I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at boutique hotels lately. Many of them are located in cramped urban settings, with owners and managers who need ways to do more with less (and of course, adding the word “boutique” tells you that!). So when I came across an English newspaper’s list of the best country house hotels in England, I just had to click. It was an opportunity to sail to the other end of the spectrum. What happens when a hotel has all the space (and sometimes, it seems, all the money) in the world?
The images were just as I imagined—no surprise there, since I’ve seen a few in my time. From the air they look like castles. Inside you see lush chairs, cavernous common spaces, private rooms big enough for yoga classes. There are fireplaces and oaken desks. There were names like Langar Hall, Park House and Swinton Park.
The beauty and history of such landmarks can’t be denied—but looking at them made me wonder. Is all that space and air really what people want today? Even of a hotel chain could afford to build a property like that in an urban environment, would they do it?
Of course they would not as it would be too expensive, but they would no doubt like to. The digital age seems to have brought with it new kind of paradoxical isolation—a situation in which we think we are more connected than ever, but in reality are drifting further apart in terms of real human interaction. There’s no shortage of credible voices exploring this idea,and if it’s true, it goes a long way in explaining the current trend towards personal connection and more face time with real people.
It may also explain, at least in part, why many international brands are diversifying into a mixture of hotel sizes, from gigantic to boutique. Traditional paradigms of personal space are being challenged, and hotels are paying closer attention to the way space is used to bring about an experience that modern customers appreciate.
I recently attended a seminar called Unwired: The Psychology of Space, in which numerous psychologists were on hand to explore how and why we use space. In one session, psychologist Sam Gosling spoke about an innovative architect in the U.S. who, before he makes a single drawing, spends hours talking to his clients about what emotions they wish to experience in their home. With a little research, I discovered that many architects are striving to understand these emotional dynamics, even before the first bricks are laid.
Hotels have two reasons to follow this trend, whether or not they’re still in the planning stage. The first is that people seek different qualities in hotels than they used to. For one thing, many paying guests are children of the information age. Clunky wifi with extra charges is likely to send them running to the nearest laptop to publish a sardonic review. A place with a unique sense of place and a personal connection to the environment will likely send them to the laptop for different reasons (I talked about this in my previous post on how Airbnb is changing the hospitality industry).
The second, more practical reason is that many hotels, especially boutique and urban properties, do indeed have fewer square meters to work with. In many locations—Paris and Hong Kong, for example—space is at a premium. There are no sprawling castles here. Hotels must balance the high cost of real estate with the guest’s perception of space, as well as the emotional responses elicited by the environment.
Several operators either have moved or are successfully moving into this space. Citadines is good example, with expensive real estate in Paris driving the company’s early designs. Other examples are Atura locally and Citizen M on the international level. With a sharp focus on stylish interiors, social areas, comfortable essentials and prime locations, these brands are breaking down traditional paradigms and gambling on a new set of values. Chief among these values: Affordability, flexibility, and the opportunity for personal interaction that’s missing in many mainstream brands.
That’s not to say the sprawling country hotels of England will ever really go out of style. If I’m looking for an idyllic place to hide away from all the madness, this may be exactly what I’m looking for. But if I’m traveling to a populated area for business or leisure, perhaps what I want is something that makes better sense of the madness—or in other words, does more with less, delivers where I need it most, and still manages to create a unique and memorable experience that allows me to be connected to real people.
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