Ultimate Hospitality Lighting Guide


How to transform spaces and create memorable hospitality experiences?

As one of the most powerful elements in any space, lighting plays a crucial role in the way consumers perceive meals, events, and experiences.

Whether indoors or out, in dining rooms or lobbies, or in public or private spaces, lighting has enormous potential to impact moods and memories. Architects and designers are keenly aware of this fact and as a result, lighting is a primary consideration as they work on behalf of owners, operators, and other stakeholders.

However, lighting is no longer the exclusive domain of architects and illumination engineers.

Lighting environments affect the work of hosts, servers, sommeliers, concierges, cleaners, and dozens of other professions—and lighting can affect the bottom line of the entrepreneurs that choose to invest in it or choose to ignore it.

This guide is an introduction to the essential knowledge required to make informed lighting decisions. Whether the outcome is a simple energy-saving LED retrofit or a complete smart lighting overhaul.

The following sections offer lighting considerations for atmospheres that will delight customers and efficiencies that will delight owners.


What message does your lighting send?

Some locations invite customers to linger while others encourage them to move on.

Some moments call for energy; others call for ambiance. Some moments demand a dynamic, changing lighting environment while others require the classic simplicity of static illumination.

Naturally, fine dining has very different lighting requirements from a casual eatery.

Consider two restaurants in the heart of Times Square: Olive Garden Italian Restaurant and Carmine’s Italian Restaurant.

 Same block, similar cuisine. Yet they embody vastly different business models that are clearly reflected through lighting.

Carmine’s turns a cavernous space into an intimate dining experience through lower light levels, warmth, and contrast while Olive Garden’s brighter, cooler environment heightens the energy of prints and patterns for a significantly higher turnover rate


The quantity of light in an environment has an enormous effect on mood, safety, and the way that environment is perceived. 

There are dozens of possible measurement methods and points, but these are some of the most common:

  • E: the quantity of light on a surface at a given point, measured in lux.
  • E MAX: the maximum illuminance level on a specified test plane.
  • E MIN: the minimum illuminance level on a specified test plane.
  • E AVE: the average illuminance level on a specified test plane.
  • Eh and Ev: illuminance on a horizontal or vertical test plane, respectively


Every light tells a story, and every story has a beginning, middle, and end. If a customer enters through one space and exits through another, there’s an opportunity for lighting to create an experience that evolves. Even within a single space, every fixture relates to every other fixture. Just like each member of an orchestra plays in tune, each source in a lighting system contributes to overall visual harmony.

Case Study: Cohesive Design

Imagine a new restaurant concept: Space Station Odyssey. Here, customers experience molecular gastronomy that showcases the planet’s finest ingredients as if they’ve been transported miles above the earth’s surface.

Diners generally love candles on their tables, but the warmth of open flames would be off-brand in this technology-centric experience. 

Instead, hidden cove sources and internal illumination would better extend the illusion. If visible table sources are essential to the design, there’s a creative opportunity to reimagine the traditional candle as something else: an orb, a ring, or a chemically-coloured blue flame.


A computer from ten or fifteen years ago is likely seen as unacceptably dated; similarly, lighting from ten or fifteen years ago may be viewed as unacceptably bland.

As consumers grow accustomed to LED lighting, they’ve come to expect richer, more immersive lighting environments. 

Even in their own homes, lights can change colors and respond to voice control—and that challenges experience-creators and business owners to adapt to evolving consumer demands. 


What do your customers see—and how do they see it?

Shadowy lighting may be perfect for a haunted house, but it won’t sell many clothes at an apparel retailer. Nearly every industry has a product that needs to be lit: galleries highlight art, grocery stores spotlight produce, and auto dealers use illumination to show off the latest models. Even experience-based industries with no tangible goods use lighting: a night game at a ballpark without floodlights wouldn’t sell many tickets.

