Heroes and Mavericks

Boutique Design’s 2017 Up-and-Coming Hoteliers are making their marks with niche hotel concepts that sell to Main Street and Wall Street.

Three years ago, Boutique Design created its Up-and-Coming Hoteliers award to honor the company leaders who will become household names as this generation’s change-makers. Ian Schrager and Bill Kimpton may have taught the industry that cookie cutter design and operations were no longer relevant to the traveling public.

But shaking up the status quo has now moved far beyond how an individual hotel looks or whether it has a communal work/dining table in its public spaces. Now, the real vision is focused on elevator-pitch strategies that clearly differentiate hotel groups from the pack.

As this year’s honorees prove, despite an endless stream of brand roll-outs, the industry still has a lot of unbridged gaps. But it takes some innovative thinking to find them and execute on the upside.

Robert Blood capitalized on what he saw as the potential for bringing a revamped approach to the intimacy of bed and breakfasts to travelers weary of high tech/no touch with the launch of Lark Hotels. Cachet Hospitality Group’s Alexander Mirza is all about technology, both in turning to tech startups as his operational business models and using research to curate and deliver what guests care about most. MOXY’s Vicki Poulos had to shelve conventional wisdom about big brands not getting “lifestyle,” and work from scratch to build a brand that would convince prospective owners and guests that Marriott could roll out a unique, young and “fun” brand experience. Mario M. Tricoci and Kevin Robinson were well ahead of the curve in seeing that secondary markets were ripe for lifestyle hotel concepts with no major flag and a strong local accent. They parlayed that foresight into Aparium Hotel Group.

Find out more on how these young entrepreneurs are building a new business model for the hospitality industry on the following pages.

INN GENIUS
Robert Blood | founder and ceo | Lark Hotels | Amesbury, Massachusetts

The start-up:

In 2003, late twentysomething Robert Blood jumped into the hospitality industry when he moved into the basement apartment of a small inn on Nantucket Island. That dive into the hotel world became the platform for a new kind of inn for travelers who want unique experiences delivered in a fresh, design-led package that’s tightly integrated with the real (not postcard) locale, focused on a modern approach to service and unapologetically playful. Collaborating with Dawn Hagin, who had developed marketing strategies for more than 50 lodging businesses (and would become the company’s chief inspiration officer), Blood launched Lark Hotels in 2012. Five years later, this company is involved with the ownership and/or management of 20 hotels and four restaurants in the northeastern U.S. and California, with 12 projects in various stages of development. Next up is the opening of The Hotel Salem in Massachusetts this summer.

Why the world needed another hotel company:

“Traditional hotels sell a commodity—a bed, an alarm clock, a coffee maker—all things that fit into a brand standards document. These products do not create an experience. Big box brands are starting to understand this, and are frantically rolling out new brands (read: products) to generate a coolness factor that simply isn’t in their DNA. However, you cannot create an organic experience, rooted in all that is local, by crunching data.”

What makes him—and Lark—major influencers:

“Our creative process allows the people in our company to be involved. When we’re creating a new identity story, the process can be brutal, but it always leads to interesting new ideas. I have a million thoughts in a day. I am lucky to have people to whom I can send a text to get an objective check on the lunacy of the idea.”

How he knows what guests want—and will pay for:

“We ask them! As an example, we just purchased a restaurant and hotel on Cape Cod. I have found the best way to get the pulse on what guests want is to sit at the bar and listen. We also learn from past projects. We get better every time and use existing properties as ‘test kitchens’ for future hotels.”

How Lark changed design and how design changed Lark:

“We are not trying to create perfect hotel rooms; we are trying to create great spaces that make people feel good. In our view, hotels are still too institutional. Because we often choose adaptive reuse projects, the architecture feels more residential. We play on this by using layers of texture and pattern, great fabrics and comfortable materials to create inviting spaces. Function is important in this space, but form carries equal weight.”

How far, how fast, how much:

“I would open 20 hotels a year if it was up to me, but I have a core team of people that can provide the antidote for my sometimes-blind ambition. In the next couple years, we are interested in expanding into the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Pacific Northwest, and adding to our presence in California. In 2012 we set a goal of having a 40-hotel portfolio within 10 years. That’s still the target.”

What inspires him:

“When I travel, I get ideas about what to do, and what to avoid! On a recent trip I arrived at 1:30 AM and my only choice was a Courtyard by Marriott. I left feeling like the designer’s goal was to be as neutral as possible. I could have been sleeping anywhere. I contrast that with a stay I had at the ACE Hotel in LA. That place reeked of authenticity. Ultimately though, it’s the people I work with that inspire me most.”

