ALL FOR YOU
Hospitality Design: March, 2012
article by: Alia Akkam
photography: Hospitality Design Magazine
At the Berkeley in London, guests are encouraged to borrow from an ever-changing stash of vintage accessories stored in a handmade leather fashion trunk. At the Capella Pedregal in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, they can discover the origins of ingredients by attending cooking classes. When skiing is done for the day at 4 p.m., guests of Montage Deer Valley gather in the hotel's pub and take to the four-lane bowling alley. And in Mexico City, a fresco by Manuel Rodriguez Lozano graces Grupo Habita's new hotel, Downtown.
Just a few years ago, a bathroom teeming with granite and gold is all a hotel needed to stake a claim in the luxury tier. but as Group Habita co-founder Carlos Couturier points out, "Luxury is moving from products to experiences. It's no longer a brand, it is a lifestyle."
Horst Schulze, founder of Capella Hotels & Resorts, who plans to double the group's portfolio by next year, opening in such disparate locations as Washington, DC and Sochi, Russia, has worked in the luxury market since he was 14 years old and has seen the face of upscale accommodations change dramatically. "If you really think about it, luxury thirty-five years ago was large lobbies with glass elevators. Then it moved on to a more sophisticated segment- Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton," he recalls. "When I started Capella ten years ago, I didn't have a hotel yet, but my dream was to follow what I learned fifty years ago: that the [seasonal hotel] guest writes a letter and says, 'I will come back on the first of April, I want table number three and on Monday red roses; I want you to change them on Thursdays for yellow roses.' In other words, the guest identified her product rather than us creating it. From there, we went into creating a product. We are now back to where we used to be, where the guests are in charge. We create what the guests want, and that is really luxury. The surroundings have to be first class, the finishes have to be right, but it is not about chandeliers, it's about quality."
Luxury's poignant transformation may have even been accelerated by the economic downturn, Schulze points out, distilled to one overarching priority: " Luxury is simply just individualized, personalized attention " and not about "marble being cut five times."
Stephen Alden, CEO of London-based Maybourne Hotel Group, which encompasses the Berkeley, Claridge's, and the Connaught, thinks the definition of luxury has been watered down in recent years. " I've found that the word has been far overused, co-opted by everyone from the mid-range automobile manufacturer to the everyday clothing retailer, and no longer relation to those things of true value and substance," he says. "While luxury might have once meant the richest fabrics and textiles available, it is now about more than that; it is how they are presented, how guests access them, and creating a truly authentic interaction and experience."
Alan J. Fuerstman, founder and CEO of Montage Hotels & Resorts, agrees, saying that "luxury has taken on a decidedly more understated and subtle form where comfort is a premium versus extravagance. There was a time when luxury was strictly defined by formality and exemplified by excess. In the new economy, the ultimate luxury is the ability to be oneself at all times-to live by a set of values that are unique and individualized. Fewer luxury consumers are looking to others to be told what to do and are more confident doing the things that they personally love."
This new economy, according to Banyan Tree executive chairman, Ho Kwon Ping, is characterized by "soft" product versus "hard," which emphasizes "the quality of an experience as the basis of value, instead of the physical product. Intelligent design, sustainable conservation efforts, innovative uses of space-these are all hallmarks of today's luxurious experience." He adds that it boils down to "guests wanting to feel 'at home' when they are away. With the increased demand on comfort and the more casual approach to luxury embraced by new technology pioneers and followers, hotels and resorts have reverted away from an over-complicated, prohibitive type of luxury, and to a more cozy, homey philosophy."
Location, Location, Location
Luxury also used to signify staying holed up in one's lavish suite. however, guests are passing over the in-room massage in favor of exploring and becoming entrenched in the local community. For instance, the craftsman-style architecture of Montage Laguna Beach evokes its artist colony roots, amplified by the plein air paintings that fill the space. If they wish, guest can also partake in art classes, or for another connection to their environment, have dinner at the chef's table after plucking produce from the hotel's garden. At Claridge's, designer Guy Oliver is slated to lead British Art Deco tours of the property- its ballroom has recently been restored to its circa 1930s grandeur- as well as the surrounding Mayfair neighborhood. And Capella Resorts set up whatever experience a guest wants-from kite surfing in Cabo to personal shopping in New York- as long as the request is possible, legal, and moral. The hotel company's website even has location guides for each property for guests to use in planning their trip.
"Our hotels have moved from being a space experience to being a lifestyle experience. They are about the community who uses them and no longer about the people that conceived them," says Couturier. "Their locations are statements themselves. Our new Downtown hotel in Centro Historico in Mexico City is more a social experience than an aesthetic one. We have a youth hostel and an upscale hotel on the same premises. Also, the new Endemico in Calle de Guadalupe, Baja, California, is more about learning about fauna, wine, or food and less about the rooms. We are placing our hotels in locations where our guests interact strongly either with the neighbors, their traditions, or their culture. It is no longer about visiting an art gallery, it is about discovering where the artists get their inspiration."
For designers then, merging the authenticity of the local landscape with the brand's identity provides an interesting design challenge.
The Connaught's recent restoration "is a case study in merging luxury and culture," says Alden. "We meticulously restored the century-plus old building, stripping it down to its very bones, restoring the original mahogany staircase, bringing back all of the original molding and gilt work and incorporating the original artwork throughout all while updating the hotel in a very modern and thoughtful way," says Alden. "Prints by Josef Albers now mix with original artwork, and a new Aman Spa has been built in the hotel's West Wing, which has a bold and modern look. David Collins updated the traditional Edwardian palette with decadent silver and platinum to create the sparkling Connaught Bar, and the rooms range from the beautifully traditional Sutherland Suite to the striking penthouse Apartment by David Collins, complete with terraces overlooking Carlos Place."
One way each Montage property connects to its location is through an extensive art collection. "We typically commission local artisans to create and collect original works that capture the local history and culture," says Fuestman. "In Laguna Beach this includes some wonderful tile mosaics and bronze sculptures. In Deer Valley we have a display of original museum pieces including mining helmets, lunch boxes, and mining equipment that date back to Park City's mining days in the late 1800s. In Beverly Hills our inspiration was the performing arts and includes a collection of designer renderings of old Hollywood movie costumes."
Pool villas and tropical garden spas have long been hallmarks of Banyan Tree, but Ping says it was "the unique personal experience which defined how we conceptualized the physical product. At Banyan Tree Ringha in China, for example, we use original Tibetan houses as suites to offer our guests the experience of staying in a traditional local home. Now, we're extending this philosophy beyond our resorts themselves by delivering opportunities for discovery in the destination in which each resort is located. We've set up our own travel and tour departments in many hotels to enable our guests to architect bespoke experiences in local environments."
When designing the Capella Pedregal Paul Duesing Partners took advantage of the breathtaking sea views and infused Mexican touches throughout- from turtle figurines decorating a wall in the bar to the colorful tiles found in the guestrooms-and the hotel even has its own line of Mexican inspired china for sale. Still, Schulze emphasizes functionality is the most essential aspect of luxurious design: "Design is a given-they want a continuation of the quality of their home. But at home they may have all antiques and you are a modern building. Not the style, but the quality. Good space, good closet, and drawer space, all those design elements that are practical at the same time, so the design doesn't make you run around your suite with the ironing board looking for a plug."