High Life

Playrooms. Sanctuary spaces. In-room bike racks. They’re all part of the revolution that’s making top-tier hospitality design not only relevant, but radical.

There’s a new disruptor in town, and it’s sporting 5 stars. Fresh luxury lifestyle hospitality concepts from sports-centric escapes for high-spend, fitness-loving travelers to cool urban hotels that lure locals with game rooms and coworking spaces are causing seismic shifts in a sector that hasn’t exactly been known for its nimbleness and innovation. 

Viceroy Bocas del Toro Panama

From the lifestyle lure of a comfortable place to chat and grab a drink or snack to the sensual appeal of rich but real textures, Wimberly Interiors' design for Viceroy Bocas del Toro Panama defines what's modern about luxury. The property will open in 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Viceroy Hotel Group

Hoteliers and designers leading the charge to redefine the top of the hospitality market outlined the new rules for luxe, livable spaces during various panels at this year’s Boutique Design West (BDwest) trade fair and conference in Los Angeles. Here’s their trend watch:

Don’t design for a demographic; design for the customer your client wants to attract. So says Sagar Desai, Viceroy Hotel Group’s (VHG’s) head of acquisitions & development. That’s why he did this interview during a stopover on his drive to the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where the luxury lifestyle hotelier he works for was mounting a pop-up event to gain visibility with generation-blurring influencers.

It’s also the reason he urges designers to make neighborhood workers and residents their real targets. “Hotel companies spend so much time listening to guests but forget to listen to people two blocks away,” says Desai. “We need to get buzz among locals by creating public spaces for the community.” As many companies learned during the Great Recession, locals can be vital to keeping the bottom line healthy.

To impress him, be bold. Some ideas Desai’s implemented: shelving a traditional boardroom for a playroom with space for chairs to be brought in for meetings; hiring local artists to smash  up redundant technology to create a signature art piece; activating a gathering space with a Plinko wall; and making sure a bar or other social hub is the first thing guests see—not the reception desk. “One rule: specify pieces that can transform based on guests’ needs,” he adds. “People want the luxury of choice.”

Viceroy  Bocas del Toro Panama

A guestroom at the Viceroy Bocas del Toro Panama. Photo: Courtesy of Viceroy Hotel Group 

Start outside voice conversations. Dana Kalczak, vice president of design, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, elicited an LOL response from the SRO audience at the 2018 Boutique Design Power Players: Women Leaders in Hospitality panel, cosponsored by NEWH, at BDwest when she said the 5-star brand’s newly reimagined public space platform “lifts the cone of silence.”

“An environment so formal that guests feel they have to whisper stifles interaction and generally dampens spirits,” in her view. What Kalczak wants to see from design firms are public areas in which the visuals, FF&E and circulation pattern work together to foster social connection and spontaneous interaction.

“The design of a space affects human behavior,” she explains. “It should make it feel right to laugh with a perfect stranger.” 

westdrift Manhattan Beach, Autograph Collection | Jute Coastal Bar + Kitchen

Every square foot in the Jute Coastal Bar + Kitchen at the westdrift Manhattan Beach, Autograph Collection, created by EDG Interior Architecture + Design, is prime real estate, thanks to clever siting of windows, skylights and artificial lighting. High-sheen horizontal surfaces add a reflective touch to this boutique retreat in California. Photo: Wonho Frank Lee

What makes that happen now at Four Seasons’ hotels: a coffee/cocktail bar at the heart of the lobby; a mix of comfortable seating that’s the right height/depth for working on a laptop or unwinding over a drink with friends; and a layered lighting program that’s more than a signature chandelier.

Find ways to make luxury lifestyle work outside of NYC and LA. The paradigm shift from big-ticket, don’t-touch grandeur to the VIP feel of a unique, localized experience has sparked a new wave of 5-star openings in secondary and tertiary cities, says Barbara Best-Santos, associate principal, San Francisco studio director, ForrestPerkins. Smaller and more closely edited than their gateway sisters, these projects require some insider client knowledge. “A large brand may need to take a hard look at its program to make sure it doesn’t overbuild, or overdeliver, to ensure the project can pencil out,” she adds.

