Outside the box

Most of our work tends to be in the 5-star luxury segment of the hotel industry. However, on occasion we get the opportunity to develop a new concept for a budget hotel brand that is being planned for roll-out. I have to say that developing a new brand for an established chain or an existing super-brand can be incredibly interesting, as their perspectives are quite different. When designing a property for the Hiltons, InterContinentals and Sheratons of this world, we are already familiar with the functionalities and materials a hotel in this category must have. We are given brand standards and a general direction for its style, and we work with the operator’s design team who supervise our proposals. Our scheme for each hotel is unique; however, we know that these brands are not looking for ideas that are completely “outside the box.”

But some of the emerging new brands — especially in the budget sector — specifically want to create something “outside the box” and be different! On these types of projects we learn a lot about the target market, the fashion brands and the things they like to do as well as the different requirements they have in terms of functionality and comfort, guest expectations and design differentiation.

Our first experience of developing a new hotel brand began 14 years ago with McDonald’s (the fast food giant) in Switzerland. They wanted to redefine the notion of a hotel and asked us to design two projects, which were then built. We introduced self-check-in counters as well as an electronic room service butler and developed a curved prefabricated concrete partition wall for separating the bedrooms. To my knowledge it was one of the first guestroom concepts with an open bathroom.

But the timing of the hotel opening was unfortunate, as several key events created a major crisis within the tourism industry, including 9/11, the grounding of Swissair and the SARS virus. Not the best beginning for a business hotel at an airport, and as a result it was concluded that the “Golden Arch Hotels” would not have a future with McDonald’s. However, our design can’t have been too bad, as five years later we were asked to develop the prototype design for McCafé in Germany, which has since gone on to become a very successful concept!

About a year ago we were asked to develop a budget, business hotel brand for Travel 24 — again, a very interesting project with a focus on “young design.” We are also currently developing a budget resort brand, but as it is still on our drawing boards I’m not yet able to share images.

Looking back these past years, it seems to me that design impulses have not come from the top luxury brands but more from small independent and budget-oriented names such as citizenM, 25hours and other unbranded private entrepreneurs. This week I attended the “Sleep Event” in London where Superbude (a hostel concept) won several of the European Hotel Design Awards including the “Best of the Best” winner, competing against outstanding luxury hotels like the Mandarin Oriental, Paris, among others.

The W brand has been the only big design kick from an established hotel operator in recent years, creating a completely new hotel concept that is upscale. Starwood had discovered (and was brave enough to make it happen) that a younger generation exists who can afford to pay for a hotel of this category and who have different interests and needs than elderly bankers and lawyers.

Looking at other lifestyle sectors — fashion, cars, furniture — it’s common for the luxury segment to set the trends, which are then copied and made affordable to the mass market. Even luxury fashion brands such as Armani, Missoni or Bulgari that have ventured into hospitality have not been ahead of the trend in hotel design — these properties simply reflect their fashion label’s values.

Perhaps this ought to make the hotel industry pause and ask itself: Do 95% of luxury hotel guests fall into the “internationally elegant” market category as we perhaps assume? Would it make more sense to segment the luxury hotel market according to different types of guests and provide more specific design differentiators? Or does it come down to a decision based purely on economics, where it’s in everybody’s interest to reduce the risks by having less variety?

I don’t have the answers to these questions … I was just asking myself why the opportunity to design dramatically “outside the box” has arisen when we invent concepts for budget hotels — rather than when we create “real” hotels!