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Leading by Design

If you pay attention to travel products, you may have heard of the term “design hotels” or “design-led hotels.” It has become such a trend that there is even an alliance dedicated to it. The Design Hotels group, established over 20 years ago, provides small, independent properties with the much-needed support that these hotels would otherwise be unable to receive, including sales, marketing and public relations, along with yield revenue management and business development deals. The group started with ten member properties, which has since blossomed into a collection of some 300 design hotels.

But what constitutes a “design hotel”? The term first emerged in the 1980s in North America and Europe, where it was most often used in relation to small, independent hotels. Beyond that, there is no cookie cutter definition for this hotel concept, because the whole point is that these hotels are, by definition, not cookie cutter. Members of the Design Hotels group range from Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita – a five-star hotel built into ancient stone caves in southern Italy – to Mira Moon, a 91-room hotel located in downtown Hong Kong, which highlights Chinese traditions as its main theme.

Perhaps it’s easier to highlight what a design hotel is not – conformist, generic or appealing to the mass market. However, things have become a little cloudier with the entry of large hotel groups into the arena. The success of the pioneers has resulted in commercial exposure, with multi-national hotel groups latching on to the attractiveness of the concept, and launching their own “design” brands.

Small Trend Goes Big

At the end of 1998, Starwood opened its first W hotel in New York, with the goal of redefining “the luxury and design-led lifestyle hotel experience.” These properties take design, music and fashion as their core themes, and often sponsor relevant events to boost their brand image.

The first Hotel Indigo, developed by IHG as “a brand hotel with the design cache and service personality of a boutique,” opened in Atlanta, Georgia in October, 2004, and the portfolio has since grown to an even 100 properties around the world (as of April 2018), including ones in Manhattan, Warsaw and Hong Kong.

The Hyatt group opened its first Andaz in London in 2007, and in 2011, the brand entered Asia with Andaz Xintiandi Shanghai. Globally the brand now has 18 properties, with new openings in Delhi, Amsterdam and Palm Springs. According to the group, “Each Andaz hotel is unique in design, amenities and cuisine, but all share a friendly attitude and warm, personal service.”

Despite how these brands are being marketed, they do not seem to adhere to the traditional view of design hotels. After all, their properties are neither small, nor one-off properties – even if each boasts a different design. Instead, they are part of  larger hotel chains, which traditionally focus on the mass market and profitability, rather than a pursuit of individual design concepts for discerning customers, thus further blurring the line between a commercial and niche category.

While design hotels developed by large hospitality groups have to follow “brand DNA,” Berlin-based Design Hotels, as a hotel alliance, prides itself for taking a more flexible approach when assessing new applicants. Nonetheless, the group finds benefits in its connection to Marriott through its long-standing partnership with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which has held a stake in Design Hotels since 2011.

W, Hotel Indigo and Andaz properties also have to follow the requirements set by their parent companies, such as in-room amenities and configurations. For many travelers, particularly those on business, this is a positive thing. Having a room that is familiar can be important when choosing your accommodation. Nobody wants to waste time figuring out where the switch for a particular light is, and it is comforting to know exactly the services that you’re guaranteed to receive at an IHG hotel, regardless of whether you’re staying at an Intercontinental, Crown Plaza or Hotel Indigo.

By Popular Demand

The rise of the design hotel trend may also have to do with people traveling more in general. A recent study by Oxford Economics and commissioned by travel services and solutions provider Amadeus, forecasts travel to grow by 5.4 percent per annum over the next ten years, outpacing global GDP by 2 percent. The upward trend is largely driven by emerging markets such as China, Russia, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Turkey. As their populations become more well-traveled, they also become more adventurous.

“The art of traveling today has become so prolific and commonplace that [the] cookie-cutter familiarity is no longer enough to fuel the aspirations of road warriors and holiday makers today,” states Anthony Ross, Preferred Hotel Group’s executive vice president for Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.

Within Preferred Hotel Group is the company’s sub-brand, Sterling Design, which reflects distinct architecture and bold interiors. According to Ross, the collection was “specially created for travelers that yearn to experience a design-focused hotel without a hefty price-tag or the need for high-end luxury”.

