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The Craving for Local Color and Culture

By David Ashen, partner & founder, dash design

This article was published originally on Hotel Executive June 18, 2017

There was a time in America, before the proliferation of national chains, when every town had an independent, family-run hotel. With the rise of soft-branded properties and increasing demand for guest stays in properties reflective of local culture. But with the the rise in popularity of soft-branded properties, there now seems to be a prevailing interest in the return of independent hotels.

This backlash to the sea of "sameness" characterized by national chains might be the result of the dulling of our senses from the often-excessive amount of time we spend with our faces buried in our digital screens and the resulting need to engage our senses in more dynamic ways when we leave our homes and workplaces. Then again, could the desire for heightened differences among hospitality venues be a generational issue, where younger generations more keenly value authentic experiences? Either way, we are seeing the end of the chain hotel as we know it.

Let's go back a bit. The rise of the chain hotel came about as a result of the development of the automobile industry and the U.S. highway system in the mid part of the last century. At the time, early brands like Motel 6, filled a need for stop-overs, for people that hit the roads, on their way to a final destination. These early hotel brands provided a reliably clean and affordable night's rest and were so successful that the formula became the model for the abundance of brands we see today, as well as those of the luxury market, both in the U.S. and then across the planet.

Adding to the escalating success of branded hotels around the globe is that their comforts weren't lost on American guests, including those who felt that they'd previously endured inadequate accommodations during their travels abroad. I remember a story from my grandfather, where, on a trip to Moscow, he'd suffered the indignity of enduring an irritating toilet tissue at the hotel where he stayed. If Moscow had a Marriott in those days, that would never have been an issue.

While welcoming lodgings are always appreciated, over time, the similar qualities of the many international brands have detracted from the group's overriding popularity. Hospitality notable, Ian Schrager, noticed the trend toward tedium in the brands early on, countering it with the development of the boutique hotel in the 1980s. By seeing hotels as destinations in and of themselves, Schrager filled a previously unseen void by creating boutique hotels that did more than provide ample comfort for overnight stays. They also were places to be seen.

Schrager's hotels, in fact, captured the zeitgeist of New York and Miami so well that others attempted to follow suit through copycat establishments. Now, decades later, such properties have evolved into the rise of numerous independent sites that are less about exclusivity and more about inclusion, by welcoming guests into the location, including the neighborhood or city where the property resides.

It's a trend that appears to have taken hold. A 2015 report by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found hotel development to be on the rise, with an increase from 52,000 properties to 53,432, including a total of 47,291 properties with 15 to 149 rooms, versus 533 with more than 500.

It's no wonder. Some of my favorite hotels are the small independent properties that have authentically infused the spirit of the place I am visiting. The Hotel Pavillon de la Reine on the Place de Vosges in Paris, for instance, is located in a 17th century building named for one-time guest, Queen Anne of Austria. Another favorite is the PuLi Hotel and Spa in Shanghai, which marries luxury accommodations with high, cultural aesthetics in an exceptional way. The Natura Cabana in the Dominican Republic and the Bijblauw in Curacao, both of which I talked about in an earlier article, are two other independent properties with exceptional offerings. Natura Cabana has a soothing, rustic sensibility for a truly inspired getaway and Bijblauw showcases authentic details woven throughout the property, along with guest rooms designed with individual character. None of these properties is alike, however, each offers a distinctive taste of the place in which they reside.

Recently our firm completed work on the Freepoint Hotel, a boutique property on a busy street on western edge of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The former Best Western Hotel was bought by Hersha Hospitality and redesigned into a mid-priced independent property. While establishing a boutique property was a bold move given the hotel's collegiate location, we upped the hotel's impact by injecting the local neighborhood's vibe into the design of the hotel by carefully crafting a brand story that was not about trend but about a depth of knowledge and interests in the area.

Similarly, for another property, the 5-star Commonwealth in Boston, which is commonly known as the "official hotel of the Boston Red Sox", in part because of its nearby location to Fenway Park in Kenmore Square, our firm transformed its traditional interior spaces into ones that better reflect the neighborhood's personality. For instance, the hotel's Fenway Executive Suite features collector's items from the Red Sox team's history, including a table signed by each player. There also is The Loft, a two-story space that centers on the area's arts scene; the Terrier Suite, whose name recognizes Boston University's mascot and whose design strikes a collegiate theme; and the Rathskeller Suite, which showcases memorabilia from the famous rock club that once stood in the hotel's present location.

As well, brands like Renaissance have really pushed the local story by focusing their design and guest experiences on those that relate to the site's local flavor. Our interior design of the Renaissance Waterford Oklahoma City Hotel in Oklahoma City, involved re-visioning the former Marriott property with a fresh and unexpected vibe in keeping with the area's native culture. The hotel's interactive design was heightened by welcoming finishes and decor reminiscent of Oklahoma City history and industry, giving the property a unified sensibility that not only addresses the site's past but also provides it with the atmosphere and social connectivity of the present.

For another Renaissance property, the Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino, our firm handled renovations of the resort's public areas and restaurants. Front and center was the need to retain its contemporary feel while bringing in authentic Aruban elements for an experience that spoke to the brand's mastery of providing a tropical retreat with an urban chic. To that end, the hotel was outfitted with polished walnut and nickel furnishings, an L-shaped sofa with tables for lounging and working and a large starburst carpet reminiscent of sparkling sunlight, along with a deep Caribbean blue tile accent in the bathrooms and more. Together, the hotel's colorful and eye-catching treatments bring in the island's cultural sensibility, for an engaging native guest experience.

Another way the hospitality industry is homing in the demand for local flavor is through Airbnb stays. According to Airbnb.com, more than 150 million travelers have used an Airbnb venue since 2008, with locations now in 65,000 cities and 191 countries. Moreover, guests like the local experience an Airbnb provides, including that 91 percent of travelers want to "live like a local" and that 79 percent of them enjoy exploring a particular neighborhood. Perhaps that's part of the reason that 74 percent of Airbnb sites fall outside main hotel districts.

Without a doubt, the success of Airbnb has been about getting a real experience of living in a place like a native. How that will affect the hotel industry in the next few years is uncertain, but the design of hotels is sure to shift toward more regional and site-specific characteristics. It's also likely that we'll see more communal solutions to hotel design to provide guests with more authentic and shared experiences.

Many of us can visit almost any place in the world on our smart phone, and for the most part, the Third World of 50 years ago has become the First World of today, in terms of desirable destinations. As well, brands have gone global-Starbucks coffee and Charmin products are available in just about every corner of the earth, bridging the divide between the unfamiliar qualities of a new destination with the familiar comforts of home.

Yet, virtual visits can't match the vivid sounds and sights; the vibrant textures and smells of live, on-site experiences. They can't replicate spontaneous conversations and interactions with native people or what it's like to shop from local vendors, swim in beach-side waters or trek amid historic sites. Nor can a global brand's ready availability of its products equal the experience of dining on native dishes or donning locally designed and produced clothing. Even the sharpest photos and videos can't quite capture the authenticity of being immersed in an area's culture, or the breath of walking through its architecture.

With the leveling of the travel experience, has come an increased desire for more genuine connections with the culture of chosen destinations. Fortunately, hotels and other hospitality venues are responding with properties designed to immerse travelers into the local community and its native culture. Aruban Coconut Quesillo, anyone?

Maritza Zapata