In the hospitality industry, the products are food and beverage. In some cases, it’s also the backstage show of a visible kitchen. Lighting and the surrounding environment enhances the flavor experience of a dish just like any garnish or meticulous plating—and choosing appropriate lighting allows customers to see and appreciate the products they’re about to consume.


The relationship between what’s being lit and where the lights are placed is crucial to effectively reveal a product. Lights placed above and behind diners’ heads may cast shadows that obscure the chef’s impeccable presentation. Downlights placed high above tables may illuminate food nicely, but that steeply-angled light could create unflattering shadows in the eye sockets of dining companions that are recorded on social media for years to come.

In general, closer light sources create more intimate spaces; large, soft sources like hanging pendants over tables flatter both food and faces. Candles—either LED or live flame—cast a communal uplighting glow while falling off into the darkness at a distance. Steep, sharp lighting is often useful as accent lighting or to reveal texture on plants, walls, or other design elements.

Case Study: Wine Wall

A local tapas bar built a wooden accent wall to highlight their wines; each bottle lived in its own cubby and the owners planned to repurpose an existing row of track lighting to illuminate the collection.

The problem? None of the labels were visible. The steep angle between the lighting position and the wine wall left customers and staff unable to easily read the brands and vintages.

The solution? A local lighting designer suggested an inexpensive socket extender. Lowering the light sources by 24” turned a steep 85° lighting angle into a flatter 75° angle, resulting in clearly legible labels for both diners and bartenders.


How can you adapt existing infrastructure?

New lighting is one of the fastest, most cost-effective ways to create something different—without building anything new. Because lighting so directly alters perception, it’s possible to repurpose existing infrastructure by re-imagining the lighting environment. Upgrading to an LED-based lighting system is an opportunity to refresh a space with new lighting choices—and possibly find new uses for an existing space.


As the COVID-19 pandemic wore on in the summer of 2020, restaurants in large cities struggled with a shift to outdoor dining. For one establishment in particular, the answer was lighting: string lights.  

Swags of LED string lights helped this restaurant reclaim unused space in an adjoining alley. Combined with a bit of greenery, they quickly and efficiently transformed extra outdoor space into a lovely open-air experience with the warm glow of solar-powered string lights.

The idea was a hit—and when cooler winter temperatures brought a return to indoor dining, they extended the new design into the dining room. They painted the old drop ceiling a dark midnight blue and hung similar string light swags over diners’ heads, effectively recreating the peacefulness of the summer’s success in a space that was due for an update


What are the economics and financial incentives?

Upgrading to LED lighting can yield significant savings in both the short term and throughout the system’s lifespan. While LED fixtures come at a slight premium compared to their fluorescent counterparts, they lack toxic chemicals, last decades longer, consume less energy, and often qualify for tax incentives. Understanding the factors at play will help owners and operators maximize ROI and plan the economics of a lighting installation


LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes) are extremely energy-efficient light sources. Their high efficacy means they generate more lumens per watt than incandescent or fluorescent lighting sources; a 60-watt equivalent LED source may only consume 5-10 watts while outputting the same quantity of light.

When multiplied throughout an entire project, it’s possible that lower electric bills can pay for the lighting system in just a few years. There are a number of excellent ROI calculators on the market that can accommodate project specifics such as fixture quantities and local utility costs to yield payback times and costs per square foot, per square meter, or per watt.


LED lighting is good for the environment, good for utility providers, and good for governments. As a result, there are numerous federal, state, and local programs designed to incentivize the installation of new and retrofitted LEDs by providing energy credits.

“A tax deduction of $1.80 per square foot is available to owners of new or existing buildings who install (1) interior lighting; (2) building envelope, or (3) heating, cooling, ventilation, or hot water systems that reduce the building’s total energy and power cost by 50% or more in comparison to a building meeting minimum requirements set by ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2001.”

  • Energy.gov: 179D Commercial Buildings Energy-Efficiency Tax Deduction
  • Energy.gov: Tax Incentives for Energy Efficiency Upgrades in Commercial Buildings
  • Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)


Many LEDs have rated lifespans up to 50,000 hours—that’s 8-10 times longer than most compact fluorescents (CFLs) and 50 times longer than traditional incandescent.

