The night before our meeting, Claus Sendlinger came up trumps in the European Hotel Design Awards 2012. As the recipient of the Outstanding Contribution Award, he rounded off a busy 12 months: this was the year he toured the Alps, launched his first pop-up project and closed a major deal with Starwood. It also marked his 20th year as the CEO of Design Hotels AG.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t heard the latest news when we spoke, and Sendlinger was too polite to let me know. If there were any hints at all, they lay only in the twinkle of his eye – this is a man whose ‘outstanding contribution’ does not require the hard sell. He is resolutely down to earth, leaving at one point in the interview to source a tissue.

"I came back from Tulum [in Mexico]and this cold hit me right away," he says, apologetically.
We are chatting over breakfast in The Soho Hotel. An eclectic, experimental, unmistakably British abode, with interiors by Kit Kemp, this is one of the standouts in Sendlinger’s portfolio. "Design hotels are becoming much more complete," he says, casting his gaze expansively round the breakfast area. "If you look at this place, they have a restaurant, they have private dining areas, they have a screening room. Today’s design hotels offer everything a classic five-star hotel would have done before."

A strong brand of global relevance

Design Hotels began life in 1993 as a straightforward marketing agency. Lacking a cohesive business model, the company took a while to gain momentum – few properties in the 1990s adequately matched its ethos. Not until the turn of the century did it start expanding in earnest, riding a new wave of interest in lifestyle brands.

"Today’s design hotels offer everything a classic five-star property would have done before."

Today, the company provides sales, marketing and consultancy services for around 250 hotels in 40 countries. And while Starwood recently acquired half its shares and four seats on its board, the transaction has done little to alter the brand strategy. Sendlinger described the deal as "further validation that Design Hotels is a strong brand of global relevance", sidestepping the fact that validation had hardly been in abeyance up till then.

Ruthless selection process

Each year, Design Hotels receives around 400 applications from properties keen to benefit from its services – and, one would guess, its mystique. Only a tiny proportion are accepted, with the rest falling prey to Sendlinger’s ruthless selection process. This is bad news for the majority, but part of the draw for the hallowed few welcomed into the elite.

"We could have taken in every contemporary hotel, and grown very fast to 500, 800 members," says Sendlinger. "Or we could have done what we did, saying we’d rather grow the brand very slowly and very carefully. And you renew membership every year, so we’re not afraid of discontinuing representation."

Design Hotels: a household name

Sendlinger himself is a former PR executive who started out in event planning for nightclubs. Founding his business at the age of 30, he had no background in architecture or design beyond a feel for what might work. And though ‘design hotels’ were then a rarity, he sensed something major on the horizon.

"Design Hotels is a household name now, but when we started everybody thought I was a designer," he reminisces. "We just took those two words and put them together, which nobody had done before. I knew it had the power to define a whole part of the industry."

"You renew membership every year, so we’re not afraid of discontinuing representation."

An early contender was the Claris Hotel in Barcelona. A century-year-old neoclassical palace, refurbished in time for the 1992 Olympics, the hotel set the tone for the rejuvenation of the city as a whole. With more than 400 sculptures and paintings distributed throughout, it foregrounded both appearance and cultural heritage. This dual focus – aesthetics enmeshed in context – would become emblematic of Sendlinger’s portfolio as it evolved.

More than just design

Design Hotels, after all, has never been exclusively about the visuals. This is ever more the case as the lifestyle market grows more saturated. Following in the footsteps of W by Starwood, one hotel group after the next has launched its own lifestyle hospitality brand. And with consumers growing increasingly style-conscious, this market niche has climbed from 2-5% of total industry ADR. There is a heightened need for differentiators beyond the simple tag of ‘design’.

As Sendlinger sees it, the shift is a mixed blessing, both helping him fill the pipeline and complicating the decision-making process. He does not espouse a tick-box approach, preferring to address each property on its own terms.

