Boutique hotels: How QT Hotels became Australia's hippest hotel group

Buttons. I have written dozens of stories about hoteliers over the years, and never before has anyone brought up the subject of buttons. Yet when I ask one of David Seargeant's closest collaborators what sets him apart from other hoteliers, up pop the buttons.

"You don't often find someone in the corporate world who can go from a billion-dollar finance meeting to a meeting where I'm showing him different coloured buttons," says Janet Hine, the costume designer who creates the uniforms for QT staff. "That someone at his level can get down and dirty with buttons is amazing."

No-one stays at a hotel because they like the buttons on the staff uniforms, of course. But it is this level of attention to detail, this determination to do things differently, that has become a hallmark of QT Hotels, which has become Australia's most talked-about hotel group since launching its first property in 2011.

The group now has a portfolio of seven properties across eastern Australia, each of which blends stylish interiors with a playful approach. Designer Nic Graham, part of QT's core creative team, describes the QT brand as "poppy, friendly, a little bit flirty", but says each hotel is designed to reflect its location. "The story is always about the neighbourhood," Graham says. "We aim to give you a sense of where you are."

QT's first two properties, QT Gold Coast and QT Port Douglas, unsurprisingly channel a tropical vibe. At Port Douglas, the interiors feature cane chairs, white shutters and ceiling fans, while staff are clad in board shorts: teal, pink or white, depending on which department they work for.

By contrast, QT Sydney – built into two heritage buildings, the State Theatre and the Gowings building – is something of a drama queen, complete a red carpet, eye-catching furniture in the lobby, and a seriously sexy bar. The recently opened QT Melbourne works an industrial-chic groove, and pays tribute to the city's laneways culture with shops and eateries tucked into its own private laneway. 

This concept of hotel as neighbourhood hotspot is part of an international trend, pioneered by the likes of the UK-based Firmdale Hotels and the US Ace Hotels. It has been embraced by travellers who don't just want to see a city's sights, but are looking to enmesh themselves in the local social scene. Carlos Couturier – co-founder, along with Moises Micha, of another trendsetting boutique brand, the Mexico-based Grupo Habita – talks about his hotels as "social hubs", noting that his sleekly designed hotels are "about the community more than the space itself".  

Like the Habita hotels, QT hotels are as much about hanging out as they are about sleeping in. "It is about the design, it's about the food, but most of all, it's about the people," Seargeant says. 

Both local and international guests have embraced QT's ability to deliver the unexpected. At the Sydney and Melbourne properties, the tone is set by the bewigged, costumed and uninhibited Directors of Chaos who greet guests at the front door. Once inside the hotel, surprises come thick and fast. Exit the elevator, and it may throw a cheeky comment as you step out. Enter your room, and you may find a piece of digital art playing on your television. As Seargeant says, "We keep the energy levels up." 

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Chic design and quirky details are great for generating coverage and getting guests in, but Seargeant is smart enough to know that to get repeat business, you need to deliver on the basics. At QT, the beds are comfortable, the service is friendly and efficient, the restaurants offer both great food and a buzzing scene. The hotel design is as practical as it is stylish: in QT Melbourne, for instance, the bathrooms feature sliding panels that let you open the bathroom up to the room or seal it off, depending on how intimate you and your roommate are.  

This focus on the small stuff is the hallmark of someone who has spent a lifetime immersed in the industry. Seargeant started his working life as a cadet at Melbourne's Commodore Hotel and happily admits, "Hotels are my passion". These days, running QT Hotels is only a part of his responsibilities. Seargeant's day job is group managing director at Event Hospitality & Entertainment (EVT), a corporate conglomerate specialising in entertainment and leisure. Its brands include Event Cinemas, Greater Union Cinemas and Rydges Hotels, as well as QT. 

QT's niche within a broader corporation undoubtedly has benefits, not least the fact that EVT's property portfolio has delivered locations for just about every hotel – a huge bonus in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, where hoteliers often search for years before finding the right site. The flip side, however, is that Seargeant's other responsibilities limit the amount of time he can dedicate to the brand.

Cleverly, Seargeant has built up a close group of collaborators who help shape each new hotel. As well as Janet Hine and Nic Graham, the team includes restaurateur Robert Marchetti, architect-designer Shelly Indyk and art adviser Amanda Love. "They are all specialists in their own area, and they all bounce off each other," Seargeant says.

A dedication to contemporary art is one of the QT hallmarks. QT Hotels has commissioned pieces from an impressive range of acclaimed Australian and international artists. The foyer of QT Bondi, for instance, is dominated by a beach-themed Shaun Gladwell installation, while in the Gold Coast hotel, a piece of digital art by Jennifer Steinkamp takes pride of place. "The art functions like jewellery: it is one more layer of experience to offer, another way of engaging the clientele," Love says.

Along with the art, much of the furniture is also specially commissioned for QT. "At QT Melbourne, the stools in the bathroom and the desk chairs are just about the only off-the-shelf items," says Shelley Indyk. 

That attention to detail extends all the way down to staff uniforms. "In QT Gold Coast, we have about 25 different outfits," says Hine, who is best-known for designing theatre costumes. "In Melbourne and Sydney, we have daytime and night-time uniforms for the food and beverage staff, to reflect the different crowds we draw." To ensure their look is complete, staff can also have their hair and make-up done before their shift. 

Perhaps the most surprising part of the QT story is the speed with which the brand has established itself. Few boutique companies have successfully launched seven properties in five years, but Seargeant's explanation is typically modest. "The market was ready for this," he says.

The QT juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down. Next stop is New Zealand, where the company is refurbishing the existing Museum Art Hotel opposite Te Papa Museum, which will open as QT Wellington early next year. A Queenstown property will be unveiled later in 2017, to be followed by QT Perth in 2018 and QT Parramatta in 2019. So just how far can QT go? 

"We would love to expand beyond Australia and New Zealand, but we know how tough it is," Seargeant says. "If we do go that way it will be cautiously, engaging with opportunities as they arise."

See www.qthotelsandresorts.com

Ute Junker has been a guest of QT Melbourne.

BEST OF THE BOUTIQUES

David Seargeant's favourite hotels have one thing in common: "they are all distinctly different." From minimalist Asian eyries to Miami glam, these are the boutique properties that Seargeant loves best.  

HAM YARD HOTEL, LONDON

"The really unique fabrics throughout the guest rooms give it a warm feel, but the highlight is a four-lane bowling alley that they brought in from Texas." See www.firmdalehotels.com

AMAN TOKYO

"I stayed here six months ago, and it has a Zen-like feeling throughout. That's a result of the wonderful design, which draws on Japanese traditions." See www.aman.com

SLS MIAMI

"The pool scene is huge. During the day, the pool is packed with interesting people; at night, it's more of a nightclub. It's very edgy but glamorous, very Miami." See www.slshotels.com

SERRAS BARCELONA

"Just off the Gothic Quarter, Serras is very high end, with a wonderful selection of fittings. The highlight is the amazing rooftop, from where you look down on the maze of laneways."  See www.hoteltheserrasbarcelona.com

WYTHE BROOKLYN

"A wonderful old building that has been brought back to life with great design. It has some great food and beverage spaces which attract a lot of creative young people." See www.wythehotel.com

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