In Europe’s cooler neighborhoods, merely opening the hotel door rarely leads to success. These “cool hotels” stand out by continually researching, innovating and partnering when it makes sense.
LONDON—Every boutique hotel and hotel company wants to claim it has its fingers firmly on the pulse of the cool, happening neighborhoods where its hotels operate. But it takes more than just securing a good location if the goal is to get guests and locals to come back time and time again, according to sources.
Opening the front hotel door on day one in Europe’s coolest districts—perhaps Shoreditch, London; Kreuzberg, Berlin; or Gràcia, Barcelona—is all well and good, but a lot of work and research needs to be done before the first guests walk in the door, according to sources at the recent Boutique & Lifestyle Hotel Summit.
Henry Reeve, director of design and innovation at Hotel Indigo, a brand in InterContinental Hotels Group’s stable, said the real work starts when a location search has narrowed down to a particular neighborhood.
He said the Hotel Indigo brand is looking for more than just a cool vibe.
“There is a lot of time spent investigating that community, and the focus is on a 15-minute radius around the hotel, which is quite tight, especially in some cities,” Reeve said. “We partner with as many locals as we can, and it is important to partner with local owners and design agencies who understand the brand and the neighborhood. Sometimes that does not work as in some cities, design has not quite kept up with trends.”
Because every Hotel Indigo has a goal to be unique, Reeve said it is always best to work with local owners who understand why the property execution is so demanding and how that property will fit into the area.
Hiring local staff is also critical, said Harry Harris, managing director of hotel and hospitality architectural firm SUSD, which designed the 120-key Shoreditch hotel and members’ club The Curtain.
“Hire ambassadors in your hotel who are passionate about continually being active and excited,” Harris said.
Harris talked about three buzzwords—tribe, connection and communication.
Tribes are active community inhabitants, who are more connected, and more transient, than ever before, he said. The connection these people have—and also that of overnight guests who seek out cool neighborhoods wherever they travel—allows the talent of any district to shine and participate in the life of the hotel.
“Communication is a two-way conversation between hotel and guest, local or otherwise,” Harris said. “It is about listening to what are the new ideas and what is the new talent.”
Sheena Bhattessa, founder of upscale women’s travel magazine Citizen Femme, said the starting point is to assume guests are intelligent and can discover cool spots without the hotel’s help.
“They are already coming with so much information, so find them something they cannot find themselves. Hotels must add value that no one else can bring,” she said. “Define your audience. Who are they, and what do they want?”
For hotels to truly work in such a scenario, they do not only need to find the “cool” around them, they need to be part of that “cool” themselves, panelists said.
“We create a narrative about the hotel from a combination of expertise, be it design, F&B, branding, that can be physically created in a space. That creates a design brief,” SUSD’s Harris said.
To achieve this, the hotel’s staff needs to be involved, he said.
“This all leads to staff being fully cognizant of why the hotel is designed the way it is, and of its history,” Harris said. “Give staff the power to share and give information. Give them the ownership of their jobs, and they will grow and run with it. … I’d rather staff took the risk and occasionally stepped over the line than to be wallflowers and never say or do anything.”
Bhattessa said hoteliers should “concentrate on concepts that can keep hotels buzzing, and that might start with mothers looking for somewhere to be as they look after their children.”
“Hoteliers must present what is happening and buzzing, certainly as there is far too much information on Google that will cross the spectrum and be mostly poor or uninformative,” she added.
That requires hoteliers to “spend time in the market, even if your hotel is the jewel in the crown,” Hotel Indigo’s Reeve said.
Harris said concepts such as standalone restaurants that locals do not always realize are part of the hotels and varied room designs can make the process more complicated and costly.
“Always remember that locals and hotel guests can go anywhere, especially in a city such as London,” he said.
“Do not be scared to collaborate, and it is just as valuable to let people off-property as it is to keep them in,” she said.
But there are still opportunities to give guests and locals unique experiences by hosting them at the property. Harris said The Curtain puts on live events, from spoken word to music to burlesque.
“We’re very proud of there being live music in The Curtain. That form of entertainment is dying in London,” he said.
But not every concept will prove to be a winner, he added.
“We once tried to offer something that bridged the gap between Shoreditch and The City (of London), and The City simply was not interested,” Harris said. “Perhaps because The City is such a club to begin with.”