HB ON THE SCENE: Powered by Brands, Lifestyle Hotels Are Having a Moment

NEW YORK—What’s driving the convergence of lifestyle brands and hotels? It’s a movement unlike anything else in the hospitality landscape, with brands like Equinox, Exhale Spa, West Elm and Restoration Hardware carving out their own lucrative niches. At Chef Andrew Carmellini’s Little Park, inside the Smyth hotel in Tribeca, hospitality and design executives took a deep dive into the topic, “The Artful Lodger: How Lodging and Lifestyle Converge,” for the third in a series of quarterly conversations led by Claire Bennett, EVP and GM, American Express Travel.

“For West Elm, the conversation started three years ago of a way of building the brand,” said David Bowd, principal, West Elm Hotels, a new brand set to debut hotels in Detroit; Minneapolis; Indianapolis; Savannah, GA; and Charlotte, NC, in late 2018. “We asked, ‘Who is using the product and what are they using it for?’” The company was approached by larger hotel companies to do a brand within one of their tiered brands. “West Elm thought it was interesting and lucrative… That was where the conversation started. West Elm along with William-Sonoma has a loyal following, with known brands that are respected and those are characteristics that have made them successful,” he said.

The rise of lifestyle hotels powered by luxury brands is nothing new, but what makes this round fresh is the approach and the notion of taking hospitality back to its roots.

“I personally call myself an innkeeper. It’s about bringing someone into your neighborhood and showing them what they can experience and what’s around, but it’s coming from the knowledge, professionalism and the quality of a company like West Elm,” said Bowd. “We said, ‘We’re not going to be hoteliers; we’re going to sign a joint venture agreement with a hotelier and create a hotel that way.’ That’s how we met and I think it’s the reason I became involved. It’s an opportunity to do something as a collaboration with West Elm and our management team to create something new and interesting.”

Keying in on this theme of old-school hospitality and simpler times, executives on the panel concluded that travelers—millennials to baby boomers—while characteristically different, do want similar things: authenticity, a feeling of connectedness and distinctive experiences.

“There is something about people craving authentic experiences and being connected to the community,” said Greg Keffer, principal and studio leader, Rockwell Group, a firm with a strong roster of clients such as Nobu Downtown and The Time Hotel in New York, W Madrid and MGM Cotai in Macau. “In today’s world where they’re globally connected non-stop, this idea of having a moment of grounding when you arrive somewhere is an important feeling that is real. It has to feel true to location. As designers, we create spaces for the ability to provide service. Having a Nobu meal at bedside is good service. We look at how design can support the bigger ideas of service. With Andaz, there’s this idea of personal engagement and the reception desk feels like an antiquity, so hand-held tablets are used with guests. We work to understand needs from the operator side in order to provide that level of service.”

“The boutique hotels that have been surging over the past 30 years are no longer the disrupters,” said Annbeth Eschbach, founder and CEO of Exhale Enterprises Inc. “They’re more of a commodity and consumers are craving lifestyle hotels. We’re seeing more of that now and it’s about experiences they can relate to and that go beyond the generic boutique experience. They want design-driven, local and authentic. Younger demographics want experiences that make their life better and elevate their life. It’s more personal and deeper.”

Quizzing the panelists, Bennett asked, “How do brands stay relevant and be authentic when a level of sameness is a comfort to people?” Consistency is key and has proved successful for the major players like Marriott International, noted Andrew Benioff, founder and chairman of The Independent Lodging Congress.

“Not everybody wants a new experience every time and independents—I eschew the words boutique and lifestyle—are for people who want to discover something new every time and have great service, and they’re consistent that way,” said Benioff. “Like it or not, consistency is what people value.”

Bowd agreed with this sentiment, adding, “One of the ways forward is for the boutique or lifestyle hotel to provide a consistency of service as well. That’s been lacking in the boutique world. The guest is the center of everything we do. To take it away and make it all about design over function, it doesn’t work. A lot of the industry went that way and you see hotels as nightclubs or hotels as design. There is a big shift as hotels are beautifully designed, locally focused with true, wholehearted hospitality and everything is about the guest experience.”

(For more on the trend and what this means for traditional branded hotels, check out the May 21 issue of Hotel Business.)