Where the locals go – an alternative to brands

31 May 2017

It seems counterintuitive, but at a time when the hotel market has never been more brand-dominated and international, an unprecedented degree of emphasis is being placed upon local knowledge and a sense of place by operators and guests alike. How can international hotels best forge links with their local communities, and how independent and distinctive can head office allow these properties to be? Hotel Management international hears from Hasan Yigit, managing director of Jaz in the City at Deutsche Hospitality; Fredrik Korallus, CEO, Generator Hostels; and Brian McGuinness, global brand leader for Aloft, Element and Four Points at Starwood.

“I  left my family home when I was 17 years old, and from that day until now I’ve been travelling,” says Hasan Yigit. “I’ve worked in many Arabic countries, in many European cities, and I have lots of friends worldwide. That’s how I know exactly what our guests need.”

Now 45, Yigit is vice-president at Jaz in the City – Deutsche Hospitality’s latest brand, strongly targeted at millennial travellers. Labelled “a true cosmopolitan” by group CEO Puneet Chhatwal upon his appointment to the role last year, Yigit is a proud embodiment of the close local connection today’s guests are seeking.

The age-old urge to visit new places endures, but today’s guests crave a more nuanced, close-up experience, where friends are made, neighbourhoods explored, and one-off experiences shared.

‘Live like a local’ might be Airbnb’s motto, but it’s an approach that’s also working pretty nicely for a new generation of hotel brands.

At Jaz, music made and played in the neighbourhood is top of the bill in achieving this. At the flagship property, opened in Amsterdam last November, artists are frequently staged in the bar and restaurant, Rhythms. After-concert parties for events at the nearby Ziggo Dome are also hosted for guests and residents alike. The venue’s proximity, and that of the Heineken Concert Hall, are far from coincidental. Location is utterly essential, Yigit emphasises, and as the brand looks forward to opening its second property in March 2017, collaborations with musical entities secured early in the development process will once again be key.

“This is a brand that you cannot do in all cities,” Yigit says. “We select very strong locations, and when we analyse them the first step in each is to identify a strong local collaboration for music and art. It’s so important.

“Stuttgart, where we’re about to open, is one of the hottest places for hip-hop in the German-speaking market. Music is the biggest part of our concept, no matter where we are, but it’s also very important that there is a lot of art in the area. Not many people notice this about Stuttgart, but it is also a city of galleries and museums.”

Hipster heaven

At Generator Hostels, location is also a priority. Major urban centres are the focus from an international perspective – openings just this year include Stockholm, Amsterdam and Rome, with Madrid and the brand’s first US hotel set to open in Miami next year. But it’s on the local level that the brand distinguishes itself as a shared accommodation brand and as a player among select-service and lifestyle hotels. Staying away from prime retail or CBD areas, Generator looks for up-and-coming neighbourhoods packed with artistic and artisanal talent.

It’s this intimate level of detail that today’s guest is seeking, according to CEO Fredrik Korallus, and what inspires the personality and programme of each Generator property. Art and style are drawn from the surrounding cultural environment, and every hostel is unique in design – sharing only the standard ratio of 70:30 shared to private accommodation and the presence of a bar, restaurant and flexible event space.

“Today’s travellers, and not just millennials, are much more informed, more experienced and it may not be their first visit to a city,” Korallus says. “They’re intrigued and curious about the culture, and not just on a national level, they really want to get into what’s happening in the neighbourhood, to discover the difference between Shoreditch versus Chelsea versus Mayfair.”

This close-up view – what Korallus refers to as “extreme local” – is particularly influential in the programme of events Generator stages. From so-named “GEN talks”, to music, poetry readings, and even album launches, local talent is regularly hosted to engage guests and residents alike and offer insights into the work of creatives nearby.

“In Amsterdam, for example, we’re out of the centre over on the east side, by Oosterpark,” Korallus says. “Really near to us there’s a local bike manufacturer called Van Moof, which has developed these fantastic, classic Dutch bicycles with a very modern style, and because the factory is right there, we invite the inventor to come and speak to our guests and local residents about his passion about bicycles and what inspired him to design them.

“Then just around the corner we have a couple of hipsters with their own coffee-roasting facility, and they train baristas from all kinds of restaurants, hotels and bars across Amsterdam. So, again, we bring them in, and they deliver their coffee beans once a week to Generator on a bicycle.”

According to market intelligence agency Skift, food is now the “leading hook for travel”, and Korallus has this firmly in his sights. With a renewed focus on its bar and restaurants, Generator has recruited 22-year-old British chef Luke Thomas to curate the food and drink for each individual property, working on the local level at each to find recipes and ingredients. This approach is a huge part of creating an environment that surpasses authenticity to become a spot loved by resident as well as guests.

“Our food is different wherever you go. It’s really more akin to street food, which is obviously a huge trend,” Korallus explains. “We build our restaurants and bars for the community, because our residents want to meet locals.”

At Starwood’s Specialty Select brands, a tailored approach to refreshments is also at play. At Four Points, the ‘Best Brews’ programme introduces guests to local craft beers, while tailored dishes at re:fuel, Aloft’s ‘grab and go pantry’, include NYC–style bagels at Aloft Harlem and fresh produce from the nearby farmer’s market at Aloft Asheville.

Music is another important element, with Live at Aloft seeing local bands and DJs performing in the hotel’s public spaces. For Brian McGuinness, global brand leader at Aloft, Element and Four Points, it’s an effective means of bringing visitors and locals together.

“All of our properties are designed as a way to bring urban cool to unexpected places, and the Aloft open-lobby concept has really played into this,” he says. “We have created these massive public spaces for socialising, so locals can come in, grab a drink, and mix and mingle over light bites, while guests soak in the sounds of a local musician.”

Virtual reality

Of course, guests don’t just want to experience culture in the hotel itself, and Element’s self-explanatory Bikes to Borrow scheme sends them out on carefully designed routes.

“We see this new generation as explorers, rather than tourists,” McGuinness explains. “They are often seeking something different, and tend to travel alone. This type of traveller values access over excess, and would rather spend money on genuine experiences than tangible things.

“They want something authentic and real – like they have just jumped into an Instagram feed of the local area. Our hotels deliver that.”

McGuinness’s comparison is apt indeed. According to a recent report by Expedia and the Future Foundation, 42% of millennials said that holiday photos posted by contacts on social media influenced where they decide to go on holiday, compared with just 16% of baby boomers and 29% of Generation X.

No wonder, then, that online presence is also key to linking these digitally connected travellers with their location.

At Jaz, a number of platforms invite guests to engage with local culture before during and after their stay. Its eponymous app informs guests about nearby hotspots, and enables them to share pictures and information about their experiences, while bloggers on the main homepage and social media channels share stories about upcoming events and festivals. Meanwhile a physical ‘Jaz pad’ provided to guests during their stay allows them to stream movies and listen to music.

For Korallus, social media is not only a great way for guests to learn insider tips about the city from fellow travellers and restaurants, but also a welcome sign that Generator is on the right track.

“What’s going on in social media is quite amazing, really, especially the focus on video content. I sat through a 90-minute presentation from our marketing team a couple of weeks ago, and at the end they told me that everything I’d just seen was customer-generated, without a single image or video that wasn’t from our guests,
or the local community. That’s quite phenomenal; you really can’t get a better endorsement than your guests sharing their experiences like that.” 

Four Points’ 4 Taps Sports Bar in Barcelona has been designed to appeal to the millennial traveller’s desire for experiences that immerse them in the local flavour of their holiday destination.

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