In the boutique hotel space, striving for imperfection is a goal

The Wabi-sabi Aesthetic panel, from left: Edition Hotels' Ben Pundole, Journal Hotels' Stephen Brandman, ILC's Andrew Benioff, Pig & Khao's Leah Cohen and Ennismore's Sharan Pasricha.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Sometimes perfection is not the objective. At least in the boutique and independent hotel space. 

That sentiment was made clear during an aptly titled panel at the Independent Lodging Congress, "Wabi-sabi Aesthetic," here at The William Vale hotel. In traditional Japanese aesthetics, Wabi-sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

Imperfection, to be sure, is a counter response to traditional hotel brands, where the goal uniformly is perfect standardization. But in the boutique/independent ecosystem, guests appreciate, if not seek out imperfection, which, in other words, means evolution continuance and a raw edge.

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At least that's how panelists made it sound.

"It's about staying true, keeping things native," said Stephen Brandman, the CEO of Journal Hotels, who also was a co-founder in Thompson Hotels. Journal Hotels, as he described it, is a consumer-facing collection of hotels, with current properties including the Hollywood Roosevelt and Ambassador Chicago.

Brandman highlighted another property in Journal's collection, Two Bunch Palms, in Palm Springs, Calif., which is billed as the oldest mineral hot springs resort in the country and the first carbon neutral resort in America. Of the hotel, Brandman said he didn't want it to look like a Four Seasons. "A Four Seasons should look like a Four Seasons," he said. "Our hotel is not too shiny, not too perfect." To that end, the hotel boasts unalloyed mud baths. "We keep it natural."

Mud baths at Two Bunch Palms in Palm Springs.

Brandman is keeping a similar mindset when it comes to other Journal projects, like the aforementioned Roosevelt, where a redesign there is keeping the hotel's deep history intact.

Others on the panel embraced similar enthusiasm for imperfection, like Sharan Pasricha, founder and CEO of Ennismore, whose brands include The Hoxton, with outposts currently in London, Paris and The Netherlands and more coming soon, and Scotland's iconic Gleaneagles, which Ennismore acquired in 2015.

"At Hoxton, we thrive on imperfection; we embrace it," Pasricha said. "We don’t have brand standards. We are a hyper-local hotel, where our success is not defined by RevPAR, but how our guests and locals embrace us."

While the panel was made up primarily of men and women representing independent-minded brands and companies, there was one obvious anomaly: Ben Pundole, VP of brand experience for Edition Hotels, Marriott International's luxury lifestyle brand. If ever there was a company striving for perfection in the hotel space, it would be Marriott.

Still, Pundole said the Edition brand is still a brand "where we embrace imperfection. We don’t want a tailor-made or manicured experience. That’s where creativity lives. There is no creativity in something formulaic."

Pundole should know; he's worked with hotel impresario Ian Schrager for the past 18 years, a span he warmly referred to as "mental." Hospitality, he said, "is a living and breathing thing. Trends change. So, what’s coming next?"

For Edition, which currently has four open hotels, 20 more properties are what's next, Pundole said, with half of those in coastal towns or on the ocean. For that reason, it decided to partner with Project 0, "focused on fixing the world's largest and most solvable problem—the ocean." 

"We have a social and civic responsibility," Pundole added.

When Neighborhoods Change

Brandman, who when growing the Thompson brand told his partner, Jason Pomeranc, that all artists eventually become capitalists, carries that thread with him as he invests in and opens new hotels. It also plays a role in something some hate and some love: gentrification. In the "imperfect" world of independent and boutique hotels, gentrification, or the process of making an area more refined, allows these types of hotels to prosper and flourish. 

"I've seen the Brooklyn evolution," Brandman, a Brooklyn native, said. "As neighborhoods grow, bigger players come in. In order for a neighborhood to sustain itself, you need a push that is far less organic. There is a balance to how this happens."

Indeed, when new hotels and restaurants open up in up-until-then, off-the-radar locations, they need to sustain themselves. "These places need people to spend hundreds of dollars. They won't survive if they don't bring in a certain type of customer. That's why we see 50-year-olds where you’d envision 20-year-olds," Brandman said, noting that hotels, in particular, have to cater to psychographics and not demographics. 

Hotels like Ennismore's Hoxton grew up in these circumstances, said Pasricha. "We started in 2006 in Shoreditch. We grew up there," he said of the London neighborhood, an archetype of gentrification that has increasingly become hipper with new hotels, such as Ace and citizenM. "It's where the creatives are," he added, comparing it to areas such as downtown Los Angeles and Fulton Market in Chicago.

 

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For hotels, "the neighborhood is always important," Pundole said. "You have to identify what's around you and what your impact will be."

The one outlier on the panel was Leah Cohen, the chef and owner of Pig & Khao restaurant, located on New York City’s Lower East Side, and Piggyback Bar restaurant, located in Jersey City, N.J. She is not a hotelier, but still, like hoteliers, a tastemaker. 

She brings an unorthodox approach to her cooking. "The type of cuisine I do is different and not as approachable," she said. "It doesn’t cater to everyone; it's a little rough around the edges. That’s what I do and as a chef you don’t want to feel restricted."

And while some hoteliers actually strive for imperfection, Cohen demurred. "I'm passionate about food; to that end, I'm a perfectionist," she said.

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