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The Relationship Between LEED Hotel Design and Guest Satisfaction

An approach of environmental design in LEED hotels by comparing visual and verbal experiences.

A study in emotional design and its relationship to LEED certified hotel design and guest experience.

For: Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University. 3423 Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, Ithaca, New York


The goal of this paper is to highlight those actions that can change the experience of the customer during their stay by the design in the guestroom. The research carried out choice hotels located in the United States and Europe in order to find out and compare strategies of each one.

The research covered ten case studies, which were chosen by obtaining LEED certification. Once we obtained their design actions developed for getting indoor air quality, the research compared which of them were influential on the customer experiences during their stay by reviewing TripAdvisor reviews and pictures of customers.

The results show us how the LEED certified hotels have a relation between the design action of LEED and the customer’s experience in rooms. In addition, the paper reveals a group of emotional codes in terms of comfort, relaxing and visual relations between built and natural environments.


The hotel’s rooms represent almost 70% of the total built surface of the hotel (Forster Associate, 1993). This percentage may change depending of the type of hotel (skyscraper, hotel of 4-7 floors or tourist resorts). 10% of customer purchases are driven by guestroom design (Dubé L. & Renaghan L.M., 1999) and 9% were driven by the following attributes: HVCA, aesthetics, overall size, cleanliness, comfort, kitchenette, work equipment and entertainment. In Dubè`s research, the customer gave their opinion during the stay or at the point of purchase decision. That means that the experience was not finished, leaving the possibility to change their opinion during the rest of stay. In any case, some of the attributes defined in 1999 by Dubè continue to be useful for defending the hypothesis that emotional guestroom design is more important than functional guestroom design, such as, size, comfort and entertainment.

During the last decades, architects and interior designers have been studying the guestroom through functional design features (Rutes, W.A., Penner R.H., &, Adams, L., 2001). The relation between optimal dimension, amenities and room types is the goal for architects to design a guestroom. Technical and constructive aspects are important too for designing, interchangeably the type and room’s dimension (Rutes W.A., FAIA, & Penner R., 1985).

On this line of spatial and technical aspects, U.S. Green Building Council organization is promoting sustainable actions to offer professionals a guideline, in order to get a sustainable certification for the building. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is the title of the certificate and is becoming a kind of marketing brand in the hospitality industry. We still do not know how the LEED certificate may impact on the business benefits (Walsman M., Verma R. & Muthulingam S., 2014). However, LEED certification continues to be the most proper certificate for sustainable designing in the U.S. hospitality industry. Some of the most important chain hotels in the world, such as, Marriott, are promoting the LEED certification in their hotel by creating the first LEED Volume Program. So far, this company has thirty hotels with awards and has introduced the first LEED green Hotel Prototype.

LEED certification is based in point schedule by six categories (sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy & atmosphere, material & resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation. In this research, we will put the focus on the indoor environmental quality aspect because by studying its parameters of design, the researcher can understand that this is the more related category regarding the design and customer’s experience inside the guest room. These parameters are increasing ventilation, thermal comfort-design, and daylight and views, among others.

If LEED certification gives us the benefit and certainty during and after the hotel’s construction for being a sustainable hotel, that benefit is opening new lines of research for knowing the customer’s experience in a LEED certification hotel. Could a LEED hotel increase the customer experience? Or does a green hotel not always mean a successful experience for the customer? Professionals in the hospitality industry are convinced that the most important thing is the customer experience. Three of the head officers of the most important chain hotel in the world defended that idea during the lecture series in the fall semester of 2014 at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. Mr. Ronald T. Harrison said, “the most important for Marritot is people; Mr. Kevin Jacobs said during his lecture, “we are passionate about delivering the best experience to our guest; and Samantha Sugarman showed the goals for facilities and design analysis in Four Seasons hotels, which are “specific style of design, don’t dictate a style, every hotel has their style and want great experience.” All of them considered the customer experience as the principal concern in the hospitality industry.

So far, we know that LEED certification has become a metric for sustainable hotels in the U.S. and the chain hotels are focusing on the customer experience for improving their benefits. The scientific researchers conducted studies about the customer experience and its impact in the hospitality industry; in addition they applied different methodological approaches.

The volume of customer reviews on the TripAdvisor website for the final purchasing decision, represents an important tool for potential customers (Melián González S., Bulchand Gidumal J., & López Valcárcel B., 2014). The electronic word-of-mouth called eWOM (Cantallops A.S., Salvi F., 2014) is more effective than communication marketing in the hotel sector (Litvin S.W., Goldsmith R.E., & Pam B., 2008; Gretzel, U., & Kyung Hyan Y., 2008).

The eWOM can be manipulated for anyone, and the authenticity of the comments can be false (Mayzlin D., Dover Y., & Chevarlier J., 2012). The impact of the TripAdvisor reviews directly affects the reputation of the hotel and changes the booking of hotels (Anderson K., 2012). Due the possibility for false reviews and a decrease in the percentage of real reviews, the researcher applied a methodology for increasing the indicator about the truthfulness of costumer’s reviews. Thus, the study continues using the impact of reviews on TripAdvisor as a source.