Why he’s a risk taker:

“Most of the deals we do are in ‘risky’ seasonal secondary markets where acquisition price is lower, competition is not as prolific and inventory is dated. In this space we develop properties that speak to modern travelers while maintaining a sense of place. By nature I think hoteliers need to be open to risk.

TECHNO BRAVE
Alexander Mirza | president, co-founder and ceo | Cachet Hospitality Group | Shanghai and Santa Monica, California

The start-up:

“Any company is defined by its management process and culture,” says the former management consultant to firms such as Strategos and Deloitte, who parlayed his knowledge of corporate best practices into the hotel industry, first working for maverick (and 2016 Boutique Design Up-and-Coming Hotelier) Barry Sternlicht at then-Starwood Hotels and Resorts. After mastering the art of shaking up the industry without shaking investor confidence, he moved on to learn the ropes of big flag operations at Hilton. A stint at Caesar’s Entertainment showed the Harvard Business School grad just how central—and profitable—data collection and CRM are to hospitality venues. It’s no surprise, then, that when he did start his own hospitality management firm, Cachet Hospitality Group, in 2013, he synthesized those lessons into a research-backed, design-heavy approach he likens to a young tech company or Tesla more than a traditional hotelier.

 

Why the world needed another hotel company:

“Our brands and business model are low cost disruptions. For example, we control design in house and our boutique/lifestyle hotels are less capital intensive with fewer architectural and design standards. We analyze each asset’s capital allocation to generate higher returns on invested capital for owners. It’s very analytical and then creative, rather than the other way around like many of our direct competitors.

We start with the research on where investment should go in each property, not just a straight website and guest room refresh. In a recent property, we’d planned to do that, but the data showed that the revenue driver was the restaurants, specifically for weddings. So, we were able to convince the owner to do a $2.5 or $3 million redo on the restaurants and spend less on other areas. We never would have guessed going in that that would be the best way to allocate funds.”

Why the big guys aren’t always the bad guys (and what boutique operators should learn from them):

“While at Starwood and Hilton, I worked with a lot of accomplished hotel operators and they taught me about systems, processes and standards. If there’s one thing they don’t understand, it’s how to build and nurture a culture of innovation. As a result, they effectively outsource design and development of new technologies.

How far, how fast, how much:

The company’s current portfolio of four hotels in Southeast Asia and North America is set to get eight new hotels in those regions, with a future focus on global gateways and will reach 10 properties by year’s end (the total pipeline is close to 30). Also on tap? The expansion of Cachet’s four F&B brands, including a 40-plus location JV with Wahlburgers (yes, a burger chain run by those Wahlbergs) in Asia.

What’s on his bucket list for Cachet:

“Our technology platform, which will be launched in August 2017, will be a lifestyle marketplace. It will include lifestyle hotels and residences as well as travel content curated by experts. It’s a top secret project, so that’s all I can share right now.”

OUTSIDE VOICE
Vicki Poulos | global senior brand director | MOXY Hotels | Bethesda, Maryland

The start-up:

“I’ve always squirmed at phrases like, ‘We’ve always done it this way’ or ‘That’s how things are done here,’” says this DePaul University alum. She turned that into a major career advantage at MTV/Viacom, The Drake Hotel, Chicago, and in leadership roles with Marriott Intl.’s global brand management team. Her innovative thinking on initiatives to build out market reach and visibility for the giant’s lifestyle brands earned her the company’s Brand Marketing E-Commerce “Creativity & Innovation” award for the ground-breaking Lifestyle University program, created to identify and develop lifestyle leaders around the world, recognition as a top professional under 35 by LinkedIn Next Wave and a dream job: Creating a brand from scratch. “When we started work on what would become MOXY, we threw out everything we thought we knew about what today’s fun-hunting traveler expects from a lifestyle hotel,” she says. “We had the chance to research and craft every aspect of what was needed to create a spirited brand that would excite next-generation guests through style, attitude and price. And, yes, we really did get a blank slate from the beginning—and the freedom to continually revisit what we’re doing. I feel like non-conformity, open-mindedness and originality are core values that get rewarded with MOXY’s evolution. What could be more exciting than that?”

Why the world (and Marriott Intl. (MI)) needed another hotel brand:

“Today’s consumers want to discover a killer experience at the right price, and on top of that, they want to validate that choice and share their experiences with others. We set out to create a fresh, audacious brand that answers that need by flipping the conventional hotel service model on its head to pleasantly surprise travelers at how much they can get away with in tailoring their experience without the exorbitant price tags. From our selfie elevators to our check-in at the bar and communal spaces, MOXY encourages play and shareable social moments for guests.”

