The Real Deal New York

Boutique hotels now shunning design, embracing “experience” in new projects

November 01, 2007
By Cathy Hobbs

As a hotelier known for his keen sense of style and rigorous attention to detail, hospitality czar Andre Balazs believes it is not enough to simply “design” when creating a hotel.

“Design as a point of distinction is completely over in the hotel business,” says Balazs.

Instead, staying at a hotel today is all about “experience,” from creating a vibe that mimics a student youth hostel to employing so-called soft-technology to shape guests’ experiences.

For the Hotel QT, a 140-room property in Times Square that opened last year, Balazs tried to rethink the emphasis of the hotel experience.

“We created an amazing swimming pool and steam room in the lobby,” Balazs says. “Upstairs, we put an awful lot of money into the beds. The rooms may be small, but the beds, the linens [Egyptian cotton] are the best. The pillows are the best.

“You are there to sleep,” he says.

Of course some ideas may be too fashion-forward. “The [Hotel QT] is really modeled like the youth hostels of Europe,” Balazs says. “I thought of doing shared bathrooms in the hallways, but I didn’t think the American traveler was ready for that.”

The man behind the Mercer Hotel in Soho and the Standards in L.A. (a Standard slated for the Meatpacking District is expected to open in 2007) also feels so-called “boutique” hotels have been “overdone.”

Adam D. Tihany, the architect and designer of the Time hotel, which opened in Times Square in 1999, said that hotel designers should shape their guests’ experiences almost like they are being cast in a movie.

“I see more and more projects that have a narrative attached to them,” Tihany says. “It is almost like creating a movie; you have a director, you have a script, you have an idea, and you make it happen.”

Glenn Pushelberg, of the interior design firm Yabu Pushelberg, agrees.

“I think what happened in the ’90s was a real overexposure of design,” he says. “It’s like a one-line joke. The first time you are like, “wow! This is great!” The second time, it doesn’t engage you. It’s like throwaway design.”

Pushelberg believes hotels have gone back to being social centers and that the trend is to offer visitors a memorable experience.

With one of his most recent projects, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Mumbai, India, scheduled to open in 2008, his company is experimenting with what he calls “soft” technology.

“We are looking into behavioral software so that as you move toward a wall or to various parts of the room, the images on a large-scale screen can change and follow you. We are considering possibly rose petals falling from the sky, or leaves falling from a tree, or a design by a video artist. For us, it is not just about framing art and just sticking it on the walls,” Pushelberg says.

Tihany notes that his interest in each project is very site-specific. “If I design a hotel in New York, it has to be really New York,” he says. “Something about the design — either psychologically or physically or emotionally — has to tie into the city where I am designing a project.”

With the Aleph, a 96-room hotel in Rome, Tihany chose to use an interpretation of Heaven and Hell to drive his design solution.

“The struggle between Heaven and Hell is the foundation of The Divine Comedy — and there is so much religion going on in Rome that I thought the subject was interesting enough to provoke a reaction,” he says. “You assume Heaven is above and Hell is below. But in my hotel, I flipped it. Heaven is below, and Hell is above. So, when you enter the hotel you are in Hell, and in order to get to Heaven you have to go below, where there is a spa and lounge for indulgence.”

In Las Vegas, a city not shy on indulgence, New York- and Miami-based architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia, founder of the architectural firm Arquitectonica, anticipates that the trend toward more restrained design may change the image visitors have of the Strip.

Fort-Brescia considers one of his current projects, the Cosmopolitan Resort and Casino, now being erected next to the Bellagio Hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard, as a real departure in Sin City design.

“Until the Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas was a city of thematic hotels,” he says. “Every hotel had some theme and our client understood when we told them we just don’t do that. Instead of other hotels that are set back and about the show, or a waterfall, our hotel goes all the way to the street and engages the pedestrian.”

Like other designers and architects, Fort-Brescia sees a trend in hospitality design toward projects that are mixed-use hotels involving a residential or office component.

In the Regent, which opened in Shanghai in November 2005, Fort-Brescia combined all three: hotel plus office and living.

“It is a very sculptural building and the lighting effect is very artistic. It is like a painting. You can’t even tell where the office ends and the residential begins,” he says.

Colum McCartan, founder and principal of design firm McCartan, believes forward-thinking hotel design lies in creating distinctly different experiences than you’d expect in your own home. McCartan contends that in some ways, this trend will be technology-driven.

“People want to be relaxed and at ease while being offered high degrees of functionality. One item my company is looking into,” he says, “is a bedside buddy system for every electronic device in the room.

“You have a control panel — it could be on touch-sensitive switches or it could be a LCD touch screen or a touch-sensitive panel — and from this you can turn lights on and off,” McCartan says. “The do-not-disturb light, you could switch the television on and off, control the heat or air conditioning, get e-mail or Internet access.”

New York City hotels become destination points

Lisa Mortman, director of communications for NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism marketing organization, says her group expects to see 5,300 new hotel rooms enter the market by the end of 2008, adding to the current inventory of 71,000 rooms.

She notes the growth is not limited to Midtown Manhattan.

“You’re really seeing the strength of tourism in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Uptown — and there are boutique hotels as well as nationally-recognized family-friendly brands,” says Mortman.

Mortman has noticed a trend toward creating an environment for NYC’s 43 million tourists (the projected tally for 2006) to make hotels points of interest.

“So many hotels have become a destination in and of themselves. One of the things New York City is known for is our sense of style, and people want to go to these ‘in’ places. You’re also seeing hotels becoming a real anchor for development,” adds Mortman.

Cathy Hobbs is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and interior designer.

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