Dream merchants: The future of hotels has arrived

In the 21st century, 'hospitality' is taking on new colours.

Every Saturday night, no matter where they are in the world, Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin check into a hotel for a weekend escape, as you can do when you're among Hollywood's richest couples.

Forget the mini-bar and thread-count sheets, though. To judge the hotel's quality, they ask themselves questions such as: "Is this place evocative for us?"; "Do we feel transported from our own reality?"

That might sound like a rather self-indulgent, Luhrmann-esque take on TripAdvisor, where hotels are usually judged by more pedestrian criteria such as "sleep quality" and "location".

But, believe or not, Luhrmann and Martin, in their own way, are on to something here. When it comes to recreational accommodation, visitor expectations are rapidly changing.

In the 1980s and '90s, with the rise of "boutique hotels", travellers learned to appreciate style and design as part of the package.

"Now you can just put a red chair in the lobby and call yourself a design hotel," says a leading hotel marketer.

The truth is that hotels can no longer rely on custom-made furniture and Aesop soap to make an impression; the likes of Airbnb, the global accommodation site sensation, mean travellers have never wielded more power through the choices they make. Which raises an important question: what are travellers looking for now?

Nowadays, as Claus Sendlinger, founder of Design Hotels, remarked, it's all about content - all of the "things that surround the experience". Another way to think about it: if boutique hotels have been getting attention for their good looks, now they're having to grow up and show they have something substantial to say about their favourite themes of art, fashion, and music.

So suddenly you have experimentation: turntables and vinyl available on request (W London); a lobby-slash-workspace that attracts writers and designers (Ace Hotel New York, acehotel.com/newyork); a hotel that quotes Foucault in advertising and finances an arts centre on the fringes of Marrakech (Fellah Hotel, fellah-hotel.com); a glass box filled with rotating art installations (The Standard, West Hollywood).

Suddenly you have a company, Punchdrunk, that has proposed turning travel into interactive theatre - mystery destinations, with actors shaping events in real-time on the road.

This is more than mere gimmick. These features represent a new step beyond the boutique trend, a step that is the logical response to a society radically altered by the proliferation of social media and smartphones.

Everybody is now a potential editor of their own life, tailoring a personal image with Instagram, calling up instant service on Uber, and connecting to the cultural zeitgeist through the internet.

Hotels are evolving to meet this strange new normal. Just as the media, music and publishing industries have been forced to innovate over the past few years, now it's hospitality's turn.

"This is the first generation [that has] been given the power to be who they want to be and the tools to display their creativity," says Serge Dive, chief executive of Beyond Luxury, a company riding the wave by creating marketplaces for cutting-edge hotels. "The travel industry today needs to quench this traveller's thirst for emotion with bigger, better, curated experiences."


What does all of this mean? Seeking a concrete example to cut through the buzzwords, I sought the counsel of Gonzalo Robredo, an immaculately dressed Argentine who runs a hotel, Hub Porteno, in the upmarket Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Recoleta.

Built in a renovated townhouse, the hotel offers 11 rooms with Belle Epoque furnishings and art drawn from the collection of Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat - not that Robredo dwells on any of this for too long, though.

"There is no more juice to be squeezed from obsessing over what is inside the walls of the hotel," he told me, waving his hand dismissively. "For me it is not about material luxury any more."

Instead, it is about expertise. Robredo is well-connected in Buenos Aires; his social circle includes designers, tango dancers and polo players, and he draws on them freely to offer guests insider access. For example, Delfina Helguera, one of the city's top curators, has taken guests from Hub Porteno into artists' ateliers and the homes of collectors for viewings and cocktails.

"The best thing that can happen in a city you don't know is contextualisation," Robredo explained.

Beyond the trimmings of its hotel suites, Hub Porteno offers an experience of Buenos Aires that is all but inaccessible to general travellers. It also unites, in a single example, three key elements that seem to pervade the new trend in hospitality.

The first of these is personalisation - the willingness of a hotel to bend backwards to meet its guests' desires.

The new Iniala Beach House (iniala.com), not far from Phuket, takes this idea extremely seriously, greeting guests at the airport with a personal butler and then following up with a full personal entourage (trainer, chef, driver) and customisable itineraries that let visitors pass an entire week cooking or practising martial arts, if that happens to appeal.

Even more modest properties are opening themselves up to the whims of their patrons. Closer to home, the Art Series Hotels (artserieshotels.com.au) in Melbourne, and more recently the regional Victorian city of Bendigo, introduced an "Overstay Checkout" in 2012 that allows guests to stay free for as long as they like until the hotel needs the room again.

It isn't all about self-indulgence, though. Just as important is a sense of connection to the world outside the hotel, whether through the kind of access offered by Hub Porteno, or an affirmation that visitors are contributing something meaningful through their stay. As travellers become more conscientious and concerned about their footprint, hotels are responding in innovative ways. Fogo Island Inn (fogoislandinn.ca), perched on an outcrop of rock in Newfoundland, Canada, promotes itself as a trust whose beneficiary is the local community.