Why the pundits who say big brands can’t do lifestyle right are wrong:

“With different collaborations, the company has launched EDITION, MOXY Hotels, Autograph Collection and AC Hotels as part of Marriott’s suite of lifestyle brands. And of course, with the largest acquisition, Starwood brings innovative brands like Aloft, Element and Westin into the portfolio. There are many advantages to scale that allows MI to do things that no independent company can do. Our scope offers many opportunities to innovate. At the end of the day, the focus is to keep all 30 brands distinct, and we will use the strength of our scale to do so.

“For example, we rely heavily on digital, social, and partnerships. MOXY has partnered with international artistic platform Talenthouse to create a program called BlankCanvas, which calls on multi-media artists from around the world to submit contemporary works that encapsulate the unexpected, fun, spirited attitude that our brand embodies and celebrates. We have seen great success with the program including over 2,600 art submissions from 46 countries globally and ten million social impressions.

“We launched our original YouTube series “DO NOT DISTURB” hosted by comedian Taryn Southern. The 12-episode series is produced in collaboration with Marriott’s Content Studio and is intended to drive consistent engagement by giving guests more shareable moments to get them talking. Set-up as a slumber party, the second season of “DO NOT DISTURB” was taped at the recently opened MOXY New Orleans and MOXY Berlin Ostbahnhof, during the hotels’ epic grand opening parties. This also brings home the idea that, not only are no two MOXY hotels the same because they reflect their locals—no two events will be the same from hotel to hotel. The setting defines all that.”

How far, how fast, how much:

MOXY currently operates eight hotels in the United States and Europe. More than 70 approved deals are in the worldwide pipeline. Additional target markets include San Francisco, LA, Miami and Paris.

What gets her jazzed:

“Starting something I have no idea how to finish. Anything with the potential for failure, but not total disaster, gets my heart racing.”

ANALYTICAL INNOVATOR
Mario M. Tricoci | co-founder and ceo | Aparium Hotel Group | Chicago

The start-up:

“We don’t see ourselves as disruptors. We’re not effecting change for the sake of doing so. We’re more entrepreneurs, catalysts,” says Tricoci. Named for his famous father, Chicago’s hair salon and spa magnate Mario Tricoci, this former college soccer star (his prowess earned him a scholarship to Notre Dame University) turned attorney at two of Chicago’s most prestigious firms (first, at Altheimer & Gray and later at Greenberg Taurig LLP) turned hotelier understands exactly what it means to launch and nurture a business.

In fact, he tried the family business for a year. He lived at home, put a suit on every morning, made sure he was the first one in the office every day and the last one to leave. He also had the lowest salary of any corporate manager. “I left because I wasn’t sure I could bring something extraordinary to the company. I didn’t want anyone to think I expected to be handed anything simply because I was Mario Tricoci’s son,” he says. That’s what prompted the decision to go to law school and develop a skill set that he could see benefitting his father’s enterprise.

Along the way, he focused on the real estate deal that would be developed into the Elysian Hotel (now Waldorf Astoria Chicago), which won numerous accolades including two Michelin stars for its restaurant. He closed the door to his law office and hung out a new shingle as the president and managing partner of the Elysian Hotel Group. The young entrepreneur built on that success in 2012 when, along with Kevin Robinson (profiled on page 30), he launched the Aparium Hotel Group.

Why the world needed another hotel company:

“People who regularly travel to New York, Chicago or LA want that same type of hotel experience when they go to Minneapolis, Milwaukee or Cincinnati. They want that lifestyle in their community. Many secondary markets don’t offer that. Kevin and I saw an opportunity to fill that void. From the outset, we decided we didn’t want to go into major markets, nor did we want to develop big-box projects that catered primarily to the SMERF (social, military, educational, religious and fraternal) business. And, we wanted a group of individual hotels, not a ‘brand.’ It would have been a great deal easier to leverage the success of, for example, The Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee, which is managed by Aparium Hotel Group, by just reproducing it in other markets. But, that would be saying, ‘Hey, Minneapolis! This is what we’re bringing.’ We didn't want to force a community to choke down a hotel concept from another market that wasn't authentic or indigenous to that city. For Kevin and me, every project starts with a white board.”

What designers need to know:

“Adaptive reuse is tricky. The designer needs to learn how to build out billable hours. ‘Overtime’ isn’t always about things we as clients are asking. There are government regulations; issues with the buildings and problems with on-site discoveries. If they’re doing a project for us, it won’t be modular; the spaces won’t be the same. So they’ll probably have to do more drawings, more CA, more RFIs. We point out to firms that they have to be realistic in making their proposed budgets or risk losing money. In some cases, we’ve suggested building out the original budget to make sure the designer can deliver the work and still be fairly compensated.”

