Room to improve - Issue 30 - Magazine | Monocle

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With the coming spring thaw, investors, hotel management groups, designers and contract firms will hope the economy will do the same. The past 18 months has seen hundreds of hotel and resort projects suspended, cancelled and mothballed. While this may not have been great news for local governments, who offered tax breaks to international hotel groups to boost the tourism fortunes, or for contractors, who laid off hundreds of workers, it’s been good news for the guest. The drop in room rates has been most welcome by CFOs who manage massive T&E budgets but it’s also allowed the industry to put the breaks on and consider what the guest really wants.

Of course not everyone will get back into the game having done their homework and tens of thousands will still check into sparkling new hotels that are poorly ­designed and staffed by miserable front desk managers and head waiters. The well-informed, however, will glide through the reception of some new properties and ­experience a new era of hospitality that ­borrows from innkeeping of centuries past but also ensures that electrical sockets and shower heads are positioned in just the right place.

Analysts’ overview

Scott D Berman

Principal and industry leader

Jonas Niermann, Manager

PricewaterhouseCoopers, hospitality and leisure consulting practice

Think about luxury hotels and you’re probably recalling a pleasant stay made up of several well-orchestrated services. But many guests are unaware of the industry’s recent and fundamental evolution.

Owners of hotel portfolios used to be big real-estate players. Over time, however, firms have sold their properties, often retaining long-term management, franchise or lease-back contracts. The properties’ new owners, usually institutional investors and private equity firms, frequently hire third parties to operate these assets. In addition, the drive to increase profits has led to the outsourcing of hotel restaurants, spas and health clubs. So, while guests continue to rely on brands when selecting hotels, their experience may actually depend on the coordinated performance of a host of owners and service companies.

This change has not eradicated the industry’s cyclicality, though, and hotels were again among the early casualties of this economic downturn. The subsequent financial pressure is likely to accelerate the growth of established hotel brands: their global sales and distribution infrastructures, economies of scale and loyalty programmes promise relief to hotel owners.

Simultaneously, travellers’ interest in originality is unabated. The boutique, design and lifestyle niche has traditionally been a stronghold of independent hotels. Nonetheless, international lodging firms that recognised the value in these sub-segments are conceiving experience-oriented hotel concepts and rolling these out globally and across all price levels.

As 2010 unfolds, lodging demand is expected to remain soft. Although travel volume is forecasted to grow towards the end of the year, travellers are likely to remain deal-conscious. Offering a compelling value and unique selling point can be a decisive differentiator.

Hotel Star 01

Mandarin Oriental - Barcelona

Finally, there is a premium hotel in the centre of Barcelona. Besides the Hotel Arts and the Gran Hotel la Florida, which are both located away from the CBD, there are few properties of distinction with a suitable level of service in the whole of Barna. Five years in the fine-tuning, Reig Capital Group (an investor in this magazine) charged the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola with managing and converting an old bank in the middle of the city’s parade, Passeig de Gràcia. Urquiola has refrained from cluttering the 98 rooms with gaudy furnishings, focusing instead on natural materials. Having taken control of every corner of the hotel, she has maintained a sense of calm continuity and a home-away-from-home vibe with a sprinkling of the operator’s Oriental heritage. The Mandarin Oriental’s impeccable service ethic is firmly enforced and the Banker’s Bar, where Urquiola has installed a wall of the old private clients’ bank boxes, is set to rival old Eixample greats.

Why it works: Location: Right at the heart of Eixample, the chic, commercial core of the city. Service: Mandarin Oriental’s spotless service values bring decorum to an often lackadaisical local industry. Design continuity: Urquiola took charge of every last detail, guaranteeing a singular experience from the approach to reception to room numbers. Challenge: Making sure local staff are as sunny as the climate.

