The mystique of a good hotel has always centred on the idea that unexpected things can happen. I’m not talking about rude surprises, like a hot shower that suddenly turns cold, or a $30 surcharge for wireless internet. I’m talking about intrigue. A good hotel is a place where stories converge. It’s a gateway to - and a reflection of - the community in which it operates. As the writer Joan Didion puts it: “Great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service.”
One of the reasons Airbnb succeeded in shaking up the hotel world was that it brought a new social dimension to hospitality. All of a sudden, you didn’t need a shared building where travellers stayed in separate rooms. The community itself could serve that purpose. All you needed was a studio apartment on a bohemian street, and you could feel connected to everyone. You could, as the tagline says, “live like a local.” Why sequester yourself in a sterile and silent hotel when you could be down in the hustle and bustle of the community, accruing unforgettable experiences and connecting with people?
Except that hotels have been a part of civilisation for a long time, and it turns out their merits aren’t so easy to brush away. This has been evidenced by the legal struggles Airbnb has faced in many major markets, as local citizens and governments push back against the commodification of residential housing stock. It has been evidenced by the ways in which Airbnb has updated their product line – most notably the introduction of a hotel-quality listings (including boutique hotels) and paid tours. (Unfortunately the personalised hosting part of AirBnB has now changed with many more professional managers now taking on accommodation for the owners, but that is for another article.)
Hotels, likewise, have moved further toward the curation of experiences, and the facilitation of personal connections. It isn’t just a room anymore – that much has been settled.
But in the minds of some people, hotels still have the apparent disadvantage of being, well, hotels. Try as we might, hotels just can’t be as vibrant or bohemian as local dwelling places. They can’t be as spontaneous or as cool.
Those people are forgetting one of the great original advantages of the hotel: That it has always been a place of mystery where the unexpected can happen. Some of that magic may have been siphoned away as travellers began to experience communities through local dwelling places. Some hoteliers may be wondering how they can claim it back.
The answer – or at least part of it – could be the introduction of valuable public amenities within hotel grounds. You can’t take a hotel and disperse it into the community, but if you have a decent angle, you might bring the community closer to the hotel.
Shots in the dark have been taken before (think of all those sparsely attended live music or comedy events in the dusty corners of hotel event rooms), but this is different. Due to market forces and changing tastes, modern hotels are making unprecedented efforts to pull communities toward them. Most of the ideas are unprecedented, and some are downright elegant.
We’ve written, for example, about museum hotels, art gallery hotels, craft brewery hotels, and coworking hotels on this blog. Coworking spaces in particular are a valuable amenity to the community, and seem likely to draw people from the outside. Why is this desirable? Because it creates warmth and vitality. It fosters community and facilitates the unexpected – all of which positively contribute to the guest experience.
William Vale in Brooklyn is another primetime example. The 183-room luxury hotel, which opened in 2016, features a 1,400sqm rooftop park – complete with greenery, stunning views over the city, and ice cream served from a vintage Airstream trailer. This is not an exclusive amenity for guests. It’s Vale Park, open 24 hours to the public, accessible from a stairway in the hotel complex and from a public stairway on N. 12 Street.
To bring something authentic and useful to the community – something like a park, a coworking space, a museum or a brewery – is a bold and inventive argument. It says that no single hospitality model has a monopoly on breaking down barriers. It proves that hotels remain a vital canvas for interesting social ideas, and that countless stories remain to be told.
Is it realistic for every hotel to engage the community in this way? Perhaps not. There are properties where it’s all you can do to run a tight ship, and that’s with the public on the outside. But the guest experience should always be at the forefront of our thinking, and if we can improve it by finding ways to bridge gaps, that’s exactly what we should do.
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