Break­ing Away

Hip is re­shap­ing the ho­tel ex­pe­ri­ence

Business Traveler (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Chip­kin By Har­vey

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.”

Be­yond Borders

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

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