Mr. Ashen

Architecture & Design

High Design Delivers a Pleasing, Inspired Ambiance to Limited Service Brands

By David Ashen, Principal and Founder, dash design

When I walked into the new Hyatt Place in Legacy Village near Cleveland a few weeks ago, it was apparent a shift had taken place. This was no limited service brand designed for low-cost and convenience. Gone were the ho-hum finishes; the garish array of too-bright blues, reds, oranges and yellows; the swath of industrial materials selected for their superior stain-resistance rather than their stylish appeal. Instead, I was greeted by a sophisticated palette that complimented the interior's modern furnishings, including a light fixture that I recognized as that of an admired British designer. Clearly, the hotel offered much more than a rudimentary room to rest my head. Here, to my surprise, I found a hotel whose elevated design delivered a pleasing, inspired ambiance that invited me to step in and stay.

Noticeable improvements in limited service brands' interiors and guest experiences aren't especially new, at least when it comes to select independent brands. But the advance of thoughtful design across an increasing line of conventional big brands' limited service properties is. And it's a welcomed change.

Much of the high design now seen in limited service brands stems back to about a decade ago when two independents opened the way for design innovation in the properties; Alex Calderwood's Ace Hotel and Andre Balazs' Standard Hotel. The brands' fresh interiors combined with their of-the-moment vibe and attention to art belied each property's reasonable rates, treating guests with an unexpected experience that they embraced from the start.

When the Ace Hotel Portland opened in 2007 (one of my favorite places to stay), it featured inexpensive tiles and other materials used with a sense of style, along with a $60-to-$70 tab for an overnight room with a shared bathroom, $100 for room with a bathroom and $130 for suite. The combination of thoughtful design with low-cost rates was extraordinary. After all, guests of limited service brands like Choice Hotel, Marriott Courtyard and Residence Inn had come to expect low-cost rates at another kind of cost - uninspired accommodations with few amenities, save a kitchenette for complimentary breakfasts and, perhaps, a bar. But at Ace, even the option of sharing a room or bathroom, which, while not everyone's ideal, tied into the burgeoning millennial generation's desire for accommodations that promoted sociability, including the presence of public areas outfitted for spontaneous mingling. By providing an environment that offered the community of youth hostels with the inspired design of an elevated property at an affordable price, Ace captured the loyalty of young adult travelers, especially with its later openings in New York and London.

What Balazs did with Standard Hotel and Calderwood with Ace Hotel was shift the focus of a brand from a commodity to a desire. They realized that guests don't want to forgo design and inspiration for price and their victories at providing both proved the sentiment. So much so, in fact, that low-cost now is viewed by many business and other travelers as an unsuitable exchange for interiors put together without much thought for their design. It's no wonder that Ace Hotel's success at targeting and attracting the younger demographic through considered design, style and experience was picked up by big brands' limited service properties, including those of Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and Starwood, whose Aloft hotel was one of the first limited service properties by a big brand to step out of the traditional thought that low-cost accommodations negated the need for high design.

At the time, the hotel, which had an urban vibe contained in a suburban box, had rethought its brand, looking more closely at the business traveler's needs. It found what Ace and Standard already knew - that travelers wanted something different than the ready availability of tired, cookie-cutter hotels. As a result, Aloft adopted a modern, more sophisticated design for its rooms and public spaces, not only elevating the brand to an aspirational level but also fully embracing an urban loft ethic. In essence, Aloft used less expensive materials in a more thoughtful way, demonstrating that low-cost design didn't have to feel cut-rate.

Smart Move

The corporate hotel's tenet that limited service brands' low-prices allow for durable, unattractive materials and unsophisticated designs is no longer the case. Regardless of a brand's price point, today's guests look for a full experience, from a property's inspired furnishings and public spaces to its reasonable prices for overnight rooms.

After Aloft's successful move toward a modern aesthetic, Marriott's Moxy followed suit, keying in on the opportunity to capture travelers of the younger generation with a vibrant, yet affordable, hotel/social hub, including a central bar that not only replaced a reception desk by accommodating guest check-ins, but also provided a place for them to socialize and eat. As it turns out, Moxy's approach offered more appeal than to the millennial crowd, alone. Boomer generation friends who live in New York City and stayed at a Moxy located at Milan's airport in Italy, loved the experience, especially the high level of customer attention they got from the limited service brand. That's not say the hotel's style is for everyone, but it isn't just for millennials, either.

