Hotels and Museums Have Merged: Here’s What it Means

November 13, 2018

And just like that, “museum hotels” are a part of the hospitality lexicon. Given the recent flurry of experimentation across our industry, this should come as no surprise. At times, it seems like hotel developers are clutching at straws to find the next novel idea.


But the more we learn about 21c (the brand credited with inventing the museum hotel) the more substance this idea appears to have. The dynamics of the company’s success highlight some very important trends that are shaping the industry today.


21c began as a single hotel project in the U.S. city of Knoxville. The founders, Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, are philanthropists and avid art collectors who wanted a unique way to share their private collection and revitalise a stagnant downtown area. A cluster of vacant 19th century buildings – formerly bourbon and tobacco warehouses – were purchased and renovated. The result was a 90-room museum hotel featuring art from the founders’ private collection.


When that hotel opened in 2006, the public response was positive and swift. Twelve years later, the brand has eight properties in eight different cities, with a ninth on the way. The markets it has chosen aren’t big and flashy – Cincinnati, Bentonville and Kansas City are examples – but this appears to be an important part of the company’s DNA: local revitalisation, a singular commitment to art and restaurants good enough to win awards.


In 2018, 21c was acquired by AccorHotels (AUD $72m for 85%, with the founders retaining 15%) and shuffled into the MGallery brand. Unsurpirsing since Accor bought up Mantra Hotels in Australia which in turn had swallowed up The Art Series Hotels.


This relationship still gives 21c a high degree of autonomy, while providing it with the sales and distribution power of the parent company. Plans to expand beyond North America have not yet been announced, but given the fact that AccorHotels is a French company, it won’t be surprising if other museum hotels start popping up under MGallery or other brands.


So, what’s behind the success? There’s nothing new about hotels with a focus on art. Travel + Leisure, The Guardian, and many other media outlets publish lists of the world’s best art hotels. Many of the examples are absolutely stunning, such as the Four Seasons in Florence, whose lobby is graced with original bas-reliefs from the 16th century.


What makes 21c unique is a commitment to art and cuisine within the context of urban renewal and boutique sensibilities. Rather than decorating common areas with art, entire spaces are devoted to it (that’s why the word “museum” can be used with a straight face). When interviewed, Mr Wilson makes clear that the works on exhibit are central to the identity of the hotel, and that each property strives to be a local hub for contemporary art.


As mentioned earlier, an equal amount of thought is put into the food. These restaurants are chef-driven with a focus on local ingredients. According to the Wikipedia page, many them have been finalists for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for excellence in cuisine.


It would be easy enough to argue that 21c is a novelty act enjoying a brief flash of success. On the other hand, it feels like natural expression of what’s been going on in the hotel world – specifically the drive to create a guest experience that is embedded in a deeper context of community. By building hotels around free-to-the-public art museums and restaurants with award-winning cuisine, the company is attempting to do what many hotels have wanted to do for a long time: become legitimate fixtures of the community that are relevant to locals, and even to travelers who are staying at other hotels. The museum hotel is a disruptive yet practical concept driven by people who had no experience in the hotel industry when they started, and no intention of expanding beyond a single property.


In the post-AirBnb world, any hospitality concept that can be tried will be tried. With so many hotels searching for a more contemporary and relevant identity, museum hotels, like any great piece of artwork, might be worthy of broader imitation.


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