What happens when a hotel is no longer just a hotel? When it’s also the centre of a social scene, with restaurants, cafes, and bars catering not only to guests but also to locals; when it hosts pop-up shops, art galleries, and events; and when its lobby isn’t just a place to exchange keys and credit cards but one to hole up in with your laptop?
Back in the 19th century, hotels were at the nexus of social life (albeit a very particular stratum of society): from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York to the Grand Hôtel in Paris, the original grand hotel was described in a recent article by Rebecca Onion in the Boston Globe as “a safely curated social sphere, replete with accessible luxuries,” though also one that was radically new for the time, in that it was open and accessible to the public.
Since that era, hotels have gone through a few stages of evolution: from the seats of society to more functional places for business travellers to high-end escapes that promised guests their own world of indulgence. And now, in our present moment, hotels are changing once again: previously functional or luxurious, but certainly hermetic zones sealed off from city life, they’ve now opened their doors to neighbourhood denizens as much as travellers. Welcome to the new era of social hotels.
If there were one person to thank for this sea change in hospitality, it would be Alex Calderwood. The founder and visionary behind the wildly successful Ace Hotel group, now sadly deceased, Calderwood originally envisioned a hotel that wouldn’t just cater to travellers but would also be a place where his group of friends – as a nightlife fixture in his native Seattle, he rubbed shoulders with the creative and plugged in – could socialise. The aesthetic wasn’t to be overly refined, but minimalistic and stripped back; located in a euphemistically ‘up-and-coming’ edge of town in a revamped flophouse, it certainly fell well off the tourist track. You could argue that the Ace Hotel was designed first for its neighbours and then for those coming from farther afield.
The result of Calderwood’s experiment in Seattle is well-known: the Ace now has enclaves in Palm Springs and New York, Portland and soon to be in Pittsburgh, with last year’s opening in Shoreditch, London its first real international foray (it also runs the American Trade Hotel in Panama). Calderwood’s personal style, with its focus on the industrial and graphic, has also blossomed into what could be called a universal hipster look. There’s no doubt that the Ace brand is as cool now as it was when the Seattle outpost opened 15 years ago.
An essential part of the Ace’s tremendous success is that every one of its locations is modulated by its surroundings: designed to be of the city and neighbourhood that it occupies, each draws its own batch of young, hyper-connected locals. The Ace Hotel New York’s darkened lobby, outfitted with long tables, proves irresistible for laptop warriors and creative freelancers who stay put for hours, fuelled by the adjacent Stumptown Coffee Bar (Stumptown also has an outlet in Ace’s Portland branch). In London, a communal table is laid out with newspapers and also festooned with laptops, though the coffee here is served up by local roasters Square Mile; Lovage, a juice bar just off the lobby, lets drop-ins alternate between fruit and caffeine. If you were to amble through the entrance, you might even miss the fact that the Ace is a hotel, as the check-in counter doubles as a micro-boutique selling caps, tees, and other branded products. A bike rental service and florist further cater to Shoreditch crowds.
The Ace may have been the first to pioneer the contemporary version of the social hotel, but in 2014 it certainly isn’t the only one. Another notable London example is the newly opened Qbic, a budget Dutch import which also leans heavily on design. Qbic is absent of a traditional reception area at all: instead, guests check in through automated terminals. With its accessible lounge (no, it’s not called a lobby) that serves snacks and drinks made by London producers, Qbic’s emphasis on the stylish and the local extends to non-hotel guests as well. Its basement is even available to area start-ups looking for space, while it encourages on-site business meetings.
In Paris, the Hôtel Fabric (located in the trendy Canal Saint-Martin neighbourhood), opened late last year with a similar social pitch: its expansive lobby mingles Eames chairs with contemporary fixtures, while bookcases and a communal table that’s perfect for web-browsing encourage you to stay a while. The 25Hours Hotel Bikini Berlin, a brand new edition to the Berlin boutique hotel scene, is another capitalising on stylishly outfitted public spaces. While the rooftop terrace is an obvious draw, it’s the child-like, rainbow-hued lobby that makes it comfortable to lounge in for longer stretches. As the lobby is also outfitted with hammocks, longer stretches may turn into all-day periods of rest – until the adjacent DJ gets started, anyway.
And back in New York, The Ace isn’t the only on-trend boutique hotel that consolidates restaurants, boutiques, and lounging areas for both guests and residents. Another key address is the Wythe Hotel, in a renovated industrial building on the Williamsburg waterfront. The spare lobby, with soaring ceilings and wooden floors, is also something of a gallery (artist Jack Early’s work is now on display), while its pop-up shop hosts a range of designers (French label A.P.C. is the current brand to call the space home). Though the lobby isn’t as expansive or quite as comfy as some others, its bookcases lend a homey atmosphere, and ground floor restaurant Reynards serves up excellent coffee that can be taken to go.
As much fun as luxury is, it can be a better experience for both guests and locals when a hotel is more firmly enmeshed in its environment – the former have the benefits of feeling a part of their host city instead of separated from it, while the latter benefit from new spaces in which to work (and play). All herald the rise of the social hotel: this is one hospitality trend we can’t get enough of.
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