Luxury takes new shape
Associate, Reardon Smith Architects Ltd
TIME WAS, not so long ago, that the design and service offering of hotels was pretty much predictable the world over. There were a few hotels which, by virtue of being accommodated in a famous old building or thanks to the notoriety of their guests over the years, had enjoyed a reputation for individuality and, indeed, were patronised specifically for this.
By and large, these hotels were only in a handful of capital cities or in exotic hideaways, and they were a playground only for the wealthy who could afford them. The rest of the world’s hotels were seeking standardisation.
This could be at the five-star level of an Intercontinental or a four seasons hotel or the three-star level of a Holiday Inn Express, but the point was that hotel guests would know almost down to the last detail of the carpet pattern and the arrangement of food on their plates what they would see, eat and do within any hotel owned by a particular group. The experience was the same, whether they were in Lisbon or London, Venice or Vienna.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there seemed much to recommend itself in this homogenous approach. By far the largest percentage of travel was for business and, if you were globe-trotting — the theory ran — you wanted the familiar environment of your hotel to make you feel safe and connected to home. In some parts of the world, the Marriott or the Hilton might have been the only hotel show in town. Besides, if you were a road warrior, you were probably too exhausted by the time you reached your hotel to care about the interior environment beyond needing to know it was secure, clean and included a decent bed.
Hotels were commodities and some hotel operating companies even admitted to wishing they could keep their doors closed to guests and rely instead on escalating property values to make their money. There were of course some truly exceptional hotels where both the style and the substance of the service were profound, but when it came to design and innovation, hotels had become stuck in something of a pastiche of themselves, doing only what had been done before.
With the arrival of the new millennium, it changed. Steadily the demand increased to do something because it had ‘not’ been done before. This sea change was stimulated by the emerging regions of Eastern Europe and Asia and the new wealth and expectations that their travellers brought with them, by cheaper flights that meant more people on limited budgets were able to travel, by more women travelling on business and also making the hotel choice for their families and by a new generation of hotel guest that had grown up with the internet and the myriad other technological toys that had begun to surround us.
At the same time as customers were diversifying and responding to different kinds of hotel experiences, the hotel industry itself took the biggest single step towards diversification as the major groups followed one another in selling their hotel properties. It may have been the law of unintended consequences but the separation of owner and operator, ‘bricks and brains’, meant that the company with the name over the door had to become a brand and, because there is a limit to how many of the same brand can successfully operate in one location, they had to create sub-brands, each with their own identity, style and service offering.
These developments were manna to designers, branding consultants, marketing consultants and trends watchers. Now hotels were the sector of choice for some of the world’s best known designers and were seen as incubators of new lifestyle habits. Of course some failed and a number have not realised the ambitious pipelines of new signings that they had announced. But many more have succeeded, maturing possibly with experience but then also leaving space for the next, young idea. Today, many of the newer brands defy conventional star rating to express their particular quality – there are luxury hotels in caves, tree houses, the so-called shabby chic hotels, the apartment only hotels where guests can be as little or as much self-contained as they wish, the fashion branded hotels and much more. Meanwhile, of course, there continues to be a very large number of internationally branded hotels.
The problem for the richest is about the personalisation of the experience. So the answer lies in renting private island resort
At one end of the spectrum there are the idiosyncratic hotels with attitude that really are a close cousin of the best hostels. The Michelberger in Berlin, Trip Advisor’s ‘Travellers’ Choice@2012 Winner’ is one of these. Housed in a former factory building and with a website that defies anyone over the age of 35, its rooms are tiny and basic. However, there’s a great café bar with books and newspapers that successfully encourages its guests to lounge, chatter or sleep and the large breakfast spread is top quality. This is a hotel that feels firmly rooted in the edgy culture of Berlin, it is inexpensive and ‘it rocks’. The Michelberger may not be a hotel for the majority of the over ‘50s but it is regularly sold out.
Tune Hotels is an utterly different concept, while also at the budget end. Launched in Kuala Lumpur in 2007 and now expanding rapidly through Southeast Asia and the UK. Its model is based on that of budget airlines with a demand-based pricing system. For a usually extremely competitive price, guests are assured five key basics: five-star beds, power showers, central locations, cleanliness and 24-hour security. Towels, hair dryers, housekeeping, WiFi, TV and A/C are all available but guests are charged extra for these on a pay-as-you-use system.
The cheapest rooms may be windowless – a design solution that is becoming a growing trend in the budget sector since it is valuable way of converting otherwise redundant space in expensive city centre real estate to revenue generating spaces.
At the other end of the spectrum, luxury hotels have also been innovating. In fact, historically, the grand hotels of major cities often were the innovators when they were first built — The Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York, for example with its ‘vertical screw railway’ (an early elevator) or the Savoy in London with electric lighting and the first ensuite bathrooms.
Today’s innovations are driven by the new technologies to deliver, on the one hand, the level of connectivity and entertainment that people would have in their homes and more efficient buildings. Luxury is no longer seen as a contradiction to energy-conserving, sustainably responsible design; one goal of the £220 million restoration of the Savoy, on which ReardonSmith was the architect, was to achieve London’s ‘greenest hotel’.