Essay 01: What hoteliers target

By Alain de Botton, author and philosopher

A good hotel is an embodiment of the act of love: love understood as a commitment to the wholehearted care of another human being. The ideal hotel would for a time manage to satisfy with the utmost intelligence all the needs, physical as well as mental, of its clientele. I venture to say that no hotel is quite there yet – which is not to disparage what is already on offer, but rather to open up a range of ambitions for a new generation of hoteliers.

We have already reached a very high stage in the evolution of beds and showers. Phone systems are also at a pitch of refinement. But in so many other areas even the best hotels still lag. They forget that their customers want to be properly mentally stimulated. Almost no hotel has any good books to hand, or bibliotherapists to guide clients to what they should be reading next.

Hotels have invested heavily in spas, but none offer even basic psychotherapy services, arguably much more useful than massages to the well-being of an individual. While many hotels have exciting bars, how few of them are able to promote proper sociability? The average hotel is doggedly concerned with satisfying bodily rather than mental needs. As for architecture, too many hotels still fail to understand how human beings actually function. Notoriously, they get the light-switches wrong, they forget how disorientated we already are by the time we walk into a room and hence how very short-tempered we will be about a ­bedside lamp that doesn’t turn on easily or a phone cord that doesn’t stretch across the bed.

Hoteliers also routinely forget the fact that we are creatures with ears. They design in a visual rather than an ­auditory way. They forget that the ­experience of an expensive room will be ravaged by a strange clicking sound from near the window or the cascade of a neighbour’s shower at 03.00. The world is still waiting for the Silent Hotel, perhaps also known as the Proust Hotel in honour of the notoriously noise-sensitive great French novelist, a hotel that would ­guarantee not a single click from dusk ’til dawn.

The failure of hotel designers to create congenial environments mirrors our inability to find happiness in other areas of our lives. Bad design is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of ­architecture. It is an example expressed through materials of the same tendency that in other domains will lead us to marry the wrong people, choose inappropriate jobs and book unsuccessful holidays: the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us. The hotels we love are the work of those rare hoteliers with the humility to ­adequately interrogate themselves about their desires and the tenacity to translate their fleeting apprehensions of joy into logical plans – a combination that enables them to create environments that satisfy needs we never consciously knew we even had.

Q & A: John Morford


What’s missing from the modern hotel?

What’s the direction for hotel interiors?
Smaller, simpler, always cosy.

Should hotels be islands of luxury or plugged into their communities?
They should always be contextual and located in interesting, unique contexts.

Where does hotel design go wrong?
When it becomes “hyper design”.

Q & A: Verena Hofmann

Frequent traveller, Germany/Paris-based

What’s missing from the modern hotel?

Should hotels be islands of luxury or plugged into their communities?
There is nothing worse than a hotel not frequented by the locals.

Which hotel groups are getting it right?
Rosewood and Four Seasons.

What are you looking for in a hotel?
The feeling that nothing bad can happen to you.

Essay 02: The luxury of no choice

Mark Robinson, contributing editor

There’s something almost magical about being told what to do, which is what you sign up for when staying at a ryokan. Meals, bed- and bath-times are set. There’s no haggling. Leisure activities are almost non-existent. Even the clothing – slippers or wooden clogs, a light cotton yukata, a linen half-coat – is laid out for you, and you dress like every other guest.

This may seem like too many rules, but it is, in fact, a liberation from the illusion of choice. One refrain I hear from ryokan first-timers, which I’ve never heard from a western hotel guest, is: “I’ve never slept better in my life.” At such classic establishments as Hanayu, in Bessho, Nagano prefecture, a legendary hot springs stop for samurai since the 12th century, you play the guest, and the local staff will care for you to the full extent that their provincial training allows. Arriving at around 14.00, you’ll be guided by your maid, who will pour you a cup of tea, ask what time you want dinner and breakfast (6.30 or 7.00), and leave you alone until she returns in several hours to make up your futon.

You now have two choices: bathe, or take a walk through the woods. You will return at the agreed time for dinner, dressed in your uniform, and an hour or so after a multi-course meal, you’ll be back in the bath, perhaps the outdoor rotenburo, surrounded by snow and overseen by the inky universe. Your head will be cold and crisp, your body simmering and gelatinous, while aromas of cedar and sulphur reach your nose.