Likewise, Marriott's AC limited brand offers high design and experience at an affordable price, including a bar and breakfast program for properties located in urban areas, giving guests a more cosmopolitan, European experience. As well, Marriott's new Courtyard near Albany, New York, features a bar, taking it outside and above what's offered at most other Courtyards. When I stayed there, the bar was a hub of activity, enhanced by the availability of snacks and drinks along with a fully developed lounge.

Now IHG's Hotel Indigo is pushing its limited service brand to more of a lifestyle centered one, moving from its formerly conventional aesthetic to that of customer product. Our design of the new Hotel Indigo in Alexandra, Virginia, encompasses a design intent and focuses on the region's local vibe, bringing a sense of community and the area's history to life in an uncommon way for a limited service brand. Residence Inn has embraced a home-away-from-home attitude, with its fireplace gatherings and ongoing programs and activities, like weekly evening barbecues in the summer, all of which provide travelers with opportunities for exchange and long-term guests with a sense of community.

In fact, last year we completed the lobby design of a Residence Inn in the Bronx, New York, following the directive for an atypical space. The property's location was on the border of Westchester County and served as a gateway to New York City. An office and medical complex was attached to the building, bringing to mind the need for a place where people could unwind after work. Our resulting design for the limited service property included a social area that was reimagined to a high level of design along with an outdoor barbecue pit.

Swire's East hotel also has moved outside the usual norm for a limited brand. By building on the growing trend for higher-level design and giving serious thought to the needs of the business traveler, the brand reinvented the business class hotel model. Add-ons, such as a larger gym and pool deck, inviting lobby café and engaging bar/lounge where business travelers can unwind and socialize, expand on the much-desired guest experience. Now positioned as a lifestyle business hotel, East offers business travelers the service, amenities and elevated-design they want, all of which are especially important in locations that offer scant activities and nightlife outside the business day, such as Hong Kong Island's business district, Taikoo Place, where there first East hotel was built. In Florida, as well, Swire has raised the bar at East, Miami. Located in Brickell's busy business district, the hotel features the notable designs of Clodagh and is a-buzz with post-workday locals socializing at the hotel's the rooftop bar, Sugar. It's not usual business at this business-class hotel.

Today's limited service brands need to take a bold approach in expressing their point of view to distinguish themselves from the abundant competition, from Marriott Courtyard to Hyatt Place, Springfield Hotel to Residence Inn and more. It's no longer enough for brands to focus merely on providing guests with a comfortable room and a good night's sleep while skimping on design. Differentiating the guest experience matters.

In the sea of ready options, limited service properties that define who they are get noticed. No one wants to choose a hotel by price alone and there's no need to. Because a place has reasonable prices, no longer negates the presence of good design. In fact, some guests even leave inspired to replicate the look of a hotel's public spaces or furnishings in their own homes, the hallmark of engaging, aspirational design. Like the new Hyatt Place near Cleveland, complete with spacious rooms with mini-refrigerators and free Wi-Fi; complimentary hot breakfast and Starbucks coffee; beer, wine and mixed drinks; a fitness gym; and eco-friendly heated indoor pool, today's limited service brands are pushing the envelope while staying affordable and providing guests with a memorable experience.

David Ashen is a principal and the founder of dash design, an award-winning New York-based interior design and branding firm specializing in hospitality and retail projects. Known for his ability to tailor each project to answer clients’ specific business needs, Mr. Ashen and his design team update spaces and reinvent brands. Clients include market leaders and Fortune 500 companies from all over the world including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York City and Aruba. Among dash design’s recent high-profile hotel projects are: the multi-million renovation of the Lexington New York City hotel; the Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino; and restaurants at the Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai. Mr. Ashen can be contacted at 718-383-2225 ext. 201 or dashen@dashdesign.net. Please visit http://www.dashdesign.net for more information. Extended Bio...

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