which blends into the gradient of the hill.

Introducing Kaanapali Beach Resort in Hawaii, where the Sheraton Maui is located, the presenter announces, 'This is the all year round land of vacation dreams. Here sophistication meets nature, and nature lends itself to man'.[6] Produced in 1964 the promotional video for the resort showcases aerial views, pristine beaches, and a private landing strip catering to small aircraft chartered by the two hotels which occupied the area. Kaanapali in the early 1960s was less crowded than Kaanapali today which hosts around 13 hotels across a 3 mile stretch of beach.

Although the PATA team's plans for the new luxury resort site did not materialise (Lakeshore View in Sentosa Cove is populated by bungalows today), we get a sense of factors which were important in planning new hotels through the recommendations provided and comments made. Similarities can also be drawn across the sites in Hawaii, Tahiti, and Singapore - there was a goal to blend architecture into nature to create an atmosphere suitable for holiday-makers. Whether this has to do with the geography and topography of the site (islands with elevated land), the design philosophy of WWAT&G, or a wider global trend in resort and hotel architectural design, remains to be explored.


End Notes

[1] Pacific Area Travel Association. A Development Review of Sentosa Island Singapore (San Francisco: Pacific Area Travel Association, 1980), p. 71. The PATA Team led by Larry Helber (Associate - Belt, Collins & Associates) consisted of consultants and architects: Gerald Allison (Partner - WWAT&G Architects), Cryil C. Herrmann (Vice President - Arthur D. Little), Charles Kaiser Jr. (Managing Partner - Harris, Kerr, Forster & Company), and John Kenaston (Director of Development - PATA).

[2] Ibid. The Hotel Tahara'a underwent multiple name changes over the years. Completed in December 1968, it was first known as the Tahara'a InterContinental Hotel, later changing its name to Hotel Tahara'a, and then to Hyatt Regency Tahiti and Matavai Beach Resort. The hotel closed in the early 2000s and the plot of land is now up for sale by Sotheby's.

[3] Lim, John. 'Apollo hotel on Sentosa certainty at last', Business Times, 5 December 1977, p. 1.

[4] Pacific Area Travel Association. A Development Review of Sentosa Island Singapore, pp. 49-50.

[5] Jensen, Robert. 'Resort Hotels: Symbols and Association in their Design', Architectural Record, December 1969, p. 119.

[6] kbramaui. 'Ka'anapali, Maui in 1964' YouTube video, 19:19. 25 May 2012.


Image Sources

Fig. 1: Pacific Area Travel Association. A Development Review of Sentosa Island Singapore (San Francisco: Pacific Area Travel Association, 1980), 23.

Fig. 2: Sentosa Development Corporation Annual Report 1981-82, 14.

Fig. 3: Pacific Area Travel Association. A Development Review of Sentosa Island Singapore, 49.

Fig. 4: Sentosa Development Corporation Annual Report 1980-81, 12.

Fig. 5: Sheraton Maui Archives reproduced in San Francisco Chronicle.

Fig. 6: Hotel Taharaa Intercontinental Postcard 1960s-1970s listed on

Fig. 7: Architectural Record, December 1969,130-31.

Fig. 8: Hotel Tahara'a InterContinental postcard, Erwin Christian, c.1975 shared on Facebook group Vahineitaria.

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