Designer hotels: It’s got to be comfortable (1999)

Looking back, it’s amazing how the elements of the Art Design Publicity game were fully in place ten years ago before the Internet multiplied everything. But will the publicity song always remain the same?

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Art Design Publicity at ADC | 29 July 2010
This article first appeared in FRAME, 10, pages 56-9 in 1999.

Retro 1999: Hotels with a high design content are "in". But how does a setting saturated in style provide a hotel with "added value", and can the whole concept be overdone? "Sometimes design forces people, and it doesn’t work."

Beautiful, lip-smacking, gorgeous. A batch of new hotels sweeping the planet are giving travellers added options, not to mention dynamite interiors to dazzle the senses. Dubbed "cheap and chic" with a touch of Paramount glamour, Seattle’s Ace Hotel—boasting Hempel and Delano-esque white walls and floors—opened its doors last April. In September Rubell Hotels opens its third location in South Florida: the Beach House Bal Harbour’s 170 rooms are being refurbished by the Ralph Lauren residential design team. Designed "to emulate Gilligan’s Island", the hotel’s private beach will feature hammocks and coconut trees. Two Philippe Starck-Ian Schrager hotels are scheduled to open in London in September and December. The high-profile W New York hotel, "where cutting-edge style meets true substance", is one of 14 W hotels to début soon in major cities across the United States. As part of the larger Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which includes Westin and ITT Sheraton, the W New York offers all guests an added bonus—benefits from Starwood premier membership.

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam all eyes are on the refurbished Hilton Hotel, while in Berlin it’s the Grand Hyatt— the list is virtually endless. Another giant, which started as recently as 1993, is Design Hotels International and Planet Hotels and Resorts, an organisation that provides global representation for over 50 hotels worldwide. Its catalogues present lodgings from Sydney to Cyprus and Los Angeles to London, including signature properties such as the City’s Metropolitan, Halkin and One Aldwych, which opened in 1998, as well as Myhotel Bloomsbury, an establishment by Conran Design Partnership that’s been in business less than a year. Buzzwords and jargon abound–cutting-edge, stealth wealth, lifestyle and the local scene meet and mix with familiar old-timers like home and love– some with a ring that routes us back to Starck and Schrager in the 80s and mid-90s. Yet while hotel design has become more and more high-profile, how does a setting saturated in style provide a hotel with "added value", and can the whole concept be overdone?

Whether their emphasis lies on design, lifestyle, service or publicity, designer hotels definitely surpass their "traditional" cousins in accessing a greater variety of media outlets. Smart-set sleepovers are a hot item in the art and design press, the lifestyle press and the travel press, which covers features in newspapers and magazines, as well as special announcements and surveys. Is it easier for designer hotels to do a media launch, even as the newness of the labelling wears thin? Some of those involved in publicising designer hotels prefer to stay in the background, where their role is largely invisible. One publicist we contacted refused to speak on the record. Yet according to Peter Schweitzer, President of Design Hotels and Planet Hotels— headquartered in Sausalito, California— "’It’s still much easier to do a media launch or a so-called designer hotel than for a non-designer hotel."

Doug Herrick, part-owner/operator of Seattle’s Ace Hotel, has this to say on the subject: "We’ve been pretty surprised by the press response. The media has been all over us. It’s been almost overwhelming." Although those involved in its conception realised the Ace’s potential to attract national media, within three months of its opening, news of its unique qualities had already spilled into the international press. "What has been so surprising is the public’s willingness to take on our vision," Herrick says. "It’s really gratifying to turn people on to the space and to see them enjoying it so much."

Another interesting take on the subject comes from Jennifer Rubell, a former employee of the Royalton who currently operates two hotels in Miami’s South Beach with her parents and brother. "I never thought a lot about how hotels market themselves until I started hiring people and became aware of the attitudes they brought with them. It was fascinating to me. The hotel business is not that different from industrial design, art, the film industry or even clothing design. The type of marketing we do is similar," Rubell says. "But hotels mostly believe that their interest factor lies in offering a certain set of standards for a certain price. Marketing that viewpoint is very uninnovative." Jennifer Rubell is the niece of Ian Schrager’s former hotel and Studio 54 partner, the late Steve Rubell, who is credited with creating the concept known as the "boutique hotel".