TripAdvisor gives the customer the possibility to insert their reviews and upload pictures of their travel before or after their stay at the hotel. The pictures taken inside the guestroom become irrevocable proof that the customer stayed at the hotel and give us information of their behaviors and memories (Harper D., 2002). In addition, it is a form of evidence that the reviews were written after the stay. Pictures in the form of postcards have been used in tourism for representing an ideological discourse in modern tourism (Albers P.C., & W.R. James, 1988) representing icons, customs or landscapes of the places to visit. The new technologic trends in smartphones and cameras give the customer the possibility to capture any moment during the stay. Often, customers use photography to spark strong memories, among others reasons (Pullman M., & Robson S., 2007). Thus, the researcher studied the pictures taken inside the room, knowing that the pictures uploaded represent positive or negative memories from the customer’s experience. Regarding what kind of pictures the customer takes during the stay, the research concluded those highlight important design elements. In other research where a photographic approach was applied through websites, researchers discovered the subject of the pictures reflecting the customer’s behavior (Donaire J.A., Camprubí R., & Galí N., 2014; Chalfen R.M., 1979). This research is focused on what they captured and not how they were made.

The current research is carrying out a new approach based on emotive design for the hospitality industry, putting in evidence the customer’s comments and pictures as the new approach for the hospitality design. Often, architects and interior designers are able to design hotels without any background knowledge about the customer’s experience. The hospitality industry, based in the guest experience, must focus more on the emotive design in hotels and public spaces (Lo K.P.Y., 2009, 2011; Masoudi A., Cudney E., and Paryani K., 2013; Pullman M., & Robson S., 2007; Jüttner U., Windler K., Schaffner D., and Maklan S., 2013).

The emotional design in guest rooms means working on designing for emotive status, such as, functional, satisfactory or memorable experience (Lo K.P.Y., 2007). Each status is defined by different emphases on its design (Barsky J., & Nash, L., 2002). It is, therefore, how we can achieve a memorable experience in LEED hotels. LEED certificate represents the top level for sustainable actions for buildings in U.S. That means that the hotel or chain of hotels wants to communicate a clear message to its guests. Having a message or theme is one of the conditions to achieve a memorable experience.

The research analyzed those designs that the customers emphasized through comments and pictures on TripAdvisor’s website. Using this approach we will be able to recognize positive or negative design aspects in LEED hotels.

The emotional design has been studied and put into practice by other disciplines that use object or symbols (Norman D.A., 2002, 2004; kim H., & Lee w., 2014). The hospitality industry is becoming a trend sector for applying new methodologies in interaction with the human behaviors. Recently, researchers are searching new approaches for understanding the customers’ behaviors using eye tracking (Robson S., & Noone B., 2014).

This research highlights the opportunity for using the emotional design in the hospitality industry because it is a sector based in human experiences. The success of guestroom design must be understood as those spaces are able to offer many experiences to the customers. The idea of designing many rooms within a room (Siguaw A.J., & Enz C.A., 1999) is the basis for thinking that a guestroom is not only a functional space or a satisfactory experience. The real loyalty of customers in a guestroom of a hotel is when the expectation of the room design is exceeded and memorable experiences are reached through it (Skogland, I., & Siguaw, J. A. 2004). If that emotional guest room is applied in LEED hotels improving its commitment with the environment and energy, we can break old concepts in the hospitality industry and add value to guestroom experience in hotels.

Material and methods

In order to obtain results that can be used or put into practices by professionals in the hospitality industry, the material and methods applied were collected directly from resources used by professionals or real customers.

The stages used to obtain material and the methodologies applied in this study were mainly based in two phases. In every one of them, the goals were different, which means each phase used different methodologies. The first stage of the study was representative, collecting data from different sources. The second stage focused on creating groups of emotional design codes in LEED hotels.

Discerning visual design codes.

All the photographs in bathrooms and bedrooms were codified according to the parameters of tangible or intangible elements and their spatial relation (visual and physical). The total of elements coded in bathrooms and bedrooms were 32.

According to this study of the customers’ visual impact, we could identify three types of user experiences. Those experiences are based on the tangible element of bed as a “sleeping” experience, the bathtub jet/shower sauna as a “relaxing /spa” experience, and the physical space of living room as a “living / welcoming” experience.

If we think in experiences (sleeping, relaxing/spa and living) and not just in spaces or elements distributed in a functional way, we are actually changing the traditional concept of hotels. A hotel room design geared towards an emotional design would improve the current strategies of many hotels that only use technology (free wifi or tv flat screen) as added value in rooms. (Gilmore J. H., & Pine II B. J., 2002).

The research highlighted the importance of getting a memorable experience while the sleeping, relaxing in the living area and taking a shower.

Verbal codes in memorable experiences.

The next phase was to figure out which customer’s comments made reference to those elements identified as keys to getting a memorable experience in the previous step, and which comments represented a positive emotion.