The Casa sull’Albero in Malgrate, Italy, personifies the traits of the Sterling Design brand. Overlooking Lake Como, the property is designed with locally sourced stone, wood and glass. It combines modern amenities such as under-floor cooling and modern heating facilities with antique wood furniture that has been worked by craftsmen in Brianza. Facilities include a restaurant and bar, meeting room, library, outdoor pool and gym.

Other Sterling Design properties include the BLVD Hotel & Suites in Hollywood, The Times in New York, the Olivia Balmes Hotel in Barcelona, and the Mosaic Hotel in Noida, India.

Meanwhile, Preferred Boutique is another brand that brings together a selection of hotels and resorts, each containing 100 rooms or less. The collection provides a sense of intimacy with a design style and personality that is distinctive.

For example the Lv Garden Huanghuali Art Gallery in Beijing offers 38 rooms that showcase the beauty of Chinese artistry and craftsmanship through the many cultural artifacts from the Ming and Qing Dynasties that are on display. To emphasize this connection, the surrounding exterior is filled with classic Chinese courtyards featuring landscaped koi ponds and waterfalls.

Fashionably Complicated

As if the topic weren’t murky enough, another recent trend to emerge is that of “designer hotels” – as opposed to “design hotels” or “design-led hotels – which are not only design-focused, but actually have taken on the personal style of a noteworthy fashion icon. Although typically smaller, these designer hotels need to have the big budgets of large hospitality giants behind them to secure the names of Armani or Bulgari.

Accor’s Sofitel So brand is one such brand marketed as a “designer hotel.” Renowned designers such as Kenzo Takada, Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld have contributed to the designs of Sofitel So’s properties in Mauritius, Bangkok and Singapore respectively. Their influence extends beyond the look and feel of guest rooms, it also encompasses amenities including staff uniforms, ceramics and even the guest’s stationery and collaterals.

According to Sirinate Meenakul, global director for Sofitel, this brand offers a completely different design concept to the mainstay Sofitel brand. By having well-established fashion designers incorporating their inspiration and signature flair into the design of a hotel, Meenakul believes that this distinguishes individual Sofitel So properties one from another.

“Fashion designers offer a different design perspective. Each of our exclusively designed decorative objects, hotel spaces, and amenities heighten the guest experience and emotions within each Sofitel So environment,” she says.

As to whether Sofitel So could be classed as a “design hotel,” Meenakul certainly thinks so. According to her, a design hotel is a property that uses design as one of its core elements, which is what Sofitel So is all about.

“A ‘real’ design hotel is a hotel that is conceptually planned with the concept reflected throughout the hotel, such as the building, interior, uniforms, food and beverage offerings and service elements, to provide guests with a unique experience throughout their stay. A true design hotel focuses not only on the architecture, but encompasses all aspects of the hotel’s offering.”

So it seems, that by its very nature, a “design hotel” is without restriction. While the name has been latched onto as a marketing term by larger groups (much in the same vein as “boutique”), it’s incorrect to say that large groups cannot offer a design hotel brand. The term is a bit of a chameleon; it can change its appearance depending on the situation.

Good for Business?

The next question, however, is if the focus remains fixated on individuality – can these design hotels cater to the needs of a business traveler? The answers tend to be divided, with some ready to embrace the idea of a design hotel provided it offers the same quality comfort, location, and amenities that they would get at the big brands. Others, however, would still prefer the reliability of corporate giants such as Marriott and Hilton.

It seems that it all boils down to what the hotel itself offers. The newly opened Mira Moon hotel in Hong Kong, for example, offers perks business travelers need. It is also located downtown.

However, being a relatively small hotel with 91 rooms and an interior inspired by the legend of the Chinese goddess of the moon Chang’e, Mira Moon seems to strike a good balance between style and substance.

Brands such as W, Andaz and Indigo, on the other hand, strike a balance between individuality and familiarity. While each property has its own style often inspired by the surroundings, the experiences they offer – not to mention the loyalty benefits – are backed by large hotel groups.

And if your company has a working relationship with Marriott, Hyatt or IHG, why not pick one of these design-led hotels just for something different? Whether or not you are a convert to this trend, having a choice is never a bad thing.