Importance of Acoustics in Hospitality

Case Study

Interior acoustic quality in environments such as bars, cafés and restaurants can have a significant impact on patrons and staff alike, affecting the business itself.  Numerous factors impact the overall acoustic quality of these spaces such as the speech, background noise and architectural design of the room itself. 

Bars, cafés and restaurants traditionally had carpeted floors and soft furnishings such as upholstered chairs, tablecloths and curtains which provided some sound absorbing qualities. Recent trends lean towards a modern look which generally includes high ceilings and hard surfaces; though these features are aesthetically pleasing, they are known to produce excessive room echo.  As these venues are usually fast-paced and crowded, this makes for an uncomfortably loud environment. Studies indicated that these types of venues generally foster acoustic conditions that are less than desirable for comfortable social interactions.

Social interactions are a common source of excessive noise which can be explained by the noise-breeds-noise effect, also known as the café-effect. This phenomenon occurs when conversations of individual groups create noise, which results in surrounding groups subconsciously competing to be heard and understood (Whitlock & Dodd, 2006).

A study conducted on noise interference in food courts revealed that 60% of shoppers surveyed had difficulties hearing speech in food courts, while almost half admitted they avoid these places because they thought noise would be a nuisance (Cropp, 2010). This just goes to show how truly significant interior acoustics are and how they can attract or deter clientele.

Understanding what is considered as acceptable acoustic conditions is not only important to ensure that patrons visits are a pleasurable experience, but also to ensure that staff health and safety will not be compromised by excessive levels of noise. 

The Australian/New Zealand Standards Authority recommends that background noise in unoccupied buildings should not exceed the maximum level of 50 dBA, with the understanding that during occupancy levels will increase (AS/NZ 2 107:2000). A study conducted on acoustics in the New Zealand hospitality industry revealed that 60% of venues surveyed exceeded the recommended maximum, with levels up to 25 dB above the allowable occupied margin (Christie & Bell-Booth, n.d.).

The New Zealand Health and Safety legislation states that employees should not be exposed to noise levels above 85 dB(A) over an eight-hour period, or peak sound pressure level of 140 dB (Occupational Safety and Health Service, 2002). To put this in context, blow-dryers and food processors emit 80-90 dB, while firearms and jet engines can produce 140 dB or higher. Prolonged exposure to noise levels exceeding 85 dB(A) is potentially hazardous and can cause Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) which can become permanent depending on intensity, duration and frequency/pitch. This kind of damage can lead to impaired speech and job performance, as well as causing a sense of isolation.

New Zealand Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) have reported that on average they receive around 8 claims a day for NIHL, which amounts to more than $10 million per annum – ultimately impacting levies paid by industry (Accident Compensation Corporation, 2014). Excessive noise levels can also cause mental strain as well as other physical problems such as upset stomach, high blood pressure, increased or abnormal heart rate and insomnia to name a few (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, n.d.).

Though the importance of providing acceptable acoustic conditions is clear, there is a common misconception that investing in a better acoustic environment can be costly and image may be compromised.  Redefining your environment to promote better acoustic conditions can increase patronage, which in the end will increase revenue. Marshall Day acoustic consultant Stuart Camp recounted how lowered noise levels proved very beneficial for a notoriously loud bar, resulting in doubled beverage sales and quadrupled food sales. Camp commented that “As far as [the manager] could tell, people weren’t ordering another beer because it was too hard to communicate with the bartender, and people tended not to stay and eat because it was too noisy” (Cropp, 2010, p.14).

In Auckland alone there are a vast number of cafés, restaurants and bars competing for clientele; being able to provide a pleasurable atmosphere that promotes social interaction gives a competitive advantage that cannot be overlooked. Investing in an acoustic upgrade can add to the overall look as well as create a pleasant atmosphere. Take for example the Charlie and George Café; a modern café complete with concrete floors and large glass windows causing echo and reverberated noise. To remedy these problems, acoustic panels were suspended from the high ceiling as an aesthetically pleasing feature, adding to the modern look and feel of the space.

In conclusion, providing an environment that is acoustically accommodating is better for clients, staff and the business. If you are designing a café, restaurant or bar, contact an Acoustic Consultant or an Account Manager at a company like Autex Industries who specialise in providing customised interior acoustic solutions.


Reference List

Whitlock, J., & Dodd, G. (2006). Classroom Acoustics – Controlling the Café Effect… is the Lombard Effect the key?. Retrieved from


Cropp, A. (2010, May 15). Hear hear. Your Weekend Magazine. Retrieved from


Christie, L. H., & Bell-Booth, J. R. H. (n.d.). Aocustics in the Hospitality Industry: A Subjective and Objective Analysis. Retrieved from


Occupational Safety and Health Service. (2002). Approved Code of Practice for the Management of Noise in the Workplace. Retrieved from


Accident Compensation Corporation. (2014). Noise induced hearing loss. Retrieved from


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Noise. Retrieved from