You can then fall on your futon, or perhaps crack open a beer to your sense of achievement. You have made almost no decisions all day. You want for nothing. What time was breakfast again?

Vianney Gravereaux, Export director

Champagne Philipponnat

What’s missing from the modern hotel?
A sense of personality and a human feel.

How do you see hotels changing over the coming decade?
Unfortunately I see more and more useless details and “big name” decorators who try to please everyone and will thus please no one. A typical example is the increase in the number of spas claiming to offer some kind of “holistic-spiritual” treatment. What is needed is just a good massage, sauna and pool.

What’s the direction for hotel interiors: simple, cosy, modernist?
Modernism is usually so soulless. More of a good mix of the first two. The perfect example is Hotel Diplomat in Stockholm.

Which hotel groups are getting it right?
Swire in Asia, Ace Hotel Group in the US, Manotel in Switzerland.

Where does hotel design go wrong?
So many hotels look and feel the same. If you can’t tell which country you are in by looking at the hotel, then something is wrong. The Langham hotel in Hong Kong has a nice “signature smell” based on ginger flower. When you smell it you know where you are. It’s a nice idea.

What are you looking for in a hotel?
Ease of access from airports and train stations, a great bed, plug-and-play internet, a gym and pool. No noises from outside, a nice breakfast to put you in a good mood. A fireplace in the winter where you can read books and papers – think Sofitel Le Faubourg in Paris. Ease and speed of checking in and out – this should be easy, but many don’t get it.

Hotel Star 02

9 hours - Kyoto

Japan pioneered the capsule hotel. Setting a new standard is 9 hours, a petite but perfectly framed place in Kyoto. Opened in December, the nine-storey building is tucked away on a narrow street off the busy Shijo-dori. It has been developed by hotel development firm Cubic.

The rooms may be tiny but its winning mix of service, competitive rates and sleek design sets this capsule concept apart. “There are many conventional hotels that are overpriced. The rooms are not great, nor the service but you stay there because you have no other options. That’s got to change,” says Keisuke Yui, Cubic’s president.

Rooms cost ¥4,900 (€40) a night – and the hotel’s located right in the centre of Japan’s old capital. Attentive staff in smart black uniforms, are on hand at all times, while sleepwear and amenities are custom-produced and available free of charge.

Why it works:Complete package: Competitively priced but never at the expense of service.
Brand aware: The bespoke uniforms and specially designed amenities create a cohesive brand.
Progressive: Unafraid to update existing concepts with new business models.
Challenge: Getting western guests to follow Japanese protocol.

Q & A: Hiroaki Koizumi

CEO of Arcana Resorts, Japan

What’s missing from modern hotels?
They tend to express their appeal only on a short-term level. We try to create lasting appeal.

How do you see hotels changing over the coming decade?
I see hotels becoming more focused on emotional values rather than gorgeousness or richness.

Which hotel groups are getting it right?
Six Senses resorts.

How do you like your hotel service – bags carried to your room? Shown how to use the TV?
We think hotel service shouldn’t be pushy. Service should be based on what the guests want.

What’s your favourite hotel and why?
Murata, Yufuin, Japan. They nicely incorporate local culture and are also connected to the community.

Hotel Star 03

Hoshinoya - Kyoto

A new avant-garde ryokan in Kyoto has given Japan’s traditional hospitality industry some much needed inspiration. The nation’s classic contemplative retreat, unchanged since the 17th century, faces a very modern-day dichotomy. Ryokans exist because of their traditional architecture, timeless service and formal etiquette but today’s guests sometimes prefer room service and spas.

As young Japanese decamp to luxury international hotels, ryokans have come under intense financial pressure. More than 40 per cent were forced to close after the economic bubble burst in 1990 and about half of today’s inns are expected to be lost by 2020. Step forward ryokan resort turn-around specialist, Yoshiharu Hoshino. His Hoshino Resort Group manages 21 hotels and ryokans across Japan and has also partnered with Goldman Sachs Japan.

