Hotel executives and an investor who spoke at the Independent Lodging Congress advocated hiring hospitality neophytes in order to keep concepts fresh.
NEW YORK—Panelists at the recent Independent Lodging Congress touted the value of working with people trained outside of the hospitality industry as an effective way to come up with original hotel ideas.
The panel agreed that the additional creativity for design and service concepts more than offsets the challenges of managing those unfamiliar with the hotel industry.
Ace Hotel Group President Brad Wilson, whose company oversees 10 hotels in cities including New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, cited late Ace Hotel Group founder Alex Calderwood’s relative lack of experience as an asset when it came to creating distinctive hotels.
“That naiveté was so important to Alex’s personality,” Wilson said. “That creativity and originality becomes a natural output from that naiveté.”
Standard International CEO Amar Lalvani spoke of hiring Landis Smithers as Standard International’s new chief creative officer largely because of his prior experience at companies such as dating app Grindr and Playboy. Lalvani added that such perspective is invaluable for a company whose lodging options include the trailers, yurts and tepees at El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas, a property that operates under Standard International’s Bunkhouse division.
“When you look at this business, it’s people from outside of the business that have innovated,” Lalvani said. “You start to blur the lines about what hotels should be. We’re lucky. We can look at all kinds of outside influences. A focus group is fine, but that’s very different from a company that has soul.”
Worth the extra effort
Such innovation from outside sources has helped the boutique sector gain ground on the chain hotels in capturing room demand while broadening travelers’ tastes, according to hospitality investor Josh Wyatt. He also credited Morgans Hotel Group founder Ian Schrager and Standard founder André Balazs with making it easier to get independent projects funded.
“Now, more than ever, originality is being rewarded,” Wyatt said. “Twenty years ago, you had to be an André or an Ian to motivate. Now, you don’t have to be a major international star or celebrity to get people to back your original vision.”
All three panelists admitted that working with hospitality industry newcomers can create its own set of challenges. Lalvani spoke of having to be a “buffer” for people at his company charged with coming up with new ideas for hotels, adding that the hotel industry “can be stifling for creativity.”
Wyatt used the term “positive friction” to describe the process of hiring non-hotel people to help “turn that box into a living, breathing and feeling entity.”
“I came from private equity, which was brutal,” Wyatt added. “I vowed not to go back, and instead to build beautiful and lovely companies.”
No pain, no gain
“The bigger hotel companies try to make it as easy as possible. We try to make it as difficult as possible, which makes it hard to scale,” Lalvani said, who also spoke of recently hiring former Mission Chinese chef Angela Dimayuga as Standard International’s creative director of food and culture as another example of this approach. “We make it hard on ourselves to make things better.”
Wilson, who spoke of his obsession with lighting levels within Ace Hotel properties, added that the challenges sometimes extended to his company’s operating partners.
“The operators are our friends and our enemies,” Wilson said. “They don’t always see it, that idea of constantly designing the experience. It’s so much more than interior design. It’s the lighting, the music, the number of candles. Five is better than one.”
That said, both Wilson and panel moderator Andrew Benioff, founder and chairman of the Independent Lodging Congress, spoke of the rewards of taking such a non-traditional approach to the product. Benioff spoke of a recent stay at the Line Hotel in Washington, D.C., and his noticing of his guestroom’s brass shower drain, which was in the shape of an angel.
“It’s about surprising and delighting the guest,” he said.
“I spoke to someone doing a five-room hotel,” Wilson added. “If you’re a hotelier, you say, ‘Ah, that’s stupid.’ But if you’re not, you’re thinking, ‘That’s cool!’”