Assuming 12 hours of use per day, a 50,000 hour LED fixture only needs to be relamped once every 11 years resulting in significantly lower costs for both materials and labor.


Does your lighting enhance wellness?

Lighting’s connection to wellness is well-established. Providing appropriate lighting for tasks and times of day has the ability to enhance comfort and even boost productivity. If you’ve ever spent time under the flicker of fluorescent tubes that are too bright or too dim, you know that lighting is an important factor in providing the best possible work.


Human brains are tuned to natural light that flows in a rhythm from sunrise to sunset. With warmer tones at the beginning and end of the day and cooler tones that peak in mid-afternoon, circadian lighting subtly changes color to mimic natural light. Implementing a circadian lighting plan requires specialized programming and color-changing fixtures, but studies have shown benefits for sleep patterns as well as mental health.


During a recent lobby renovation, owners of a boutique hotel sought to capitalize on circadian rhythms to help their guests adjust to the local time zone.

Previously, arriving guests were greeted by cool white 5000K compact fluorescent (CFL) sources at all times of day and night. After a circadian-inspired LED retrofit, the lighting environment in the lobby morphed with the time of day to help guests rest after a long flight. Beginning one hour after sunset and ending one hour before sunrise, overall light levels were reduced by 30% while table lamps, sconces, and downlights shifted to a warmer 2700K. Cove accent lighting shifted to deep nighttime blue before beginning a preprogrammed sunrise effect as dawn approached.

Initial feedback from guests was extremely positive and staff appreciated the peaceful overnight atmosphere as they performed their work.


Bright sources of light in the field of vision affect the eye’s ability to focus properly. Glare can occur as a result of direct, unmasked light sources such as unshaded lamps or indirect reflections such as daylight shining onto computer screens from nearby windows. Managing and reducing glare is a crucial element of comfortable vision and should be considered when choosing and placing light fixtures.


Can your lighting adapt to your needs?

Previous generations of lighting systems offered very little flexibility after installation; for example, changing fluorescents from cool white to warm white would have required re-lamping every fixture. However, an LED lighting system can respond in a single button press. Advanced LED fixtures contain individual drivers that allow a high degree of customization, flexibility, and pre-programming. No longer limited to just a few control zones, lighting systems can now easily adapt as needs change.

Case Study: The Flexible Ballroom

Ending a high-cost contract with a national AV supplier meant hotel event managers had the opportunity to bring their lighting in-house. After an LED retrofit in their ballroom, staff gained the ability to customize lighting for nearly any event that rented the space.

Via portable tablets, staff could wirelessly control the brightness and color of every light in the room. Managers offered custom colors for weddings and parties while individual lights shining on projection screens could be turned off while retaining appropriate light levels for note-taking during a presentation.

While specialty lighting is still brought in for large-scale events, upgrading to an intelligent LED system now allows staff to cover up to 90% of lighting needs at no additional cost



The desired outcomes inform every aspect of a lighting system: overall light levels, fixture selection and placement, aiming, and more. Asking ‘What activities happen in this space?’ is one of the first steps toward identifying the type of illumination required for any given situation.

Identifying the focal point(s) of a space is another early objective. In a retail environment, for example, merchandise on vertical racks requires appropriate vertical foot candles and illumination methods that don’t cause items to shadow one another.

It’s also important to consider environmental factors when analyzing lighting goals. Is fixture washdown necessary for cleaning and sanitation? Is there a high level of heat or corrosion in the environment? If dust, moisture, or submersion are concerns, choosing fixtures with appropriate IP/NEMA ratings is a necessary safety precaution and will be required by local and/or federal fire safety codes.