With the added media and marketing cache of the attention-grabbing catchword "designer hotel", are some hotels being designed for marketing and media purposes or, at the very least, as a mix? Those interviewed said that while their properties were not designed for such purposes, they knew of others that certainly were. According to Peter Schweitzer, "I think that some hotels definitely do this. Some people use design as a gimmick. They use it, but don’t carry it through. It doesn’t really make sense. This is what happens if you make promises to guests and have a big PR budget–you ultimately get a PR-driven hotel, which may end up reneging on its promises." Schweitzer adds, "One aspect is that you’re overselling and overemphasising the image of a hip hotel. But once you do that, you’re out of it anyway, because you can’t force yourself to be hip. For example, some people complain about arrogance and attitude at Ian Schrager Hotels, but that’s real. Take it or leave it."

Jennifer Rubell is adamant. "It’s shocking what’s going on," she says. "There are several hotels in New York that are really all about marketing. You can feel it, and it doesn’t feel right. I don’t know about South Beach though. We’ve had one wave of hotels here, and the second wave isn’t open yet, so we’ll see. I know that most people involved in the second wave are approaching the situation sincerely, but some aren’t. I wake up in the morning thinking about hotels and go to sleep at night thinking about hotels. I’m interested in making them feel more appropriate to most people’s lives," says Rubell. "But I approach a hotel without thinking of the marketing potential of the people involved, and I don’t consider ours to be ’designer hotels’, because I’m interested in other aspects of the business. Our hotels are ’designed’ in a certain way, but my home is also ’designed’ in a certain way. The media is interested in people thinking about the world in a new and innovative way. If you’re doing a ’designy’ hotel because you opened Hotels Magazine and read that designer hotels are hot, and then hired a designer that you think is hot, you’re doing it for externally imposed reasons," continues Rubell passionately. "Then you are not media worthy–you’re not really worthy at all." Are lobbies sometimes designed to fill a sexy press release? For Peter Schweitzer, "Sure. They try too hard, stick too much in there. Eventually people don’t care."

What about celebrity publicity? Is it important to a hotel’s success? Jennifer Rubell says, "Dealing with celebrities in that way and building your profile based on celebrities has nothing to do with creating a home for people. A home is a haven. The people I’m interested in are definitely not ’celebrities’, though many are leaders in their given industry. It depends on what you believe in. In my opinion," she continues, "when you provide accommodations for leaders of industry, you’re building a base and developing grass roots support for the hotel. In the case of celebrities, the purpose is to pull in the general audience. To me, that’s a shallow, risky undertaking."

Can the design be too personalised and go too far? Jennifer Rubell feels that "it’s got to be comfortable. Our new hotel has almost nothing to do with architectural design. Architects don’t create warm, comfortable interior spaces. The new hotel is totally cushy," she stresses. ’What makes something design-orientated is the attention involved, the consideration. It’s not vital for the finished product to have that flashy, designy look. I’m an avid spectator of what’s going on in the fashion industry. While it’s fun to see what Gaultier is doing this year, there’s a reason why Armani is so popular. People actually wear Armani. It suits them. It’s their life." For Doug Herrick of Ace Hotel, "You can embrace someone’s vision, and it might be absolutely fabulous. But if it’s not comfortable, what good is it? A hotel needs to be based on an awareness of how we travel and what we need— if you don’t lose sight of the essentials, then your concept is bound to work. But sometimes design forces people, and it doesn’t work."

Will designer hotels remain a very ’80s and ’90s phenomenon, or are we at the threshold of something huge? According to Peter Schweitzer, "It has to be a good hotel. It can’t be just a chair in the lobby. In our case, the difference is that we’re promising the guest a whole lot more— service and style— and we’ve got to deliver. We’re marketing our hotel in terms of the client’s perspective and lifestyle. We also function as a source of information about the local community— we help the traveller to become to an immediate part of the local scene."

Jennifer Rubell injects her final thought, "I don’t think that there is such a thing as a ’designer hotel’. Contemporary hotels are what they are— lodgings in tune with the way people’s lives look and feel today. Different hotels occupy different roles."

"I wouldn’t class ours as a ’designer hotel’," Doug Herrick concludes. "We didn’t set out to come across as one. We perceive the Ace as a healthy and clean environment, and as far as I can see, there’s no ’design’ stigma attached to it at all."