Beyond operating expenses, all income flows through a charity back into town; there are no investors to appease with profit margins. But the most fundamental shift has to do with cultural capital - the idea that staying in a place can grant you specialised knowledge, or allow you to tap into an aesthetic that adds up to a lifestyle statement.

There are many potential case studies here, from Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn (appealing to hipsters), to Armani Hotel Milano (moneyed fashionistas).

In Panama, the American Trade Hotel (acehotel.com/panama) has cast itself as a cultural hub, pooling the best of the country's talent in a single, immaculately renovated building that includes a jazz club.

Like all Ace properties, the Panama City hotel features an on-staff "cultural engineer", whose job it is to connect guests to hand-picked experiences, from volunteering opportunities to sailing in the Caribbean and hiking to the top of Cerro Ancon.

A different example can be found in Oslo, Norway, with a new property called The Thief (thethief.com). The hotel's art curator, Sune Nordgren, is a former director of Norway's National Museum of Art. He has described the hotel's modus operandi as giving guests the opportunity to experience art in "a more private way".

In June, The Thief launched a program called Art on Demand, with 67 works available for purchase through the room-service menu. Rather than appealing to a general travel market, The Thief has elected to narrow its focus, tailoring services for a very specific demographic.

And it is not alone in this approach. By staking out different cultural niches, hotels have begun to transform themselves into what could be described as living magazines: this one is Artforum; another may be akin to Esquire or GQ, with Warby Parker selling eyewear from a chic concession on the lobby floor.

As New York-based DJ Jared Dietch, who curated soundscapes for the new Andaz Peninsula Papagayo in Costa Rica, said: "You see it, you smell it, and you hear it." No detail is too small in the age of Instagram and Twitter.


In many ways, Miami is already a showcase for early next-gen hotels such as the Standard Spa Miami Beach (standardhotels.com/spa-miami-beach), a property entirely oriented around a communal co-ed hamam. Young men and women play ping-pong or jumbo-sized jenga, while others lounge by the pool, fresh from lissant lift facials.

Here, too, is Soho Beach House (sohobeachhouse.com), the tropical outpost of that international club for well-heeled creatives. Ad executives strategise campaigns in a fully stocked library; outside, films are projected onto a blank wall of the building next door, marking the latest Hollywood launch party. These are not hotels so much as individual ecosystems, each with their own fauna and food chain.

Still, Miami is about to get even more interesting with the opening of several properties from the likes of legendary hotelier Ian Schrager. "Miami goes through bubbles and bursts," he told me recently, in town at his upcoming Miami Beach hotel Edition. "This time it won't burst."

Leading the pack in scope and ambition is the new Faena District, at a cost approaching $US1 billion. Alan Faena, an Argentine entrepreneur and real-estate mogul, bought six city blocks of down-and-out Miami Beach, and he has set about transforming them into a lavish neighbourhood of fountains and palm trees.

Springing up alongside penthouse residences and an arts centre is a hotel - Faena Hotel Miami Beach (faena.com) - being "creatively directed" by Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin.

"You do in reality what we try to do in movies," Luhrmann tells Faena in a promotional video for the property; elsewhere he has described Faena as "Gatsby-like". Inspiration for the hotel, which is due to open early next year, is being drawn from 1940s Miami - the Rat Pack, Marilyn Monroe, Cuban cigars, cabaret.

While Luhrmann conjures a feverish vision for the project ("a mythic utopia"), Faena has taken to calling it "a movie that will live forever". On the spectrum of immersive hospitality, Faena will sit at the absolute extreme. But in its blurring of old boundaries, it's also an indication of future possibilities everywhere.

On a recent tour of the construction site, Pablo De Ritis, a vice-president in Faena's company, told me it isn't a question of building traditional hotels any more, separate from the fabric of the wider city. Instead, it is about "lifestyle", where everything merges in a single vibrant space. The term he used was "cultural communities".

Lance Richardson is a New York-based Australian writer and photographer, and regular Traveller contributor. Hotels are his second home with his favourite being Red Tree House, Mexico City.



In line with rising demand for health services, EVEN Hotels, at two locations in the US, offers group classes, exercise guides, and in-room fitness zones.

See ihg.com/evenhotels.


In March, QT Sydney began partnering with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) to offer guests insider access to the gallery.

See qtsydney.com.au.


The WestHouse, in New York, offers bespoke shopping services with Net-A-Porter, and attache concierges who tailor itineraries for guests.

See westhousehotelnewyork.com.


An Ian Schrager invention, PUBLIC Chicago delivers gourmet in-room dining in stylish paper bags.

See publichotels.com.


Like Airbnb for the creative class, Onefinestay combines a curated collection of peoples' homes with hotel services such as bath products - plus a courtesy iPhone for convenience.

See onefinestay.com.