In early December, gathered in the Iris Ceramica Group Gallery in London for Hotel Management International’s winter dining club event, luminaries from the hotel design and architecture world came together to discuss crucial issues: how the lifestyle hotel sector will adapt to a challenging market and what its future looks like.

Monica Palmas, event founder and co-publisher for Hotel Management International, moderated the lively discussion, bringing together a community of more than 50 delegates to examine the roots of the lifestyle hotels sector and ask how it is integrating living elements with activities and incorporating both functional and sustainable design, and to ask what the role of wellness will be as lifestyle hospitality continues to evolve.

“The first question to ask is, what is a lifestyle hotel?” said Koen Van Malder, vice-president of global design EMEA for Marriott International, who oversees the group’s architecture, design and construction in the region. “In our brand architecture, which means all the brands underneath the umbrella of Marriott, the first thing that you’ll notice is that we don’t use the terminology lifestyle. We use distinctive instead.”

Talking through Marriott’s portfolio, Van Malder identified distinctiveness as a quality that runs throughout its brands, from ultra-luxury brands like Ritz Carlton and Bulgari, through its Collection brands like Luxury Collection or Autograph Collection. All are in some way perceived as lifestyle hotels.

“In the Autograph Collection, you have to have hotels that have a story in them,” he remarked. “So, you can have an independent property owner who’s got a building with a history connected to it.”

He noted that, in a similar way, Westin could be seen as a lifestyle brand, given that it is all about health and wellness.

“The entire design package is based on biophilic design, where you bring nature into the design of the public space, into the design of your artwork, everything,” he remarked.

The W Hotels brand, first developed around the 24/7 culture of New York City, certainly fits the bill. For twenty years, it has disrupted and redefined the hospitality scene – expanding to almost 60 hotels – by going against the norms of traditional luxury by fuelling guests’ lust for life. With a provocative design style, whatever/whenever service and buzzing social spaces, there is a unique and inspiring feel to each property.

In a different way, the EDITION Hotels create a similar effect. Van Malder notes that using a single designer – Ian Schrager – to create a distinctive look and feel makes it a lifestyle brand.

“We call it distinctive because we work only with one interior designer,” he remarks. “It was a little bit of a reaction against the W brands, which was a little bit of a crazy idea that emerged in New York. What happens not only with W, but with other brands in our organisation is that, as these brands get popular, they get pushed to the next level, so W became a five-star brand.”

No time to sit still

With experience across so many brands, Van Malder was able to hone in on the key element in keeping a lifestyle brand relevant – it must constantly adapt.

“A problem that we have with lifestyle brands at this level is that, for example, the design guidance we had for W at the time is very different to what it is now,” he adds. “I think the problem with some of the lifestyle properties is that their lifespan is limited, and they quickly outgrow their being.”

“What typically happens is that there is a fantastic idea that works really well, and everybody gets totally excited about it,” he adds. “Not only the guests, but also the owners, and then all of a sudden the buzz is gone, and the buzz can be gone because it’s outdated or there’s a new kid on the block.”

W is now having to adapt in response to the efforts of competitors like Rosewood, so Marriott is now starting to think about how to once again make W different and more attractive to both guests and owners.

For James Dilley, director and head of hospitality and interior design at architecture firm Jestico + Whiles, the challenge of designing a lifestyle hotel comes back to defining the term.

“This lifestyle thing is a bit of a clunky term,” he remarked. “Everybody lives a lifestyle. There’s good or bad, rich and poor, active, passive, whatever it is, everybody has a style of life.”

“The entire design package is based on biophilic design, where you bring nature into the design of the public space, into the design of your artwork, everything.”

Koen Van Malder

“When I go back 20 years to my first client, who was a visionary, he said that every hotel should be a sanctuary or playground,” he added. “Decide which one is going to be and make it happen. I think we are trying to make something that is different from your normal way of life, taking people to new orders of fantasy and escapism just for a short period of time. That, I think, is the idea of what people refer to as ‘lifestyle’.”

