When Rohaise Rose-Bristow, co-owner of The Torridon, set to work on renovating the hotel’s drawing room, she decided to follow her creative intuitions wherever they might lead. That meant veering away from the rather fusty stereotypes you might expect from a Scottish boutique hotel.

“I’m not really looking at tartans and tweeds,” she says. “I’m a bit spontaneous so I’ll go with what I feel at the time, especially when I haven’t seen it done anywhere else.”

Built as a shooting lodge in 1887, The Torridon is a storybook-worthy building with dramatic turrets and spires, nestled among the mountains and lochs of the Scottish Highlands. The property has been in Rose-Bristow’s family since 1992, when it was restored as a luxury hotel.

Rose-Bristow says she spruces up a few rooms every year, with the drawing room being her latest project. The fabrics are eclectic, mixing contemporary Mulberry velvet with some original 19th-century touches. The carpet was inspired by the marbled paper in a gift box. But the standout touch is the ceiling, which is festooned with zodiac signs in a nod to the Victorians’ love of astrology.

“My biggest influence is the Victorian style of innovation,” remarks Rose-Bristow. “The Victorians were so dramatic in their style and drew in influences from all around the world. They were very flamboyant, so I want to bring that into the design.”

Equally flamboyant is the Burgh Island Hotel in Devon. Perched on its own private island, the hotel was built in 1929 by the filmmaker and socialite Archie Nettlefold, who was looking for a countryside retreat. Then known as the “smartest hotel west of the Ritz”, the property was notorious in 1930s high society for its raucous parties. Guests included the likes of Agatha Christie, Noel Coward and Josephine Baker. Over the past few years, the hotel has undergone an extensive, albeit mostly cosmetic, renovation. The furniture and colour scheme have been upgraded while leaving many of the original features, including its striking steelframed windows, intact.

“Having previously worked with Sam Kopsch, one of the country’s leading interior designers, we hired her to work on the renovation of the Burgh Island Hotel,” says Giles Fuchs, owner of the Grade II-listed property. “Given [the] Burgh’s standing as one of the most admired art deco hotels in the UK, the focus of the refurbishment was not on any structural modifications but on further enhancing its aesthetic appeal.”

Keeping it local

Situated at opposite ends of the British Isles, The Torridon and the Burgh Island Hotel are a world apart in terms of aesthetics and character. However, the hotels have something similar at the heart of their design ethos – namely the desire to foster a certain kind of experience. In both cases, visitors consistently report being ‘transported’ – whisked away from their everyday lives and immersed in a sense of history and place.

“When you drive up here, you’re surrounded by the mountains, you’re on the water’s edge, so a lot of our guests say they relax right away,” says Rose- Bristow. “And when you open the door, you want to be scooped up like Alice in Wonderland – noticing something you aren’t expecting, and something else, and something else.”

Fuchs maintains that Burgh’s remote location has always been one of its biggest draws. “The hotel allows guests to escape into another world, transporting them back to the roaring ’20s. They can relive those glamorous and exciting times as well as enjoying a luxurious stay in one of the most beautiful spots on the English coastline,” he says.

It is clear that, if a property is to stand out in the saturated lifestyle market, its design needs to offer something more than simple good taste. After all, any old property can add a bit of quirky decor and call itself a ‘design hotel’. As Rose-Bristow points out: “Many guests have amazing homes themselves these days, so it’s not just about the aesthetics.”

For hotels like The Torridon and Burgh, it is more about aesthetics embedded in context. Design is used not just for show, but also to reflect the hotel’s identity, history and location.

“Although I might go to the Design Centre in London and work with some amazing people there, I’ll combine that with local furniture-makers and suppliers,” muses Rose-Bristow. “It’s important to me to bring in the local artisan expertise, in terms of making it feel authentic.”

