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Branding – Balancing the Risks: Using Design to leverage profitability

The hotel market is qualitatively different in Europe to the market in the USA. In fact the market in the USA is qualitatively different to the market just about anywhere else. This difference is based in the ownership and operation of hotels – in the US some 80% of hotel beds are owned by chains and 20% are in individually owned and operated properties, where as in Europe this proportion is reversed. Without the corset of branding European hotels have a spread of styles which defy labelling.

Schrager or Hempel may lay claim to have introduced the first boutique hotels, but this is not a claim that stands up to any serious examination. What both Hempel and Schrager did was produce idiosyncratically styled hotels, fashion icons that captured a moment in the historical evolution of hotel concepts. If boutique means less than 100 rooms, individual contemporary design, modern (in its time) then maybe Bob Lush got there first with the much copied North Lakes Gateway in Lancashire in the mid 1970’s, or perhaps Schrager and Hempel were just the first to crank up the pr machine to sell design rather than just the service the hotel offered?

Maybe good idiosyncratic design goes back even further, to the Swan in 1600, in the Seattle of its day, Lavenham in Suffolk. Or maybe it was a new seaside hotel in 1860 as the steam age took the first package holiday makers to the English Riviera as the industrial revolution brought the first form of mass travel and ushered in the railway age and the resort hotel. Maybe there were articles on hotel design in the papers then, but design was not a mass obsession in the way it is now, as society was less urban than now, rooted in different concerns and rhythms.

With our preoccupation with media in these days of newspapers, magazines and television the exposure that can be gained for a new hotel makes it difficult to read an objective comparison historically. This leads to history being forgotten, and of course history forgotten is doomed to be repeated. Innovation is a pursuit of design, and as such happens regularly, cyclically, frequently reinventing the wheel and these days in the full glare of the spotlights.

Until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century most hotels would have been the product of artisans and craftsmen, often developing their fittings from traditional domestic pieces. Design as a discipline grew out of the establishment of art schools (Bauhaus, Royal College) and the debate about the relationship between craft and machine production. The development of hotels, too, paralleled these innovations with the creation of Browns hotel in 1837 being hailed as the ‘first luxury hotel in London’. This distinguished it from previous commercial hotels which grew out of English Inns or boarding houses, Gasthaus in Germany or Pensions in France. In a subversive way the continued existence of these ‘vernacular’ hotels in Europe has created a range of individually and idiosyncratically designed hotels, a parallel universe of ‘boutique’ hotels of which the Christian Lacroix Hotel du Petit Moulin in Paris (featured in HotelDesigns Industry News columns recently) is an example.

Andrea Dawson Sheehan of Dawson Design has observed that “as designers we want to push the envelope”. Boutique hotels are hotels in which the designer has been allowed to “push the envelope” by a “smart sophisticated client”. Why doesn’t this happen everywhere? Often because of the influence of ‘bean counters’ who want to minimise risk, and in all envelope pushing there is risk. Playing safe is inimical to good design, which like all creative processes is about the balance of risks. Design is also about challenging the status quo, defying ‘rules’ to create new styles, whilst for branded hotels of course the branding is in fact a set of rules to be obeyed by designer and operator.

The boutique hotel has become a playground for owners and designers alike, as owners seek to use design to leverage profitability. Chains too are recognising that design sells and are trying to introduce higher design values to their properties (witness the ‘W’ brand) whilst the rising standards of design within brands is also forcing the ‘boutique’ into more extreme definitions of that niche (underwater hotels for example).

Yet, and yet… even within rules an original or creative mind can find new ways of playing the game. The challenge for designers is to make all hotels boutique, with high design values whilst playing to brand standards.

Patrick Goff is the Founder and Editor of