He further pointed out that this can come from dealing with people within the hotel industry who bring their character and personality to specific projects.

“We deal with owners whose background is often in business and they’re successful and affluent,” he noted. “They’ve decided to own hotels – because they love hotels – and they are driven and brilliant in different fields, which brings another angle. Hotels are becoming infused with the personality of the owners, who are passionate about this industry.”

“You go to places like Georgia or Iceland and you find people who are not hotel people, but they own it and it will be somehow twisted a bit and infused with what their passion is and I like meeting people who are passionate about hotels.”

For Dilley, each project is the chance of a lifetime – an opportunity to create something unique, and the relationship with the owner is key to bringing that unique vision to life.

“You go to some locations, like Marrakech, which has just got layers and layers of context and inspiration, and culture that you’re blessed with,” he explained. There’s so much stuff to work with, then you get an insane owner who puts another layer of interest on to that. And then you get a brand like W that does certain things, which you can’t do with other brands. You put part of your soul into it, otherwise it doesn’t work.”

“We have to give people something that is different to their normal life – something that is memorable and special, which means that they shouldn’t know what they’re getting. You have to find something that can surprise people, but that has an aura and a pull to it.”

James Dilley

Chemistry, Covid-19 and questions

The delegates in the room recognised the need for lifestyle brands to have some kind of chemistry between the owner, the interior designer and the operator if they are truly to come to fruition. One likened a lifestyle hotel project to making a Hollywood blockbuster – driven by profit but needing the collaboration of everybody in the studio to give it a unique edge and make it a success. Then the discussion turned, inevitably to the impact of Covid-19 on hotel design. Around the room, the resounding consensus was that the effect will be minimal.

“I don’t think that we’re designing differently,” remarked Van Malder. “The guestrooms are not going to become bigger because the real estate is too expensive. That’s not going to make a developer money. So we don’t change the size of the rooms. We might change the air ventilation in the guest rooms and maybe in the restaurants the seats will be a little bit further apart. But I think as soon as this is over, we will stomp the hotels and restaurants full of people again, as many as we can.”

When the recovery fully happens, part of what lifestyle hotels will be able to offer is a sense of escapism, a route away from the pressures of daily life, from lockdowns and travel restrictions, in which everyone’s world seemed to shrink. There is an onus on hotels to provide some escape, whether that is in the form of increased comfort and security, or whether it is through providing more social spaces where people can meet, mix and make connections. More pressing was the question of how to make a lifestyle brand stand out when that time comes. Van Malder remarked that, rather than designing to a specific demographic, it is important to look across the whole portfolio to see how it meets different states of a guest’s life.

“We have to look at what kinds of hotels attract the most people, whether they are of a younger generation that finds something challenging like a Moxy more popular, and then they will move to W as they get older and have more disposable income,” he remarked.

“What makes a hotel distinctive, I think, is when there is a particular story to that hotel that makes it different from what we understand to be an ordinary hotel,” he added. “Westin is so focused on wellness and that, I think, makes it distinctive from ordinary brands. W is distinctive because it’s everything that every other hotel is not.”

Dilley agreed that it is not about designing to a specific customer profile. Any criterion soon becomes a cliché, so you have to think about designing for an experience.

“That comes back to my point about sanctuaries and playgrounds,” he remarked. “We have to give people something that is different to their normal life – something that is memorable and special, which means that they shouldn’t know what they’re getting. You have to find something that can surprise people, but that has an aura and a pull to it.”

“Once you put uniqueness and surprise together, you then have to do things which are somewhat disruptive to what people already like,” Dilley adds. “There are certain brands that are provocative and confrontational, and they don’t mind that 20% of people will stay there once and say, I knew what I was getting into, didn’t like it, won’t come back again. But it’s still a point of memory in a public conversation, and it’s relatable. So for us, we try not to stereotype people that might stay at hotels.”

Lifestyle, it seems, is about telling a story, creating something out of the ordinary. From the attitude of the delegates, the desire for storytelling as a way to build the industry back up from the pandemic will see the lifestyle sector endure, thrive and innovate.