Hip is reshaping the hotel experience
Headlines were made in New York City recently when a cab refused to take the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico to the Opera House Hotel in the Bronx, an upscale boutique hotel in a neighborhood that not long ago would have been highly unlikely to offer quality accommodations.
And in June, a $45 million boutique hotel called Hotel on North opened in downtown Pittsfield, an old industrial town in Massachusetts’s scenic Berkshires region that had seen hard times after several major companies departed in recent decades. The hotel, located in two buildings that date from the 1880’s, features an art gallery, mini-bars with Berkshires-made products, and a restaurant called Eat and Drink on North with a highprofile chef.
Hotels like these represent a revolution in lodging that seeks to appeal to the lifestyles of travelers rather than their wallets or business needs. They may be called boutique, lifestyle (or even life & style) or independent, but what they share is that they are non-branded and geared to the preferences of travelers who have come a long way from consistency-seeking road warriors who found comfort knowing what to expect when checking in.
As major markets become saturated with lifestyle hotels, developers see opportunities in atypical markets like Pittsfield and The Bronx. The reasoning: If we can be the only hip game in town we can do very well. And it is frequently in these geographically out-of-the-way locations where innovations are reshaping the very nature of the hotel experience.
But geography tells only part of this story. It’s more about a traveler who is seeking a seamless transition from his or her lifestyle at home; and hotels in markets large, small and improbable emerging to meet that demand.
Brian Butterworth, vice president of sales for Main Street Hospitality Group, which operates Hotel on North, says,“Porches Inn, our hotel in North Adams, MA, gave us the idea of putting a boutique, arts-oriented hotel in an urban setting like Pittsfield. As this city tries to redefine itself by appealing to the creative economy we saw a desire to have overnight lodging more in line with the aesthetics of many travelers.”
Vive la Révolution
Of course, revolutions these days usually trace their roots back to an online catalyst. “The Internet allows a single hotel to be a brand,”explains Bjorn Hanson, a professor at the NYU school of hospitality and tourism.“If someone is going to a place like Pittsfield, they can search‘style hotel in Pittsfield’ or ‘lifestyle hotel in Pittsfield’and find that one hotel in the market. Then, with TripAdvisor you will know you won’t have a bad experience. Travelers don’t need the security of brand standards. Creative developers want to be in the hotel business and if a brand doesn’t fit their personal outlook, they can take the independent route.”
“Travelers want to break away from the clutter of traditional hotels and stay in neighborhoods nobody would have thought of. The hotel will stand out because of the vibe, the décor,”says Jody Merl, president of Innovative Hotel Marketing, a firm which specializes in media planning and buying for the hospitality
industry, while also providing added value promotions that expand hotel client budgets.
“Look at Ian Schrager,”says Merl,“who invented boutique hotels but is constantly in touch with the needs of travelers as they change. Importantly, he is also in tune with the sensibilities of core influencers who will know your hotel has arrived – and conversely when it is no longer the place to stay. They are a small group of creative people but they are in the know.”
Bashar Wali, president of Provenance Hotels, notes, “Boutique, lifestyle and independent are words that get thrown around randomly. The fact is that the Internet has neutralized the brand factor. In the past you went to McDonald’s in Paris because you knew what you could expect. Now you can go on Yelp and find a restaurant that you like. Hotels have been liberated by the TripAdvisors of the world which provide real time information from actual users,”he says.
“Lifestyle may be the term du jour, but what we are looking at is a unique experience. If I go to Chicago tomorrow and stay in a fabulous branded hotel I won’t go home and tell my wife that I stayed at a great Brand X. If I go to Cleveland and stay at a hotel that was once a prison, that is a distinguishing factor. It’s like if you order vanilla ice cream you don’t talk about it, but if you order chocolate ice cream with bacon, you will talk about it.”
Provenance has been able to create a lifestyle hotel in Tacoma, a smaller market, because it is the home of the Museum of Glass and the Chihuly Bridge of Glass created by Tacoma native Dale Chihuly.“This gives us a relevant story,“says Wali. “When you leave the theater you talk about the play, not the building; same with a hotel.”
Mike DeFrino, CEO of boutique pioneer Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, says, “We have our eye on cities with a thriving economy but less saturation from boutique players – think Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Winston-Salem. We are also seeing growth in demand in leisure destinations such as Palm Springs, Sedona and Savannah.”
And even in LasVegas, home to the anti-boutique – hotels with thousands of rooms – atypical hotels are finding their place.“Since there are many Strip resorts that offer 2,000 to 3,000 rooms there is a desire for hotels of a smaller scale,” says Mike Chilton, general manager of the Delano Las
Vegas.“We spent a lot of time focusing on telling our story from explaining the concept behind our design to the customized scent in the lobby to daily inspirational quotes at our Dog Butler program and homemade jam and butters at Della’s Kitchen.”
According to John Keeling, executive vice president of the Valencia Group, which operates independent hotels, “Successful independents, while stylish, are not so inyour-face hip that they turn off baby boomers. It is not about the size of the market so much as the character of the market. The legacy brands have all come out with their boutique wannabe brands but the franchisee that is used to following the brand’s lead will be clueless on how to achieve the authenticity that the discriminating independent traveler values.“
This phenomenon knows no borders. One Aldwych in London continues after 17 years to be truly independent with the same owners and a single hotel. Kostas Sfaltos, the general manager, had long experience with branded hotels and says,“It is a revelation to work for a hotel like this. We had a restaurant that was not doing as well as expected. I presented a plan for a new restaurant and within seven months it was all done. That would have taken four years at a brand.”