"We assess the relevance of the concept to the destination, and then we look into how the concept is going to be executed," says Sendlinger. "So, how does it feel, smell, sound, look, and what is the extent of the local integration? Ultimately, it comes down to who is the curator or hotelier and what is his or her ambition for the place."

Made by Originals

This philosophy reached fruition in 2009 with the launch of the Made by Originals campaign. Capitalising on the cult of personality exemplified by the likes of Ian Schrager, Made by Originals uses people as a means for the product to carve its niche.

Take the recently signed 11 Mirrors in Kiev. The first Design Hotel in the city, it carries a theme of reflection – all stainless steel, panoramic windows and mirrored wall décor. While such touches are compelling enough in themselves, its character is compounded by its back story – the hotel was envisioned by the boxer Wladimir Klitschko, who drew on his experiences travelling the globe.

Then there is the Habita Monterrey by Grupo Habita and Joseph Dirand. Sleekly monochrome and sparsely minimalist, the interiors flaunt clean lines interspersed with hypermodern touches. Sendlinger cites Dirand – who also designed the Distrito Capital in Mexico City – as one of the most exciting architects on the scene today.

"Doing a hotel is always the ultimate project for an architect or interior designer because you have such a wide possibility to spread your work in through the media," he says. "There is a whole group of young architects in the uprising, some of whom have been able to work on the first few hotels, and lots of whom are about to be involved."

New ideas for the hotel experience

He is particularly enticed by the small architectural firms presently working in the Alps. While holidaying there with his family this summer he scouted a variety of mountain hotels that have widened their focus beyond snow. From the Cervo Mountain Resort in Zermatt to the Giardino Mountain in San Moritz, these retreats are attracting off-peak travellers across the panoply of market segments. "This is a sign that the hospitality industry in general is trying to come up with new ideas," says Sendlinger.

"With consumers growing increasingly style-conscious, this market niche has climbed from 2–5% of total industry ADR."

Moving forward, he envisages a further shift in the market towards hybrid concepts and hotels built around experiences. The aforementioned pop-up project, a yoga retreat in Mexico, provides a fine example. As the boutique market continues to swell, there will always be a need for new approaches; formerly innovative strategies, too frequently appropriated, have a tendency to lapse into cliché.

Sustainability targets

What will certainly prove essential across all segments is an emphasis on environmental stewardship. Next year, Design Hotels will embark on a 20,000km tour through Europe in partnership with the European Climate Foundation. The aim is to help its member hotels better meet their sustainability targets: using less energy, generating less waste, and working more closely with their local communities. This development looks set to extend far into the future.

As Design Hotels looks towards its next 20 years, the dispersion of future members is hard to predict. While the majority are currently concentrated in Europe, other markets across the globe are starting to pick up pace.

"How does it feel, smell, sound, look? Ultimately, it comes down to who is the hotelier and what is his or her ambition for the place."

"Europe is the most affluent continent, and it has the most interesting mixed approached in design," says Sendlinger. "Asia and South America have a few groups who are doing it meticulously well, but it’s not as broad or quirky as in Europe. North America is very chain-hotel dominated, and in emerging markets, first the plain demand for hotel rooms needs to be covered. Only in the second wave will the boutique market come in."

Globetrotter and trend-spotter

Sendlinger himself divides his time between New York, Berlin and Tulum, where he moved with his family last year. He also visits Asia and Australia annually, privately seeking properties that gel with his instinct for what a design hotel should be.

Perhaps the best way to characterise Sendlinger is to adopt his own terminology. Jetsetter, globetrotter and trend-spotter, he is an ‘original’ by any standards; as one of the first to see the shift towards design hotels, he was perfectly poised to collate and curate these hotels as they arose.

"In the ’90s, if somebody called you one day and said they were working on a project, you’d get so excited you’d just jump on the plane and have a look at it," he recalls. "Now it’s completely different – we’re getting bombarded with possible hotels."

When I learn about his award later on that day, I’m both embarrassed and entirely unsurprised.