One way to elevate a smaller-city 5-star above its upscale competitors is to design beyond the visual space. “Make it holistic,” says Best-Santos. “We’re working on a hotel that faces a public park. For that project, luxury means ensuring that every design decision blurs the physical property boundary. How do we get custom picnics from the kitchen to the park? Where can guests store bikes? Every item we’re selecting is looked at through a lens that considers how the guest will interact with it, both in terms of aesthetic appreciation and ensuring the experience has continuity in messaging.”

westdrift Manhattan Beach, Autograph Collection | Lobby

The lobby of the westdrift Manhattan Beach, Autograph Collection. Photo: Wonho Frank Lee

If you want your fair share of this kind of work, VHG’s Desai says to follow millennials (and others) decamping from the country’s largest CBDs to destinations with more affordable housing and access to activities they want, such as Nashville; Portland, Oregon; and Salt Lake City. Also consider sending your business development director to Austin, Texas; Boulder (and Denver), Colorado; Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Virginia Beach, Virginia. Even BD’s home base, Cincinnati, is back on the radar, along with Ohio’s capital, Columbus.

Embrace a broader definition of luxe. When Jennifer Johanson, ceo and president, EDG Interior Architecture + Design, and her team began designing Headlands Coastal Lodge & Spa on the rugged Oregon coast, they realized that most luxury brands in the area didn’t speak to travelers wanting to embrace the active lifestyle this region is known for. “We were assessing some of the competitive properties with our clients and overheard a guest at one hotel ask the concierge, ‘Where can I walk so I don’t get my shoes wet?’ I told Headlands’ owners, ‘That’s not your guest.’”

That opened both the hotel owners’ and EDG’s eyes to a different breed of affluent traveler. “We were watching executives with custom M55 bikes coming to explore Oregon or climb sand dunes during the day, but who still wanted to come back to a true 5-star hotel for a relaxing massage, a great meal and an aspirational guest room afterward.”

Johanson stresses the importance of using the guest’s filter to weigh what luxury means. In this case, it included special storage facilities that allow travelers to bring equipment inside. “Who’d want to leave a $5,000 bike clipped to their car?” she observes.

Fairmont San Francisco | Guestroom

"Luxury is about exclusivity. Lifestyle is about experience," says ForrestPerkins' Barbara Best-Santos. The firm pared down traditional high-end elements to fit into a clean, modern aesthetic in the sleek, livable guest rooms and suites at the Fairmont San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of Fairmont San Francisco

The materials palette also has to evolve into a fun but functional luxury lexicon to retain top-quality levels of maintenance and housekeeping despite the challenges of sun, sand and water damage.

Johanson says layering has replaced opulence as the ultimate design tool for high-end hotels. Surfaces have more texture. There’s a sculptural feel to art and sense-of-place elements from libraries and eclectic displays of local crafts to references to neighboring businesses and much-loved landmarks.
 
Build flexibility into F&B offers. Desai says both the cuisine and design of restaurants have to be approachable, consistent and comfortable for couples as well as families. “Create collapsible spaces in restaurants so a customer doesn’t feel he/she is the only one in the venue,” he says. “White linen restaurants are a lost cause. Guests want to be entertained. So develop a traffic flow that makes it easy for the chef to come out and talk about the food.”

Also, don’t expect hard and fast rules. “In some hotels, it might make sense to have an open kitchen. But, in a hotel in Laguna Beach, guests don’t want to look at the kitchen; they want to look at the ocean,” says Desai. He predicts 5-star hotels will soon be home to some kitschy culinary ideas. “I recently received a presentation that was pitching a dive bar. Pun intended, but it was really about famous divers.”  

Fairmont Washington D.C. | Lobby

The Fairmont Washington D.C. lobby. Photo: Courtesy of Fairmont Washington D.C.

Remember that guests still spend more time in their rooms than anywhere else in the hotel. As a result, that experience had better be perfect. Four Seasons has unveiled its new Sanctuary Room to be just that. Developed with design firm Meyer Davis Studio, this retreat is noteworthy not only for its restrained, easy elegance and unobtrusive tech, but also its nod to financial and budgetary reality.
 
“Our Sanctuary Rooms don’t necessitate larger modules or structural bays,” says Kalczak. “Clever design delivers natural light to our Oasis Bathrooms; it creates a visually strong Sleep Temple; a relaxing Wind Down Zone; and a beautiful yet functional work/dining/play area with the round Activity Table. The entertainment opportunities at the media wall and the generous F&B offerings at the MyBar round out the new room design.” 
According to Best-Santos, the key word for luxury lifestyle is still customization, especially in the guest room. “As designers, we have to be aware that custom doesn’t just mean giving the guest what we want or what a survey says people should want,” she explains. “One traveler might think no luxe room is complete without wish-list technology, while the next person may be looking for a digital detox. Luxury lifestyle design is about finding a way to do both.”
 

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