In the Hospitality Game, New Players With Familiar Names

Muji, the Japanese purveyor of utilitarian-chic items, recently opened a hotel in Beijing.

Not just any bar in New York City will offer you corn nuts in a coupe de champagne that took six artisans to craft from fine crystal. But that is how things are done in The Bar at Baccarat Hotel. With its prismatic glass facade and 114 light-filled suites (Champagne on speed dial, flutes at the ready), the entire property was created as a 21st-century embodiment of a French crystal brand founded circa 1764 by the royal decree of King Louis XV.

“I mean, listen, the name is worth 100 million bucks,” said Barry Sternlicht, the chairman and C.E.O. of Starwood Capital Group. Years after creating W Hotels — named after W Magazine, his target audience — the developer bought Baccarat as part of a French conglomerate. “The thought was we could grow this brand and make it relevant again.” So in 2015, he turned it into a hotel, “making it 3-D,” he said, and “fun.”

Mr. Sternlicht, who recently signed deals for sister properties in Bordeaux, France, and Doha, Qatar, is not the only one building hotels based on brands people love. Fashion labels from Armani to Versace have been dabbling in hospitality for years. And Nobu has spun its Japanese-fusion restaurant empire into an overnight experience in eight locations (expect 20 by 2020). Whether in Manila or Marbella, Spain, guests are welcomed with Oshibori towels and Ikaati tea, and can order the chef’s signature dishes, along with his riffs on local classics, via 24-hour room service.

But lately, there’s been a critical mass of companies getting into hospitality, from fitness clubs (kicking off next year in New York: Equinox Hotels) to film companies (Paramount Hotels & Resorts is bringing chiaroscuro lighting and Hollywood-themed suites to Dubai and beyond).

“Hotel brands are not overbuilt, but under-demolished,” said Chekitan Dev, a professor of marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and the author of “Hospitality Branding.” “Too many hotel brands exist that do not have a compelling and defensible point of view,” he said, adding that millennials “love a unique point of view.” They also love traveling, already surpassing boomers in trips, according to Nielsen, the global market research company.

The generation’s disruptive rise has come with that of Airbnb and Amazon, causing some angst among traditional hotel and lifestyle businesses. As the former do some soul-searching and the latter seeks new ways to engage customers, more of them are teaming up.

“[They call their] store managers ‘shopkeepers’ and I call our G. M.s ‘innkeepers’ — I think this sealed the deal,” said the owner of Salt Hotels, David Bowd, also a co-founder of the hospitality management firm DDK and now principal of West Elm Hotels. Opening in Indianapolis by 2020, they’ll have local staffers trained at the new West Elm Academy, and buyable furnishings designed with regional makers.

Meanwhile, Restoration Hardware has been curating RH Design Galleries, where collections are showcased amid wine bars and rooftop parks, blending home retail and hospitality. The next one is scheduled to open in September in New York City’s Meatpacking District. Also coming to the neighborhood: the first RH Guesthouse.

“The hotel business is becoming a lifestyle business,” Professor Dev said. Having consulted with everyone from Bulgari — which just opened its sixth jewel-like hotel, in Shanghai — to InterContinental Hotels Group, he noted, “It is a lot easier for lifestyle brands to extend into hospitality” than the other way around.

As millennials prioritize experiences over things, it’s a way for these companies to keep themselves in the picture, ideally via Instagram feeds. And of course, guests might want to prolong their experience beyond a stay or a Snapchat story, and buy the brand’s products.

Hence this December, near its factories in Detroit, Shinola is extending its homegrown craftsmanship into a hotel: 129 rooms with American white oak furnishings, Shinola leather pillows and Bluetooth speakers, and bathroom fixtures inspired by the casebacks of its watches — like the one specially designed for hotel staff, to be sold exclusively on site.

But according to Shinola’s creative director, Daniel Caudill, “It’s not just about retail, it’s about creating a space that speaks to the local community.” With the Detroit-based real estate firm Bedrock and the hotel operator Mac&Lo, the brand is revitalizing an entire block of Woodward Avenue, the Motor City’s “Main Street,” where the country’s first concrete highway was built in 1909. Now, they’re building bike lanes — better for riding Shinola’s handcrafted cruisers, all for rent — not to mention a walkable Shinola Alley with local shops and beer gardens.

In the meantime, Muji, the Japanese purveyor of all things utilitarian-chic, just built its first hotels in Shenzhen and Beijing (Tokyo is next). Just about everything, including oak­­–framed beds and Muji Diner tableware, has been designed with what the company calls its “meticulous elimination of excess,” and can be bought from the in-house stores.

And Vipp — Denmark’s family-run trash can manufacturer turned modernist design company — has unveiled lodgings of its own, staging its “tools for living” in two one-room venues: the window-walled Shelter, near Sweden’s Lake Immeln, and the art-studded Loft in central Copenhagen. While the Vipp Hotel is growing — northern Copenhagen’s Chimney House opens soon — co-owner Sofie Egelund said, “We will not be the new Marriott chain.”

Although it’s worth noting that another major hotel brand, AccorHotels, created a Lifestyle division, and has been looking for fresh concepts. Their latest find: Lola James Harper. What began with Rami Mekdachi’s scented candles — inspired by memories of places that Mr. Mekdachi, who is the founder, loves — has grown into a kaleidoscope of the Parisian’s creations, collaborations and favorite things: sun-drenched photos from family travels; perfume, coffee and music made with friends; basketball. Mr. Mekdachi describes the brand as a “holistic project about art, friendship, family, slow life and sunshine.”

And so later this year, the first Hotel Lola James Harper is set to open in Paris. It recently had a three-month, 3,230-square-foot lobby “activation” at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche, with Mr. Mekdachi’s candles, prints and “pic-shirts” displayed around a bamboo bar serving the label’s coffee and tea blends, and with Acapulco chairs, palm trees and a music studio.

The hotel will complete the immersion with a room screening comedies all day (nodding to Lola James Harper's patchouli-tinged TV Basement of Jonet scent), and, in lieu of a gym, “a pink room with a hoop and a blue basketball,” designed with Mr. Mekdachi’s friends at the Venice Basketball League. Each floor will have a different fragrance, while LPs will play from the lobby-cum-vinyl store; when the album changes, a new spray will be spritzed.

“Newness is not the point,” Mr. Mekdachi said. “The point is to stimulate imagination and poetry. Hotels are not anymore places where you go just to sleep and eat and shower. People want meaning.” According to the travel marketing organization MMGY Global, he’s right: For the first time in 12 years, American travelers plan to take fewer vacations, but to spend more on “meaningful” ones.

Thus, Accor is looking to spread Lola James Harper’s meaning far and wide. Still, Mr. Mekdachi said, “Little by little with joy — this is my motto.” It’s also the name of one of his eau de toilettes, which, with notes of orange blossom, will be made into bar soap exclusively for the hotel bathrooms. Both will be available for purchase at checkout.

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