Light and color go hand in hand; in many ways, light is color—and changing the quality of light in a space will have a dramatic effect on color perception. Warm whites and cool whites fall on a spectrum known as color temperature, measured in degrees Kelvin, or K. A candle has a warmer, lower color temperature of 1800K while daylight has a cooler, higher color temperature of 6500K, and offices generally fall somewhere in between at 3000K to 4000K. When adjustable color temperature is required, installing ‘tunable white’ sources allows for computerized control over color temperature as needs or preferences change.

Variations on white light aren’t the only color considerations: some scenarios call for something more vibrant. LEDs are available in a wide range of fixed-color and color-changing options; as a general rule, more individual colors contained in an LED source results in a wider range of color options. When true, rich, accurate colors are called for, it’s important to note a source’s Color Rendering Index, or CRI. The scale tops out at 100 and sources with higher CRIs have a fuller spectrum that renders colors in more true-to-life ways


There are many lighting control choices to make—and the options are expanding as lighting freedom increases. Choosing between local, zonal, or master control locations requires an understanding of how spaces will be used: centralizing control is preferable in some scenarios, while other situations call for distributing controls near their associated sources. If mobile controls are needed, a tablet or mobile device can connect to a wireless network to adjust lighting from anywhere.

As a system grows in complexity, so does the need for tiered access. Programmers and technicians may need a fully-featured workstation to create and adjust looks, while occupants or cleaning staff require intuitive interfaces with limited pre-programed options. Through the use of sensors, voice control, and other smart-lighting products, it’s possible to offer simple solutions for a wide range of users.


As manufacturers work to develop seamless experiences with their products, ecosystems with varying compatibility emerge as a result. If multiple vendors are providing components for a system, it’s crucial to ensure equipment compatibility between sources, drivers, fixtures, ballasts, controls, networking, and other aspects of the lighting system.

The availability of additional parts and pieces deserves consideration as well—optional accessories and spare parts are important for successful installation and maintenance. Compatibility also applies to the quality of available power—LEDs contain electronics that are sensitive to voltage instability, harmonics, and other electrical issues. An electrician can verify power quality on site and ensure compatibility with specific LEDs.


Fixture choices will be affected by a number of factors including aesthetics, budget, and desired functionality. Architects, interior architects, and architectural lighting designers may specify visible or hidden sources for task, accent, and general illumination. An enormous array of fixtures exist for cove lighting, wall washing, backlighting, spotlighting, and other applications for a range of industries.

To help steer fixture selection, it’s important to know whether dimming and/or color changing are required, what space is available for lighting fixtures, environmental conditions, and the style goals of the project.


Environmental Lights Weatherproof RGBAW Strip Light

View Product  View Installations

With over 1 trillion possible color combinations, this versatile LED strip light is ideal for installation under bars, inside coves, or accenting objects when space is at a premium. The expanded color range is the result of a five-color system that pairs red, green, and blue with warm and cool tunable white to create a vibrant, versatile source.

From the manufacturer

Waterproof 5-in-1 LED Strip Light with RGB + 6,500K and Amber gives you the ability to create bolder colors than ever before, making it perfect for both indoor and outdoor application use in scenic, stage, and retail environments.

With an IP67 rating, the Waterproof 5-in-1 LED Strip Light is protected against dust and splashes, and can, in specific conditions, be submerged in up to 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes.


Lighting is a team sport. With such a wide array of design and technology considerations coupled with the cost and permanence of a lighting system, it’s important to build a relationship with a lighting designer, consultant, or vendor whose services you trust.

While some lighting professionals specialize in a single industry, many draw on a diverse range of experiences that inform their work in hospitality; for example, previous experience lighting concerts or events may bring a creative flair to a bar or restaurant that requires a unique visual pop.

When evaluating potential lighting designers, consider their portfolio of projects and make contact with previous clients; quality of work and professional demeanor are both essentials for a positive experience.

To identify possible candidates, consider visiting spaces with exceptional lighting and ask about the team that created them. Or, visit IALD.org to view members of the International Association of Lighting Designers. Their designer directory is filled with vetted professionals from across the globe and is searchable by country, city, and project type.