One of the many exciting things about the boutique hotel world is its ability to absorb exciting elements from disparate areas—from the art world to music, fashion and cuisine—anything it can harness to add character and interest to a hotel’s offering. And this diversity of influences was highlighted this week at the BLLA Boutique Hotel Investment Conference, where a panel of luminaries from very different backgrounds converged to discuss their shared interest in the boutique space.
Chaired by Gettys Group president Andrew Fay, the panel featured David Bowd, principal of West Elm Hotels; Tony Kurz, CEO of Brandmark Collective; and Christopher Norton, CEO of Equinox Hotels. Each has a very different approach and back story, each of them fascinating, and it was fascinating to hear their stories and what they bring to the boutique and lifestyle hotel sphere.
Bowd described starting out as a bellman before progressing to working with luminaries such as Ian Schrager and Andre Balazs, as well as working together with West Elm Hotels and Williams Sonoma on a chain of unique lifestyle hotels. Kurz talked about his experience of opening fashion hotels for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Karl Lagerfeld. And Norton recalled being drawn to the hotel business by “a love of the smell of coffee and toast” before an illustrious career at Four Seasons and striking out to create his mold-breaking current venture, Equinox Hotels.
The panelists were asked how they went about applying the tenets of their existing businesses to the hospitality industry. Bowd talked about wanting each hotel to feel like a unique and special space, “not just a showroom”, and a place that is very unique to the location. The focus was on the customer experience and the relationship with the local area, an aesthetic he summed up by saying that he suggested replacing the concept of a hotel manager with an “innkeeper”.
Kurz said that he had learned not to build the brand on one person—so the Karl Lagerfeld hotel is not just about the designer himself, but a combination of elements inspired by the “DNA” of his fashion brand.
Norton said that the Equinox chain was inspired by “watching the millennials” and witnessing a new, different definition of luxury, which is defined less by white-glove service than by “how you make people feel”. For example, he said the chain’s gyms will be open to local public, so that rather than standing empty and soulless, they are full of atmosphere and energy.
The next question Fay asked was how the hoteliers present leveraged the assets of their existing brands through the creation of a hospitality offering.
Bowd replied that the existing database of 15 million people who loved Williams Sonoma and West Elm brands created a ready-made starting point. He also said that the brand was very much focused on engaging with a local population and bringing employees without formal education who know the area, through purpose-built West Elm Academies.
Kurz said that the association with a well-known fashion brand brought with it an opportunity to hit the consumer press and a much larger marketing span. He also hinted at a new initiative, currently under wraps, that would allow his hotels to “shake up the industry” and rely less on “filling beds with heads”. And Nash said Equinox’s core loyalty was to its members as it focused in going after key markets and being in the right spots.
The panelists were also asked about the importance of design in their hotels, in response to which Bowd talked about the fact that it was a domestic retail brand tackling a hotel space, and so the residential feel was all-important for West Elm Hotels; and Kurz reiterated that the “DNA” of each fashion brand was the deciding factor in the design of the properties.
It is this proliferation of ideas and energies from different industries, converging in a space that is both diverse and full of life, that makes the boutique sector such an exciting and unique place, and never has this been clearer than at this year’s conference. We are grateful to the panelists for giving us an insight into their experiences of working in the boutique space and we look forward to ever more innovation in the year to come.