A world apart

What makes the ideal hotel? More important than the elements of service, luxury and location is the creation of a self-contained world which is nothing like home, believe Carlos Virgile and Nigel Stone. Carlos Virgile and Nigel Stone are joint managing di

People want different things from hotels. The seasoned business traveller might request no more than the reassuring uniformity of a chain hotel to rest his weary head before he hits the next meeting in the next city, or indeed, country. American or Japanese tourists in London might take great pleasure in staying in an hotel that captures the “olde worlde” charm and quaintness of the traditional English country house, even though they are staying in the heart of a thrusting, bustling and modern city. But what we are generally offered is characterless service and uniformity with no real attention to detail. From five stars to tourist-traps the clichés are repeated over and over again.

There obviously is a need for such hotels, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that a well-designed hotel, which resists the conformity of traditional hotels and confounds expectations, would satisfy the needs of many travellers and tourists, not to mention the wallets of investors.

The cliché of a “home away from home” has been perpetuated by traditionalist and unimaginative hoteliers. Do people really want to repeat the experience of being at home? Surely most people want the exact opposite. A welcoming experience, certainly, but with all the advantages and none of the disadvantages of being at home. In other words, “home plus”, where service and a different world can reign free.

But is design a tool that can be used to create that differentiation? Can we designers understand what most people would enjoy? Or are we only able to create environments that will attract others of like mind and similar aesthetic values? Given a blank slate to create the ideal hotel, there is a danger that some designers might take things to an extreme; satisfying their own desires without taking into account the true needs of the people who will stay there.

Take, for example, the Paramount or the Royalton in New York, or the latest Philippe Starck fantasy, the Delano in Miami. These are places that have created an enormous amount of justifiable publicity. On the one hand, they are unconventional, irreverent, and try to change the established idea of what an hotel is. They are social phenomena, where people go to watch others and to inhabit an environment which, most of the time, doesn’t reflect their own homes. It’s escapism through design into a designer’s world. On the other hand, these hotels impose aesthetic values which are so dictatorial and forceful that it would be surprising if even the most design-obsessed guest would be able to feel really relaxed.

Delano has all-white interiors, where everything – floors, ceiling, furniture and flowers – are in the purest tones of white. This is a design folly which may well drive mad the hotel owner trying to keep it in immaculate shape, as well as the guest who finds the experience too close to a sanatorium. Will guests feel comfortable about putting their feet up without ruining the decor? Is this the only “not like home” experience that designers can come up with?

The ideal hotel should create a mini universe, a world of its own, self-contained, with its own life, vibrancy and timing… another world away from realities, which runs according to its own set of rules and principles.

Attention to detail is vital. Everything down to the soap is part of the overall concept. This must be done in a relaxed, uncontrived manner, otherwise it imposes too many values on the guests, telling them how to behave in the same way that many pretentious, so-called luxury hotels do. Nowhere else can designers invade other people’s privacy as much as in an hotel room interior.

Service that is unobtrusive, invisible, informal in its formality (or formal in its informality) is the most difficult element. It is one that few hotels get right, particularly plush hotels which cater for people who see service as a symbol of power and control, rather than efficiency and friendliness.

Location is obviously a plus but not essential. What is important is to make a real connection with the city or the landscape in which the hotel belongs, to convey its spirit and create a strong feeling of identity with the place. Hotels which are hidden or off the tourist route have a particular aura, providing the extra attraction of having made a find.

One such surprising place is the Hotel New York, which stands on the unlikely set of an industrial waterfront in Rotterdam and opened its doors in the spring of 1993. It was once the headquarters of the Holland-Amerika Lijn shipping line and was vacated in 1984 with the decline of the luxury shipping industry. Now the building has become a popular hotel with bustling bars and restaurants.

Even though it still maintains an aura of the elegance and luxury of ocean liner travel of the past, its foundations are planted firmly in the present. It’s like an epic Manhattan loft, complete with comfortable and casual furnishings. Your first impressions make you feel as if things have just been thrown together in an ad hoc fashion, but on closer inspection you become aware that meticulous attention has been paid to detail – and that’s what makes it work. The laid-back grandness and quirky touches are always understated, and the quality of linen and comfort of the huge beds shows a true understanding of what makes a good hotel. That quality of detailing and sensitivity to guests’ needs can happen at both ends of the market.

The Chateau de Bagnols outside Lyon, France, is another remarkable hotel, sharing the same meticulous attention to detail (but not the rates) of the Hotel New York. Although their styles couldn’t be more different, there are more links between them than first meet the eye.

Luxury does not necessarily equal good taste, style or exquisite good manners. In fact, luxury and real sophistication very rarely go hand in hand in the hotel world, and the Chateau de Bagnols is a rare exception, a place where real sophistication can be found, in this case in a very expensive bourgeois environment.

It would definitely be the hotel of most people’s dreams. A castle dating from 1217, it stands in beautiful surroundings in the Beaujolais region. Purchased by its current owners in 1987, it underwent a mammoth four-year restoration; it took five teams of specialists two years just to restore the wall paintings.

Every tiny detail, from the crockery to the bedding, has been considered with respect for history, but with a true understanding of today’s context. It has all the comforts – and more – that you would expect from a modern hotel, but with an atmosphere that tricks your senses into believing you’ve taken a trip back in time. An atmosphere created by the scent of burning incense greets your arrival, with a view of the open kitchen from the entrance courtyard and the roaring fire under the carved fireplace.

That strong need to recreate the past is very close to home, although it is rare to achieve such perfection. London has not yet accepted its urban status and independent hoteliers still feel they have to conform to the norm of country house style, complete with chintz and four-poster beds. That this style has (or should have) very little to do with life in one of the most vibrant cities in Europe seems to be completely disregarded.

It is the social aspects of hotel life, watching and meeting people, that is the key to making an hotel a place of today. Not just the comfort and privacy of your room, but “seeing the world pass by” and being part of the scene. Restaurants and bars set the pulse of an hotel. Guests should want to get out of their rooms and experience these public areas. An hotel should also be a meeting point for the city, a place where people who are not guests come to meet their friends, to be seen as part of that environment.

The retail offer in hotels also shows a limited range of imagination: in the top hotels, luxury goods such as jewellery are on sale. In the mid-range hotels, a pastiche of tourist souvenirs and magazines. Isn’t this a missed opportunity for the hotelier? Interesting shops should be an integral part of an hotel, offering more relevant merchandising that can communicate more effectively its character and personal touch.

The Paramount has a Dean & DeLuca delicatessen adjacent to its entrance offering wonderful food to take away. It seems very much in the spirit of New York and the high design/low prices policy of the hotel. The Chateau de Bagnols has a boutique where you can buy the same linen and beautiful china and glass used at dinner the night before, designed and produced specially for the hotel. The New York in Rotterdam has a great bric-a-brac shop, art books and postcards mixed with old tin toys and unusual objects. Here, again, is the attention to detail through every aspect, a thoughtfulness that creates the mini universe that is “home plus”.

With retail, and in particular restaurants, undergoing something of a revolution, it seems amazing that the hotel world has not moved forward at the same rate. Let’s hope that before too long someone is brave – and intelligent – enough to do something about it.m

Latest articles