Community Building Alternatives: Beyond the Rooftop and Lobby Bar
By David Ashen Principal & Founder, dash design | October 06, 2019
Staying up-to-date on trends is par for the course when you are head of an interior design and brand consulting firm. Recently, I was interviewing for a new project, a refresh of a rooftop bar on a hotel in New York City and the second such rooftop project our firm was asked to lend fresh thinking on in two short months.
Rather than simply come up with concepts, I paused to ask the client an important question, which was, "How do want to differentiate yourself in the market?" The answer led into detailing a long list of competition in the neighborhood and a bit of a quandary as to how to create a compelling reason for people to come to this particular rooftop. What an integral question to ask!
Once upon a time, rooftop venues were not as commonplace; in fact, they were innovative. Back in 2010, when I was working on Urban Farmer restaurant at The Nines, a Luxury Collection Hotel in Portland, Oregon, our then-client was interested in creating two destination bars that would bring the locals in – one in the lobby and one on the roof, each with its own distinct vibe. The idea was to create B&F venues (beverage became more important that food, thus the flip in order on what's typically called F&B) that drove business by connecting to a missing need in the community.
At the time, Departure, the other B&F venue on the top of the hotel, would be the first and only rooftop bar and restaurant in the city. It was a novel idea that had been proven successful in U.S. cities like New York and Miami. There was no doubt that this would be a success in Portland and, of course, it was. A decade later, there are dozens of rooftop venues in downtown Portland, as one can find out by doing a simple Google search. Clearly, the concept works and has caught on!
Hoteliers have learned that a smart way to increase the bottom line significantly is to cater to the local community and build revenue streams beyond the room. Meetings and social events were traditionally the path, then destination restaurants and bars. Ian Schrager was a leader in this with his partnership with the China Grill Management group and their creation of amazing nightlife venues in his hotels. Now the rooftop bar has become ubiquitous and, though it hasn't run its course, hoteliers are looking for more relevant ways to distinguish their product and connect with the local neighborhood in more meaningful ways.
In the development and search for new ideas, Millennial preferences seem to be leading the thinking on what possibilities may lie ahead. This fresh, forward thinking is driving change and creating new opportunities for hoteliers who are willing to think big.
Artwork that will be on display at The MC Hotel in Montclair, NJ
An Artful Approach
The arts have always been an interesting way to invite in the community. The U.S., as opposed to many other countries in the world, undervalues the arts and a number of hoteliers have caught on to this desire of people to engage more fully in both fine and performing arts. I remember when the Sagamore Hotel opened in Miami Beach many years ago, the property was rather groundbreaking, not for its design, but for the fact that the owners, who were major art collectors, filled the hotel with their private collection. It was intriguing, indeed, and a bespoke experience that caught the attention of many, including me. I wanted to stay there just so I could get a close an intimate audience with some of the world's greatest modern art.
A few years later 21 c was developed as a brand of "museum hotels". Again, like the Sagamore Hotel, the owners were avid collectors, however, in this case, they developed a brand that has a consistent DNA across all of their properties, of which there are now eight with three more 21 c museum hotels coming soon. Each hotel is a museum and allows local residents access to a wonderful collection of art that otherwise would be inaccessible. The strategy for this brand has been to open in secondary cities, which makes the brand even more relevant, as most of these cities lack modern art museums and galleries that have work of this caliber.
I have found this formula to be very compelling and rewarding, as well as well-received by hotel guests and communities. It's a pleasure to work with non-traditional art consultants to create unique, curated collections for special hotel properties. Over the past dozen years Paige Powell, an artist and art consultant from Portland, Oregon, has curated a number of hotels for our clients. In projects such as The Nines, in Portland; The Baronette Renaissance, in Novi (Michigan); The Lexington Hotel in New York City; and now the MC in Montclair (New Jersey), Powell has brought in local artists, who might be emerging or established superstars, to create galleries for both the guest and the public to enjoy.
The advantage of doing this in hotel public spaces is that one can create a more casual and less intimidating atmosphere for the public to enjoy the work. Visitors tend to feel more comfortable coming back time and again. For the MC in Montclair, which will open this month, our firm commissioned a wonderful immersive three-dimensional installation by California artist Karen Kimmel, and a 50-foot-long mural by world famous artist Ruben Toledo. The restaurant and bar will have a permanent collection of art from a number of great artists, all of whom are from the New Jersey area, whether they were born there or have lived there at one time or another.
The Autograph Collection®, an independent collection of hotels by Marriott, is embracing the draw that art has for the community and has launched the Indie Film Project, a platform to showcase screenwriters, filmmakers and distributors working in independent film. This year, the brand appointed actor and producer Maggie Gyllenhaal as Independent Film Advisor to the project. She is involved in the Indie Film Project's Screenwriters in Residence program, in which screenwriters are invited to stay at Autograph hotels around the world. Gyllenhaal invited three female screenwriters to stay at the Autograph of their choosing for a week and inspire people while working on scripts.
The Moxy Hotel in Washington D.C
A much newer trend we see in the market is undoubtedly Millennial-driven and it's what I call work-live-inspire. Walk down a two block stretch of K Street in Washington, D.C. and you will come across the new Moxy hotel and, just a block away, Eaton House. The second property mentioned, Eaton House, presents a new paradigm of mixed-use development. Conceptualized out of Hong Kong and from the family who bought us the luxurious Langham hotels, the next generation of the family shows its Millennial roots. It's truly a cause and community-centric development, something you can pick up on when you read the marketing material describing the building, as follows:
"Eaton DC pioneers an interdisciplinary hotel experience to travelers seeking inspiration, innovation and impact. We set the stage for residing guests, locals and house members to congregate around creativity and consciousness-building."
Key components of Eaton are Eaton House, which is the hotel and Eaton Workshop, which is a shared workspace similar to WeWork. There is a high value on creating a community of creative innovators who are encouraged to collaborate by a sharing of ideas, which is realized through programmed workshops, incubators, and a community-based radio station that supports grassroots initiatives as well as emerging music. Food and beverage and wellness are layered in and support a very well-rounded and on-brand lifestyle.
The Moxy, which is almost next door to the Eaton, is Marriott's effort to drive a younger guest profile, something it has done successfully. The lobby of the hotel was designed to be a lounge and bar and secondarily function as a check-in zone. In fact, the Moxy has no formal check in "desk"; instead reception is at the bar and bartenders do double duty… and do it quite well. The lobby of the Moxy is really a hipster neighborhood bar that happens to have hotel rooms.
While much less socially driven that the Eaton, the Moxy is still attracting a guest with a similar zeitgeist, but one that might want to "party" a bit more. Not that this hotel is designed as a nightclub, along the lines of how the W was conceived a few decades ago, however, it is intended to provide a convivial atmosphere that is framed by mindful use of recycled materials, local art, and healthier food and drink. It's socially responsible, playful and absolutely spirited.
Bringing it Back, Looking Ahead
The trend of connecting to the local community is not a new idea, however. My family was in the hotel business in the first half of the 20th century and I saw the concept at play, even back then. When my father was a child, going to a hotel for lunch or dinner was a special occasion or a Sunday afternoon ritual.
The second half of the last century saw the standardization of the hotel experience through the development of all the brands we know today. In our "new world" where people are working differently, and for the most part isolated in their screens and devices, there's an increased desire for social interaction and connectivity. Hoteliers and other public spaces have the opportunity to create what people crave: a new space to gather, work, play, share ideas and live a fuller, more meaningful life. What a wonderful challenge for us all.
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