We studied the comments of 217 TripAdvisor users, obtaining a total of 291 codes between bathrooms and bedrooms. These codes gave us more information about the elements studied previously by the visual impact, and others features which were not photographed. In order to discover how positive the experience was, the study was able to detect those memorable experiences by identifying related adjectives with the elements studied.

If we compare the results between the elements of visual impact method and customers’ comments, we can conclude that the bathtub or soaking tub and the views to outside are the elements to consider in the design of the bathroom that will most likely result in a memorable customer experience.

A visual connection between the bathtub and the bed, an outdoor bathtub, a flat shower separated from the bathtub, or a vanity with two sinks are some of the elements in bathrooms that increase positive emotions (see table 9).

Comparatively, the elements in the bedrooms were beds, views to the outside, furniture and the living room area. The artificial light and natural light were not analyzed due the low percentage of customers’ comments. Nevertheless, the results of the elements studied were high enough to find out how customers achieve memorable experiences in bedrooms.

In the living area of bedrooms, the fireplace element was the most commented by customers with 5.5% of customer’s positive emotions, using adjectives like excellent, fantastic or lovely. 5% of customers appreciated décor or a modern style as a way to make them feel like they were far away or made them feel at home.


The study analyzed LEED hotels in Europe and in the U.S. to figure out if the design of sustainable actions and customer’s satisfaction had a relation between them. The room was the space chosen to study the correspondence between sustainable design and satisfaction. Using a method based on the photographs taken by real customers we coded all the elements with a visual impact in bathrooms and bedrooms. Once we categorized them, we could find out which of them had higher visual impacts. In the bathrooms, the bathtub or jetted tub, the mirror and the vanity, which had 14.6 %, 14.6% and 14% respectively, were the elements highlighted by customers.

In addition, the design of the bathroom with a bathtub beside a window facing the outside with a wonderful landscape, garden, or urban scene was considered by customer as a positive emotion, making it a memorable experience in almost 20% of clients. In bedrooms, high visual impact was mainly concentrated on four elements: the bed, furniture, natural light and views with 13.7%, 20.3%, 20.4% and 15.65% respectively. A comfortable bed and an attractive view to the outside were the most rated by customers.  All these elements were coded in order to identify and categorize them according their own features, such as, tangibility, intangibility, visual relation, physical relation or technology.

Once the results were studied, we discovered that there was a correspondence between sustainable design criteria and customer satisfaction. The data suggested than a customer’s experience may change in the hotel if some of these criteria are not present. The natural light and views are those two essential elements for obtaining a LEED certificate in IEQ category with high visual impact.  The views to the outside in bathrooms represented 9.1% and natural light represented 9.7%. These percentages in bedrooms are higher, in which the view was 15.65% and natural light was 20.4% of customers. The IEQ category in LEED certification establishes two criteria regarding views and natural light, which are EQc8.1 Daylight and views – daylight 75% of spaces and EQc8.2 Daylight and views – views for 90% of spaces. Both criteria provide building occupants with a connection between indoors spaces and the outdoors through the introduction of daylight and views.

If the photographs show what elements have a visual impact to the customers in the guestroom during their stay, the second aim was to find out if a sustainable design has the ability to make customers feel positive emotions in rooms. The research suggested that design in rooms could produce positive emotions in customers. In addition, according the study, the customers could get a memorable experience through the design (Lo, K.P.Y., 2007).

To get information about the positive customer emotion and design, we studied all comments posted on TripAdvisor website. All comments with positive adjectives were classified and put in relation with the design’s elements studied previously. A main outcome of this method was that customers experienced most of the positive emotions and memorable experiences in three different elements of the room (one in bathroom and two in the bedroom). These elements were the bathtub, bed and fireplace.

However, the study also discovered that without comfort and views to outside, the customers did not achieve a memorable experience. 19.6% of customers described their experiences in the bathtub with views to outside as an amazing moment. More than 45% of customers thought that the size and comfort of the bed was very important to get a memorable experience. This percentage increased when the room offered views to the landscape, representing 38.6% of positive emotion in bedrooms and 19.6% in bathrooms .

The strong correspondence between the customer rating in rooms of LEED hotels on TripAdvisor website reinforces the hypothesis that sustainable actions are related to customer satisfaction. This result and the outcomes previously shown highlight the possibility of considering a new indicator of sustainable design that is able to measure positive emotion in hotels.

Moreover, this study shows a code series that compares elements of design and the emotional charge of customers in hotels. The challenge of this research is discovering all emotional codes through the design in hotels, in order to build an indicator and emotional guidelines of design able to predict the customer’s experience. In this study, we focused on visual impact and comments codes of design and customer experience. Nevertheless, we realized during the process that a code series related with human well-being, physical perception of spaces and use of technology also existed., It would be interesting to study these elements as well, in order to be able to predict memorable experiences in hotels by using an emotional design.

To view the paper in its entirety, including illustrations, tables and references, please click below .


This paper originally appeared in ARA Journal of Tourism Research 6-1, (2016).

About the Author:

Ivan Alvarez Leon is a former member of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants

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