Immersive and experiential

According to hospitality sponsor Driftwood Capital, consumer interest in ‘experiential travel’ has spiked since the pandemic. While you might argue that all travel is experiential, this clearly means something more immersive than a spot of sightseeing. In a 2022 survey by TripAdvisor, respondents cited their three main travel considerations as ‘seeing new places’, ‘having new experiences’ and ‘learning about history and culture’.

Many of these travellers are looking to start their quest within the hotel itself. It’s no surprise that the boutique and ‘soft branded’ hotel segments are growing quickly, with travellers gravitating to oneof- a-kind properties that convey a powerful sense of narrative. Design Hotels, a curated portfolio of luxury independent properties, saw this trend coming 30 years ago. Now owned by Marriott International, the brand includes over 300 hotels in more than 50 countries, designed to “anchor a community of travellers united in the pursuit of inspired environments, genuine local culture, and transformative, meaningful experiences”.

Guests might choose to stay in Dr Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs, a wellness spa in Napa Valley. Alternatively, there’s Mamula Island, a fortress-turned-Montenegrin sanctuary, or the Bank Hotel Istanbul, a former bank with sweeping views of the Bosphorus. Then there is the newest property, Nobis Hotel Palma, which is set in a medieval Islamic palace.

Being accepted into Design Hotels is a big deal for its members. The brand receives applications from around 400 hotels each year, only 5% of which are approved. To be selected, they need to convey a strong identity, boosted by thought-provoking design and architecture choices. They also need a visionary hotelier – an ‘original’ – with a story to tell about the property.

Unique thematic experiences

At the other end of the price spectrum, though not too far removed in terms of philosophy, is the German affordable design hotel chain Motel One, which now has 92 properties worldwide. While some features are the same throughout the chain (notably the dimensions of the bedrooms and the turquoise colour theme), the idea is to convey a true sense of place at a lower price point.

“Most of our guests are looking for affordable luxury and are interested in exploring the culture of the city they are visiting,” says Brian Erb, Motel One Dublin general manager. “Each Motel One hotel not only has a desirable city-centre location, but also has a lounge and bar interior themed to reflect the character, culture or history of its location. We’re passionate about embedding our hotels in the culture of each and every city we are in.”

For instance, Motel One Manchester-Piccadilly commemorates Manchester’s musical heritage, with wallpaper adorned with famous local bands and a selection of vinyl records at the bar. Motel One Newcastle adopts an industrial style, heavy on raw brickwork, while Motel One Glasgow transports guests into a ‘railway romance’, with its photography capturing the stunning vistas along the West Highland Railway Line.

The latest on the list is Motel Dublin, which opened earlier this year. The hotel is inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which protagonist Leopold Bloom takes a stroll around the city.

“Guests are greeted with the saying ‘céad mile fáilte’ or ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’ in LED writing, alongside greenery nodding to the ‘green island’,” says Erb. “Quotes from the novel are dispersed around the hotel, intertwined with subtle references to Ha’Penny Bridge and Georgian architecture.”

Like many of their pricier peers, each Motel One property works extensively with local designers, artists and furniture-makers to bring the flavour of the city within its walls.

“For example, Motel One Manchester-Royal Exchange captures the essence of Manchester’s golden era when it was known as ‘Cottonopolis’, with a trendy faux-industrial design,” says Erb. “The foyer is dominated by 6m-high round steel arches and a wall of printed cloth with an impressive installation entitled ‘Cottonopolis’ by British paper artist Andy Singleton. The installation is comprised of shapes created by innumerable single thread.”

For many hotels, whether budget or luxury, it no longer pays to position themselves as somehow separate from their location. Maybe in the past, guests wanted a safe enclave, somewhere to hide away once they were done with exploring. These days, though, hotels are bringing their surroundings to bear on their design – along with their history and idiosyncrasies.

In the words of Valéry Grégo, owner of Le Pigalle in Paris and one of Design Hotels’ Originals: “A hotel is not just a part of a neighbourhood; the neighbourhood is embedded in the hotel – it’s a part of its very nature.”