Masdar City, Abu Dhabi
London, United Kingdom
Brooklyn, New York
Many of the world’s great hotel properties create an aura of romance around the cities in which they operate, from Singapore’s Raffles and Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel to The Taj in Mumbai and The May Fair in London. Such properties owe their reputations as much to a rich history as a distinctive design, and leverage that history to create a unique experience, whether it’s sipping a Singapore Sling at The Long Bar or sipping champagne in the aviation-themed China Clipper lounge after landing at The Peninsula helipad. A growing number of hoteliers are trying to create unique local experiences in properties of all classes, from bringing local craft beer into their lobbies to designing common space that welcomes in the community.
In an industry that’s long valued consistent standards of service, promoting heavenly beds and seamless global reservations, the move towards localization marks a radical shift. Most hotels hew to a typology of uniformity, with a tightly controlled design aesthetic that puts the same shampoo and the same bed in the same spot at every property in the world. Instead of conveying excellence, such uniformity now makes a property feel bland and a guest feel anonymous. It can feel cynical and corporate, turning travel into something akin to a fast-food experience.
A hotel’s global brand identity is not as critical as its reputation among locals: the influencers, entertainers, entrepreneurs, power-brokers, hipsters, thought leaders, and other local characters who choose to come through its doors. They gravitate towards space that offers something for them, from art installations and fireplaces to unique dining and work environments. The common areas start to look more like a shared workspace than a hotel lobby, filled with people who are oblivious to the guest rooms upstairs. The exterior façade of the building is less oriented to promoting a brand name than blending into the fabric of the neighbourhood. In short, the hotel becomes the living room of the city.
Hotel owners increasingly recognize that their guests want to stay at properties that evoke a sense of place and deliver a memorable local experience. Moreover, creating such an experience can pay off in new sources of revenue. To design space that truly connects to the local environment requires hotels to adopt a more open and flexible typology that can adapt to the seasons and shifts in the city. It involves integrating local attractions into the lobby and choreographing opportunities for delight.
The atmosphere is welcoming. Lobbies that once filtered out locals with doormen and remote reception desks now beckon to them through a highly visible common space that’s filled with local art, entertainment, food, and coffee. This is not a bustling public atrium but a curated space that appeals to people whose personal brands are in sync with the brand of the hotel, from the downtown artist to the jet-setting banker. Distinctive materials and music help evoke a sense of place and, as in other realms of urban life, the property is integrated into the fabric of the city. It may boast an incubator space that draws local entrepreneurs, or share retail and health club facilities with a residential complex that tries to treat its residents like hotel guests. With the popularity of Airbnb, a number of its occupants may in fact be guests on any given night. In such a transparent and competitive environment, innovation is key to delighting customers.
As the line between business and leisure travel blurs, global nomads aren’t content to get access to a swimming pool and club lounge. They want to feel connected to both the surrounding neighbourhood and to the culture of a wider city itself. The trends influencing design are driven, in part, by evolving interests of guests. The epicurean trendsetter arrives with a sophisticated palate and culinary knowledge garnered at tables and street stalls on a range of continents. The global nomad is hungry for culturally specific sights and sounds. Social networkers want to stay at a property that facilitates connections and conveys a distinctive feel in an Instagram post.
To cater to these freelance thinkers and beyond-brand consumers, hoteliers are on a quest to create spaces, food and entertainment offerings that are standalone. In an age of digital abundance, they’re aiming to facilitate lives spent engaged in ideas, foot, art and adventure. The new and affluent social tribes expect it.