One interesting micro trend in Europe’s grand hotels is the return of the fumoir – a means of getting round the increasing grip of anti-smoking legislation. As one general manager of a luxury hotel was heard to remark: how can I charge several hundred euros for a cigar and then expect my guest to smoke it on the street? The result is a growing collection of ‘lounges’ designed with varying ingenuity to comply with the laws of the country while offering guests a delicious sense of partaking in something that’s both a little bit naughty and rather expensive. Perfect in the luxury hotel!
At the pinnacle of the economic pyramid, there is now more wealth than ever before. For these billionaires, even the rates of the most expensive grand hotels are ‘popcorn’. What they spend is not the issue. Their problem is that because so many more people can buy into luxury, it is no longer exclusive.
So, for them, the issue has become about the personalisation of the experience. This might mean a private island, such as Laucala, a seven square mile paradise in the South Pacific or the Soneva Fushi Resort in the Maldives, it could mean a suitable place to moor their superyacht for a few days, such as Porto Montenegro, the new ‘port of cool’ in the Bay of Kotor, or it might be the likes of the Royal Penthouse Suite in President Wilson Hotel in Geneva. This occupies the entire top floor of the hotel and is accessed by a private elevator; it boasts a Steinway grand piano and views across the city and lake toward Mont Blanc — through bulletproof windows.
• In the 1970s and 1980s, there seemed much to recommend itself in this homogenous approach — you wanted the familiar environment of your hotel to make you feel safe and connected to home
• With the arrival of the new millennium, it changed. It was stimulated by the emerging regions of Eastern Europe and Asia and the new wealth. More people started travelling on limited budgets with cheaper travelling cost
• It became a manna for the designers, branding consultants, marketing consultants and trends watchers. Now hotels were the sector of choice for some of the world’s best known designers
• Today, many of the newer brands defy conventional star rating to express their particular quality – there are luxury hotels in caves, tree houses, the so-called shabby chic hotels
• Tune Hotels is an utterly different concept, while also at the budget end. Launched in Kuala Lumpur in 2007. Its model is based on that of budget airlines with a demand-based pricing system
• As people travel more and become more confident in the process, they wish to decide not only how much money they spend, but how they spend it
As a footnote to the issue of sustainable luxury, the Soneva Fushi Resort is working on a 15-year plan to reduce its emissions from energy regeneration to zero by the end of the decade. In the fullness of time, this will even include the provision of free energy to the local population.
The majority of hotel destinations exist, of course, in the space between the exclusive island and the ‘no frills’ offering. This has been called the ‘squeezed middle’ because a significant proportion of these hotels lack identity; and some are truly dreadful with drab interiors, uncaring staff and inedible breakfasts.
As people travel more and become more confident in the process, they wish to decide not only how much money they spend, but how they spend it. The reasons for staying either in a luxury hotel with a spa or in limited service hotel with a vending machine are apparent, and so long as both options are done well, they may even suit the same person at different times. The problem has been how to understand the rationale for spending a little bit less or quite a lot more if it is an anonymous four-star hotel with impassive staff in a secondary location.
However, many of the international brands, and some of the independent hotels, are now addressing this. Through design, service offering and innovation, they are seeking to define the particular experience that they are promising, from so-called fashion lifestyle hotels to dining menus featuring only locally sourced food to iPad controlled bedrooms. Each one is trying to create and capture a particular need or desire in a certain number of people.
A recent initiative by Starwood has launched ‘Your24’, whereby Starwood preferred guest elite members can check in and out at any time and if they check in at 11 pm, they do not have to check out until 11 pm on the day of their departure. The company is also developing its SuperFoods proposition across its Westin brand; however, no doubt mindful that Westin is a luxury hotel, not a wellness centre, this is SuperFoods with a light touch – SuperFoods inspired Mojito menus for instance!
So, what of tomorrow? Every forecast suggests that there will be more people travelling both nationally and internationally over the next decade. They will bring with them their expectations and so in turn will help shape the experience that hotels will need to create. The internet already means that travellers feel empowered to book hotels independently based on the promise of a website; however, if the reality of the hotel does not live up to its promise, it will also be very easy to choose another hotel or a different brand next time. So, if anything, hotels are going to have to work harder to create and sustain differentiation.
We are moving into a time of social sharing when technology is encouraging more and more people to share their experience in real time. The news that hotel X has dodgy plumbing, together with a photo to prove it, could go viral in the time that it takes to call the engineer. This possibly exaggerated example touches on a key point. Yes, the hotel sector around the world is more exciting, diverse and, in terms of its owning and financial structures, perhaps more mature than ever before.
However, all the technological gizmos, fashion label curtains and lunchtime SuperFoods are unlikely to impress enough of the travelling market enough of the time if the fundamentals of the hotel operation are not up to scratch. These fundamentals do not change. They are a level of service and amenities that live up to the promise, a building that is secure and functions well and, at the end of the stay, a sense of value for money. So long as these principles are enshrined, design innovation and new technologies will continue to help hotels break new ground in fascinating and profitable ways.