It’s a little after 9 a.m. on a sunny, sweltering July morning in New York, and Claus Sendlinger, chief executive of Design Hotels, is nestled against colorful pillows in a restaurant booth, peacefully drinking tea.
He’s seated right near the entrance of the ground-floor eatery at The Crosby Street Hotel, an elegant yet laid back venue in Manhattan’s eternally hip SoHo neighborhood. There’s plenty of brick and industrial details in the space and large floor-to-ceiling windows, both nods to the lofts in the area that were once warehouses. We’re surrounded by one-of-a-kind artwork and furniture pieces by American designers–more details that point to the hotel’s local setting. The Crosby Street Hotel, is, no surprise, one of the 200 exquisite properties included in Design Hotels’ carefully curated international network, which promotes some of the world’s most beautiful and unusual temporary lodgings. They range from the cozy Crosby to the super-slick, futuristic Mira Hotel in Hong Kong.
Sendlinger, who is as elegant and laid back as the Crosby Street Hotel, is happy to discuss how and why his nearly 20-year-old, Berlin-based company has evolved to be a well-recognized influence in the hospitality industry. It’s a publicly traded company, listed on the Munich stock exchange, and Starwood Hotels owns 51 percent of the business. With a warm smile and sparkling eyes–despite a recent back injury, which explains the pillows propped behind him–Sendlinger’s also keen to discuss about what elements define “good design” to a seasoned business traveler, how to build a clear and well-defined brand, and what trends in both technology and culture that are likely to impact hotel experiences in coming years. Here’s our edited conversation.
SP: How do you define excellent design? It’s not just aesthetics–it’s also about service, right?
CS: It’s about holistic concepts, and reaches beyond personal taste. In the context of how we curate hotels, we look at how a concept relates to design. We get 400 applications a year to be part of our network; we take maybe 20. This hotel [Crosby Street], for instance, illustrates its concept of being quiet and intimate. There are lots of comfortable chairs.
Everyone is doing contemporary hotels now. It’s just a logical evolution, because in the developed world, we’re more sensitive after 20 years of living with design. Everyone is more conscious of design. Design doesn’t just originate from five Italian designers or manufacturers. What’s great is that there are so many styles. A great hotel is its own microcosm, down to the contents of the minibar. The details such as the choice of shampoo or towels are offered are very important in terms of defining a hotel as having great design.
Has there been one small detail at a hotel that has really stood out to you?
I visited a hotel in Beijing called the Opposite House that we’re hoping to get into our network; there, when I arrived, I had to plug in my computer. The experience of doing so was so intuitive and simple that I was reminded of using an iPhone for the first time. That stood out. Normally, when you arrive at a hotel in another country, you have to bend in all different directions and search for an outlet. There was a small door that I flipped open, and there was a panel with every kind of adapter imaginable. I usually bring the wrong one. It was beautiful to see; what an incredible detail.
In September, Design Hotels will launch the Pop-Up Ashram, a yoga retreat at the site of Papaya Playa in Tulum, Mexico, which was the first of a series of pop-up hotels that Design Hotels developed and launched in late 2011. Would you say that the pop-up projects are R&D labs for your hotel network?
Yes, the Tulum project has the potential to become a laboratory. We’re experimenting with ideas there. We’re working on program for winter 2012. Other hotels want to learn about improving energy use and efficiency and yes, they are looking to our pop-up projects for that type of insight. Also, we’re experimenting with the idea of converting the classic pop-up idea into more of a content context. What I mean by that is we can bring in new types of offerings or programming to a number of destinations. The Ashram, for instance, can travel to 20 different areas in the low [tourism] season and attract guests and visitors. I think this–adding new content or context– will be the future in the hotel industry than just adding pop-up rooms. Financially, it could be a very viable business model if pre-fab structures or tents are used.
With pop-ups, you can move fast with design concepts and be very efficient. But the involvement of the real estate owner and the government of the destination is important, as they gain the most in terms of the business. With pop-up hotels or new pop-up services, you could jump-start a local economy quickly.
Can you discuss the strategy behind the Design Hotels brand? It’s so straightforward as a name…and a concept. What’s are the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach?
One one side, yes, the name is very straightforward and that’s good. But it’s also so generic that almost anyone can use the phrase “design hotel” to describe their property! When I started the company, I thought, it’s so obvious. So if these hotels perform well, they’ll become a well-known name. Back then, 20 years ago, ‘Design Hotels’ didn’t mean anything, though. People thought I was an architect or interior designer.
But our brand is also about highlighting originality. Not just originality in terms of the concept of a hotel, but also the vision of the architects, the chefs, the interior design. And the locality, the very specific context of a hotel within a certain place. There is a human element that’s expressive in the hotels that are associated with our brand. We have almost an editorial approach.
There are so many copycats out there–it seems as if every hotel chain wants to create a very slick, modern, design-y experience. Is that challenging to your brand?
This has emerged in the last 20 years since we started. Back when we first launched the company, many hotels were essentially commodities–large global chains simply provided clean, consistent places to stay. Now that there is such an interest in design among all of the hotel companies is a good thing. But how do you plan a relationship between a hotel and its surrounding community when managing a global chain from one headquarters? The hotels that we work with are created by entrepreneurs that really know the neighborhoods in which their properties are–so they offer much more personal and specific experiences than most other [hotel companies]. The businesspeople and creative communities behind our hotels have more time to develop their concepts and designs than the larger, more corporate hotels, which have pressures to meet company financial goals. But it’s the entrepreneurial, original hotels that create the concepts for successful premium brands–and that is their great value.
Image: Design Hotels