I spoke with a lot of hoteliers last week at LE Miami, a hosted buyer conference that matches lifestyle hotels and the travel advisers who love (to sell) them. True to the hospitality culture it celebrates, LE Miami is an ever-evolving, unconventional industry show with DJs, concept artists, baristas, mood lighting and a show floor whose vibe is more akin to a dance floor.
Lifestyle hotels have come a long way since Ian Schrager opened the Morgans Hotel in 1984. The largest hotel companies don't have lifestyle brands; they have portfolios of lifestyle brands.
But the marketing vocabulary of lifestyle is, to use a hospitality term, tired. Cool, edgy, experiential, design-driven, authentic -- these are table stakes, not differentiators. Bill Marriott famously labeled the costs associated with hotel one-upmanship "amenity creep"; lifestyle hotels are beginning to suffer from hipness creep.
I had an interesting conversation with Australia-based QT Hotels & Resorts' general manager of operations, Rhys Jones, about this. His properties are primarily in Australia and New Zealand but also in Germany, and three of the properties (Sydney, Perth and Melbourne) are in converted historical cinemas (the core business of the 106-year-old parent company, Event Hospitality and Entertainment, is in operating movie theaters).
QT's original concept sounds as if it was appropriately quirky. In five of the properties, guests are greeted by a "director of chaos" (dressed in leathers and a bright red wig), who Jones says is very good at sizing up arriving guests to greet them in a way that both makes them feel welcome and lets them know they've arrived somewhere ... different.
When it opened seven years ago, "there was nothing else like it" in Australia, Jones said. But seven years seems to be the far end of the life cycle for lifestyle concepts. I am writing this from the Mondrian South Beach, where I stayed seven years ago and reviewed it within a multitopic blog post. I gave it some raves and rants then, with the raves primarily focused on its interiors, which seemed design-forward at the time.
Seven years later, I'm distracted by the way the binding separates from the edge of the carpet in my room and loops out and by the blemishes in the white fixtures that had previously impressed me. It needs a refresh, if not a rethink.
And rethinking is where QT is now. "It's been a real journey, but we need to take a breath and refocus," Jones said. "We're changing the brand a bit, putting money into the assets." He wouldn't reveal any specifics other than to say they were creating new restaurant and bar concepts, but he also suggested it would be about more than changing out plug-and-play F&B. "We're thinking about what we're all about," he said.
LE Miami's founder and impresario, Serge Dive, told me he believes that "curating customers" is the biggest challenge in the industry. Hotels today must carefully create a strong point of view designed to attract "the right crowd," that is, a specific clientele that will feel in harmony with the hotel's perspective and consequently comfortable with other like-minded guests who have, in essence, self-selected to stay at the property.
"A hotel should be a temple, and you need to have it occupied with true believers, or you will not get the rate you want," he said. "Hotels with great hardware and service should also have a nightclub mentality where, in a sense, the person at the door selects the right crowd."
Dive thinks that guests are looking for a strong point of view that will "optimize and amplify" their lives: optimize in terms of making the best use of their time and amplify what is best in life.
"Best" is not a reference to traditional luxury but rather creating an environment that will help guests become the best version of themselves. A hotelier can "raise the right questions" about life. "No single-use plastic," for instance, represents "not participating in the destruction of the world."
Knowledge and access, he said, are the currency of the new luxury. Guests "want to take back control of their lives and extend them as much as possible," Dive said. "So why, for instance, are variations of sugar and alcohol the only things that fill minibars?"
Dive feels there's an opportunity for hotels to "rise in engagement" with guests and be at the forefront of a healthier lifestyle. Rather than gyms, he said, guests could be offered a more holistic approach to health that could "restore brain function capacity."
"Hotels should be educators. I'm not saying they should lecture guests, but the only thing that excites people more than doing something for the first time is learning something new. If hotels pass on knowledge or skills, people will feel enriched."
Not everyone would care to stay in the hotel Dive describes, but clearly he would see such a hotel as his temple.
And it would indeed be interesting if hoteliers' personal life visions were to begin to drive their positioning and decisions. Given the ability to target very unique communities through travel agents and over the web, one can imagine that collections of hyperspecific "vision" hotels could emerge as a strong lifestyle category. If old cinemas can be converted into hotels, why not silos?