At One Aldwych, as at other independents, being“local”and catering to the“community”are keys to success. Says Sfaltos, “We are so connected to our neighborhood Covent Garden that a well-known filmmaker created a series of videos with us merchants talking about the neighborhood. They were not asked to even mention the hotel but some did. That creates the kind of buzz that brings people here.”
DeFrino concurs.“We give our individual hotels the freedom to interpret our programs in a way that makes the most sense for the local market and that particular hotel. So for example, the Hotel Monaco Philadelphia offers“Rocky”-themed gray fleece robes in all the rooms.”
Mega-brands like Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt have recognized the trends and formed“collections”of independents that offer guests access to the brand’s loyalty programs and booking systems while claiming to keep hands off of what makes them unique. Dianna Vaughan, global head of Curio, Hilton’s collection, says,“Our only two branding mandates are that the hotel say Curio Hotels on the front door and that there is an HHonors sign posted at the front desk.”
According to Julius Robinson, vice president of Marriott’s Autograph Collection,“Lifestyle independents are moving into a ton of interesting cities; we have new hotels in Barcelona, Zurich, Charleston, Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine. And our hotels range from a 15-room lodge to a 3,000room hotel in Las Vegas to an 18th century Spanish convent.“
The Center of Next
Operators agree that there has been a fusion of what leisure and business travelers are seeking in a hotel.“Every traveler,”says Wali,“wants to be in the know and hang with the cool kids. Business travelers used to go to their room, have a burger and beer and work at an uncomfortable desk. Now they want to sit and relax on a couch and watch people coming and going.”
The most successful independent lifestyle hotels, says Bob Van Ness, executive vice president, Americas, for Preferred Hotels,“offer a casual come-as-you-are atmosphere. They feature a lobby that moonlights as a social gathering spot, at least one grab-and-go dining concept and an atmosphere that is comfortable and welcoming.“
The lines between business and leisure are blurring, according to Peter Shaindlin, COO of Halekulani Corporation, which has two hotels on Waikiki.“There used to be a clear bifurcation between what the business and leisure traveler expected.
Today, the choices are based more on personal lifestyle than career responsibilities. Instead of a fitness room, a guest will look for a spa with a yoga class and wellness coach. Even at the bar they’ll be looking for a wine from a particular vineyard rather than scotch and martinis. Lifestyle rather than business goals have become the primary commonality and the hotel has to respond to these changes.”
And that’s why the hotel business is getting more diverse, Merl maintains.“At the Vintro Hotel & Kitchen in South Beach Miami, they create a vibe that will draw business travelers in because the way people do business now is different. The independent hotel speaks to the dynamic of the person staying there – feeds their souls and stimulates them and they become more productive. That’s why restaurateurs and fashion designers are becoming hoteliers.”
Making the Public Private
Much of this evolution involves making public spaces more personal – a la Starbucks. Ralph Grippo, president of Irvine Company Resort Properties, which operates independents in southern California, explains, “Hotels are being used as hubs – gathering spots – so we create environments that provide personal spaces within public spaces. We ensure a local experience by providing on-site markets with local products reasonably priced and not overcharging for simple things. This encourages people to trust us, visit more often and share their experiences with others.”
There are lifestyle hotels where technology takes center stage – like the Axiom which is to open in the fall in San Francisco.“The critical difference Axiom presents will be delivering a digital lifestyle experience with ease of access through seamless integration of technology,”says James LoBosco, of Kokua Hospitality, which manages the hotel. “The hotel is for guests who want to be at the Center of Next, both from a physical and technological perspective.”
Even more important than what’s online is what’s for dinner. Several observers pointed out that“everyone thinks he’s a foodie”as part of the appeal of a new wave hotels that place a strong emphasis on dining.“Nobody wants vanilla anymore,”says Wali. “Even people going to a smaller market want a unique dining experience.”
“Probably the one area that distinguishes the successful independent hotel,”says Keeling,“is the quality of its restaurant and bar offerings. Outstanding food service is the beating heart of a successful boutique hotel.”
Even that black hole of business travel – the meeting room – is being caught up in the lifestyle movement. Jim Schultenover, president of Associated Luxury Hotels International, sees a noticeable surge in demand by meeting planners for lifestyle hotels that cater to meetings.“The demand is definitely up for unique, independent and genuine lifestyle hotels and resorts for meetings and incentive programs,” Schultenover notes.
“At Kimpton we approach meetings as relational, not transactional,”says DeFrino. “Just like with any event, we want to make sure they’re one-of-a-kind – if you’re on the road for a living, there’s nothing worse than being stuck all day in yet another generic corporate conference room with the same old flavorless catered lunches. Our hotels offer flexible and diverse meeting spaces with details that are designed to energize and inspire attendees.”
Hotels As Beer
Todd Wynne-Parry, executive vice president of Commune Hotels, a major operator of boutique hotels, said at the recent NYU hospitality conference that the lodging industry would eventually look like the beer industry.
“It will be like going into a bar,”he explained.“They will have some craft beers brewed right there or at a nearby micro-brewery. Those are the real independents. Then you will have beers that look like craft beers but are actually made by someone like Anheuser-Busch. Those are the‘independents’created by big brands to look like independents. And then you will have branded beers like Budweiser that are like the big hotel brands.” BT
Clockwise: Hotel Monaco Philadelphia, Hotel Murano, Hotel on North, One Aldwych
Top: Cava and Hotel Mastinell
Bottom: Vintro Hotel & Kitchen