"God forbid a banker doesn’t get in," Ian Schrager declared to New York magazine in 1985, speaking about the just-opened Palladium. Studio 54 had been forced to close a few years before, and his second New York nightclub with business partner Steve Rubell was to have a rather more inclusive admissions’ policy as they sought to get back on their feet. But while bankers may have been on the guest list, an artistic, celebrity-sprinkled crowd remained their most conspicuous devotees; the same followers who were first through the doors of the pair’s other new venture, Morgans hotel, when it opened the year before. The Madison Avenue property represented a complete step change in hospitality, with Schrager coining the concept of the ’boutique hotel’.

Little did he know that 30 years later it would be a title claimed almost limitlessly across the industry. But one group that has certainly not rushed to flood the market holds arguably the greatest prerogative. Over its three decades, Morgans Hotel Group (sold by Schrager in 2005) has added to the renown of the original boutique model with such landmark properties as Philippe Starck’s Delano South Beach in Miami, but it remains highly discerning about what and where it launches, with just 13 properties open today. For that reason, its upcoming entree into the Middle East is met with particular anticipation, with the long-awaited Mondrian Doha due to open later this year and a Delano to follow on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah in 2017.

Tony Machado, the group’s vice-president design and construction, affirms that ’boutique’ today has much more to do with Morgans’ guests and the way it engages them than with any easily definable stylistic qualities. Likewise, the decision to move into the Middle East can be interpreted more than anything as a desire to respond to the demands of its core guests: ever dynamic, ever at the centre of the social scene.

"It wasn’t long ago that Doha and Dubai were relatively unknown destinations to most travellers," Machado says. "But the media’s fascination with their tremendous growth has got into the psyche of most and now these are real desirable destinations.

"A specific type of guest is drawn to our hotels, distinctive because of their attitudes, their passions and how they choose to live their lives. We define them as the ‘creative class’; every region has them and they seek us out. So we don’t really anticipate a difference in our guest demographic, whether it’s in Doha or Dubai, New York or London."

All about the space

Creating a convergent space for these guests, Machado explains, is essential to achieving the real essence of ’boutique’ against a saturated market in which it has become as familiar a term as ‘luxury’, ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’.

"Although the smaller key count and design character are still defining factors, it’s important for the industry to embrace what these should evoke: a sense of community for like-minded people within the hotel," Machado says. "And that is created by all of the offerings, amenities and specialised services that you have within that property."

In its move into the Middle East, Morgans’s in-house design team has taken pains to thoroughly understand the cultural context of each hotel’s immediate and wider location, and to make this a part of life at the hotels. They research from a wide and narrow viewpoint, Machado says, and think as much about what they don’t want a hotel to be, as what they do. While the Mondrian Doha promises to bring some of the social buzz and energy of the Sunset Strip to Doha, and the Delano Dubai will evoke the elegance and laid-back lifestyle of Miami’s South Beach, Morgans never seeks to ‘recreate’ its existing hotels on new sites.

"A specific type of guest is drawn to our hotels, distinctive because of their attitudes, their passions and how they choose to live their lives. We define them as the ‘creative class’." 

"As hoteliers and designers, we don’t try to dictate what we will bring to a market; we like to think of every launch as a new adventure," Machado says. "We research the region, determine how the locals are already living and then infuse that lifestyle with our culture to create a very unique guest experience. We build the narrative by extracting components of the very wide view and then home in to the specifics of the city."

This approach makes the selection of which designer to work with particularly important – someone who can balance local flavour with the correct design accents for the particular hotel brand and make it work in this exact location. It’s a responsibility that Machado and his design team do not take lightly, but the high stakes certainly don’t lead to ‘safe’ choices.

"We often look to the unconventional when selecting our design collaborators by stepping out of the traditional hospitality realm in search of artists, industrial designers, fashion and set designers," Machado says. "It’s inspiring to get a different point of view."