Hoshino’s approach is simple: improve basic infrastructure to reflect local culture but with the modern architecture and amenities of a luxury resort hotel. Then add well-trained management. The 48-year old recently unveiled his most innovative concept at the Hoshinoya Kyoto. “Reinventing ryokans is a unique challenge,” says Hoshino. “Many have been family-owned for hundreds of years so sometimes there is resistance to ‘outsiders’, especially foreign investment. Food and activities are limited so guests tend to stay for one night only.”

Not so at Hoshinoya Kyoto, with flexible mealtimes, in-room dining and a sophisticated bar and restaurant. Importantly, these, along with multi-lingual staff and a cosy lounge do not detract from the traditional experience. “It is a huge responsibility to reinvent a ryokan,” adds Hoshino. “If we change too much we lose the Japanese spirit. We need to adapt with- out losing what makes it so special.”

Why it works

Be adaptable: Exceeding expectations with new services keeps the ryokan concept fresh.
Keep it local: Don’t forget about the craftsman and help stimulate local labour.
Landscaping: Inventive and well maintained grounds is always sure to delight.
Challenge: Not lowering the Japanese quality threshold for casual western visitors.

Q & A: Hidetoshi Nakata

Editor at large

While Monocle’s editors do their fair share of criss-crossing the globe, none do quite as much travelling as former footballer and Monocle contributing editor, Hidetoshi Nakata – with no fixed address he lives mostly in hotels and in the air.

What’s missing from the modern hotel?
Service these days is too systemised and lacks personality. Customised service for each individual is missing.

Which hotel groups are getting it right?
Four Seasons. From the front desk to the house keepers, they focus on service.

Where does hotel design go wrong?
Appearance and usability. I often notice design that is not created from the viewpoint of the user. Sometimes hotels lack the attention to detail, which is in fact a very important factor.

How do you like your hotel service?
A greeting, looking me straight in the eyes. A lot of hotel staff won’t even greet you when passing by.

What are you looking for in a hotel?
I look for a mental state of security, from cleanliness to a refreshing greeting.

What don’t you want to see?
Systematic responses and sloppy appearances.

What’s your favourite hotel and why?
Park Hyatt Tokyo. The staff members, from doormen to cleaners working at night, always greet me decently. The hotel has been going more than 10 years but it doesn’t seem old and feels spacious and comfortable. Most of the gym and swimming pool are wonderful.

Q & A: Klaus Kabelitz

General manager - The Berkeley, London

What’s missing from the modern hotel?
I believe guests keep coming back to a place which has a soul, a place which reflects the city or country you are in when you walk into the lobby, bar or restaurant. I enjoy the fast movement of technology but I do sometimes feel that it has been taken too far, losing the human touch.

How do you see hotels changing over the coming decade?
The first word that comes to mind is ‘relevance’. We need to ensure that we offer intuitive services, fully anticipating guests’ needs while offering the best and most appropriate options. I believe the focus on individual guest needs will grow even more over the next 10 years.

What’s the direction for hotel interiors?
It’s a combination of stylish design, easy to use technology and comfort. This is often found in small details such as a fog-free bathroom mirror and a spare plug next to the night stand.

Should hotels be islands of luxury or plugged into their communities?
Hotels should exist at the centre of the community, a luxury haven where locals mingle with hotel guests. Restaurants and bars in a luxury hotel should be the meeting place for people working and living in the area who sit alongside hotel guests from all over the world. This creates a healthy buzz, a true destination.

Which hotel groups are getting it right?
I would say Four Seasons for its consistency and Amanresorts for its focus on design and its ability to allow the guest to switch off from the outside world.

What’s your favourite hotel?
Schloss Hugenpoet, a wonderful hotel situated in a castle in Essen-Kettwig, Germany. In my opinion, this hotel gets it right every time.

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