How to get off the short list fast:

“Don’t suggest another green wall. Don’t put a shot of an Edison bulb on your vision board. Don’t show us something’s that been on Pinterest. Everyone’s seen that 4 million times. And, above all, don’t try to sell us a pet idea. Designers fall in love with certain things they want to bring to a project. They want to find a place where they fit those round pegs into square holes. They’re so enchanted with their idea that they’re not thinking about what our project requires. We’re open to new concepts, but when a designer tries to push through a preconceived notion, that’s challenging.”

When designers should stand their ground:

“When it supports the story. We’re not always right, for sure. If you can tell us what something supports the hotel’s story, we’ll listen. Maybe that green wall is there because the hotel is next to a botanical garden. Or maybe it creates oxygenation that energizes the lobby. Make us think. Reframe a concept to help us understand. Challenge us with the ‘why.’

That also applies to answering RFPs. We were looking for a small design firm for our project in Des Moines, Iowa. We met with Staci Patton (principal, hospitality interior designer at DLR Group’s Minneapolis office and a 2017 Boutique 18 honoree) at BDwest this year. She really rolled up her sleeves to convince us that, while DLR Group may be big, its 40-person design staff works like a boutique studio. She showed us a deep understanding of the community and the building and their respective importance, then showed us concepts that flowed from that—which demonstrated to us why we should give DLR serious consideration.”

A-GAMER
Kevin Robinson | co-founder and coo | Aparium Hotel Group | Chicago

The start-up:

“I have never been able to personally become content with a process, close your eyes and run an assembly line, I get bored with that. When I found a way to fill a void with something I was good at doing and enjoyed, I jumped on it with everything I had,” says Robinson, who found that “something” working at the Westin in Denver as a college student, doing overnight shifts and learning how not to take “good enough” as an answer for work or life. “So many people saw me are restricted by the same limitations as they had or limited by my resume and experience but I always valued by potential, whether myself or others.” Fortunately, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and Langham Hospitality Group saw Robinson’s ability and drive, as did Aparium co-founder Mario Tricoci.

Why the world needed another hotel company:

“Based on the evolution of life around mobile technology and social media and how it has influenced the Millennial generation, it was obvious to me what the future of hospitality would look like. This was nearly eight years ago when I built this business model and independent hotel brands just started to pop up and show great success. At the time, I was spending a lot of personal time in smaller markets around the Midwest and missed the unique experiences I would have had in gateway cities. Research further proved it was a good idea. These markets were more stable through the recent recession and over time have a lot less dramatic peaks and valleys with their economies. I had put together target markets that were secondary cities with great history and character, stable economies and in the Midwest because there were plenty of them that were easy to get to for a new business. Once we let the cat out of the bag after we got our first deal, all kinds of entrepreneurs in smaller markets started calling and asking for help.”

Why taking a risk pays off (and when to do it):

“For me to start this company was a huge risk. I had a very cushy corporate role, making good money, with a company that really cared about me and provided me with many opportunities and many more to come. I put everything I had personally, professionally and financially into starting this company. But, worst case scenario, I knew I could fall back on a good job running a hotel. It was Mario that encouraged us to hold off launching the company until we had our first signed management contract, so we would know that at this point we would have a steady stream of income, even if nothing else happened at least I could put food on the table until I found the next opportunity. Even my wife, who’s normally the balancing force when I want to do something crazy, said ‘go for it’ with this. It was certainly a risk but we always had a back-up plan. When we bought our first building in Detroit and the city had just declared bankruptcy, that was my next big risk. Additionally, it never occurred to me that the plan would not work out, ‘cause I just had confidence that we would find a way to make it work.”

 

How far, how fast, how much:

We grew our business with our success, we reinvested everything, so we spent years working hard, looking for more growth and when we could have kicked back we instead remained on edge because we kept growing. It was so stressful. Always trying to make sure we could make payroll, pay bills, etc. Plus, a lot of our clients/owners can’t pay on schedule, which made managing cash flow really tough. Being exposed firsthand to all of this and trying to run and grow the business was so difficult. Naysayers loved our idea but thought we could not build a real company, that our concept was a one-off, but today we have 10 open in less than five years and six financed and under development with a huge pipeline. Our Kansas City hotel is under construction, as is our Montclair, New Jersey project, which is a new-build. We’ll have new openings in Des Moines, Iowa; Tampa, Florida; Tempe, Arizona, Chicago and Birmingham, Michigan. The latter will be different for us as it’s farther up the luxury scale and it’s a new build.