This might lead to a tried and tested partner, as in the case of the Mondrian Doha, where Morgans has turned to Dutch designer Marcel Wanders following his previous eye-catching work at the Mondrian South Beach. With Doha almost complete, Machado gives nothing away ahead of the big reveal, but promises that the Wanders collaboration has already achieved "an amazing experience, very stylised and unique not only for the region but for the world". After Wanders’ whimsical Sleeping-Beauty-inspired South Beach design, prospective guests can surely expect an equally arresting interior from the designer once dubbed the ‘Lady Gaga of design’. The hotel will draw on lifestyle elements of the flagship Mondrian Los Angeles, as well as the relaxed qualities of the South Beach hotels and the "refreshed urban vibe" of the latest Mondrian opening in London, Machado says. From the outside, visitors will see a tower with design features inspired by a falcon.

New recruit

Meanwhile, for the Delano Dubai, Morgans has recruited a new name in the industry.

"We’re working with a designer called Pallavi Dean, who’s a wonderful young talent: fresh eyes, fresh perspective," Machado says. "She’s from the region, which we’re really happy about.

"Designers come to us in a number of ways. In our position, we travel an awful lot, so it’s about keeping our eyes open and then when names come up, your radar sort of turns on. So, on one of my trips to Dubai, I had seen a spread on Pallavi and her perspective on design in OK! magazine, and I thought, ‘this is definitely someone to watch’."

Bold statements across Morgans’ hotels – from Wanders’ floating staircase in Mondrian South Beach, to Tom Dixon’s hull-like copper wall in London’s new Mondrian at Sea Containers – are testament to the freedom granted to designers within the confines of what constitutes a ‘Morgans Hotel Group’ property, or any of its individual brands. But a structured process is nonetheless carefully overseen by Machado and his team.

"Since we have an in-house design studio we do a lot of research and develop our own concepts before even approaching an outside designer. At the beginning phases, we like to be very careful about over-influencing. We like to keep the creative juices flowing and learn how the designer would approach the challenges identified. Later, we become the curators, constantly editing, honing and melding these ideas to ensure we are on-brand and creating the ultimate guest experience."

Weighing up options

"The region is so exciting and so diverse, and the local population is well travelled with a high level of exposure to great design."

In balancing local lifestyle elements with the particular brand, the expectation and what has gone before, once again the guest inside the space becomes a focal point for design.

"If we take for example Delano Dubai, and then we think of Delano in Miami, that’s a very magical space," Machado says. "It’s an iconic hotel; a time and a place. For us, its really all about the procession and how you move through this space, so regardless of what the design or style is there’s something very powerful about how the building itself pulls you through, and you experience these vignettes and little situations. It’s very powerful, and in a lot of ways that’s the take away from Delano Miami for Delano Dubai: it’s not the specific look and feel, it’s the feeling of moving through the space and the theatrical quality as things unfold."

Forming part of the sleek ‘The8’ resort development on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, the Delano will have a completely separate wing with its own entry, public spaces, pool and beach club offerings, creating what Machado calls ‘an oasis of sensuality and soul’. For Morgans, this relaxing location with sea views to either side of the crescent made it just the right choice for a Delano. It’s a perfect example of the group’s approach to hotels on a site-by-site basis.

"When opportunities arise, we look at the size and scope of the project and the specific location within the city," Machado says. "The region is so exciting and so diverse, and the local population is well travelled with a high level of exposure to great design. A city like Dubai could easily support a Hudson, Mondrian and Delano, as well as our Originals."

For Machado, the old adage of ‘location first’ holds true, but, he asserts, not necessarily in the traditional sense. The group that carved out the ’boutique’ niche knows how to find its community, wherever in the world that might be.

"People often think you have to be in the ‘hotspot’, but that’s not necessarily true for us," he says. "Sometimes, being off the beaten path really has its advantages. We know our creative class will find us and they will seek us. And so as long as we are in reach, we’re good with that."