We can expect anything nowadays in the crazy, gutsy world of hotel architecture. From a horseshoe-shaped construction built atop a river to an underground hotel built out of an abandoned quarry, frequent travellers have almost come to expect over-the-top designs as de rigeur.
Yet, despite the seemingly never-ending race to construct glitzy, extravagant hotels and attractions, there is a light as a new trend is fighting its way to the top. We’ve seen it in fashion, and hospitality experts now say we can also expect a more subtle approach to luxury hotels.
“[With Chinese nationals], we can see that their tastes in luxury are developing,” says Clint Nagata, founder and creative director of Blink Design Group, an architecture and design firm that specialises in projects within the Asia-Pacific. “Before, designers were asked to do a lot of elaborate, ornate designs, but now [hoteliers and customers] appreciate less flashy things.” The phenomenon Nagata is describing is known as “logo fatigue”. While not new nor particular to China, it does bring a welcome change to its hospitality sector. Travellers are eschewing big and opulent for more intimate, specialised experiences.
Although large hotels – 500 rooms or more – are still abundant in the region, there has been an emergence of boutique hotels. The trend, which dominates Europe, America and other parts of Asia, is now the focus of hoteliers as the Chinese begin to prefer smaller and more exotic stays. “Smaller, but more luxurious,” Nagata emphasises.
Amira Morgan, head of market development for Mr & Mrs Smith, a specialist company in boutique, individual and small luxury hotels across the globe, agrees. “We are certainly seeing the same trend,” she says. “Even the big chains are getting in on the act with spin-off boutique brands like Indigo (IHG) and Andaz by the Hyatt.”
Traditionally, boutique hotels are not chainaffiliated, but instead are considered a more chic and stylish alternative. With the growing demand for more types of accommodation, these hotels have become a staple in metropolitan centres, such as Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.
Hotels by yoo, for example, a firm offering design and operations for hotels internationally, have two boutique hotels in Hong Kong. For them, it began almost a decade ago when yoo Studio and renowned designer Philippe Starck collaborated to open Jia boutique hotel. “There were no other boutique hotels in Asia until yoo [formed by John Hitchcox and Philippe Starck] had the vision to create Jia, now known as J Plus,” says Mathew Dalby, studio director of the yoo Studio design team. “Philippe saw a desire for this kind of hotel and was absolutely right in his prediction.”
Since then, we have seen the likes of Andre Fu’s The Upper House, Andrée Putman’s eponymous serviced apartment and hotel, and Mira Moon, yoo’s second establishment in Hong Kong for which they collaborated with designer Marcel Wanders.
The growth of boutique hotels is hardly surprising given the increasing sophistication and increasingly refined tastes of its clientele, Wanders says. To cater to these guests, merely offering comfort and luxury isn’t always enough – it’s all about giving them a memorable stay.
Design, for example, is often a focal point in boutique hotels, with everything from the lobby furniture to the bathroom accessories following a carefully planned aesthetic and concept. Many venues also introduce themed rooms in order to offer guests a different experience with each stay. This thoughtfulness and attention to detail is to be expected, given that personalised but discreet service is a cornerstone of a boutique hotel. “This style of hotel appeals to those with a discerning eye who are looking to have an inspirational experience and something special,” Wanders explains.
These boutique brands are also opening up in interesting locations, Morgan points out. “Anantara Xishuangbanna, for example, opened in southern Yunnan province, and Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain is opening this year.”
This move from first-tier cities such as Hong Kong to second- and third-tier cities is a trend that is driven by the increasing weekend travels by Chinese locals.
According to The Chinese Luxury Traveler 2013 Hurun Report, travel is the preferred leisure pursuit for wealthy Chinese, with 63 per cent ranking it as their top choice. Meanwhile, the World Luxury Index of Hotels by the Digital Luxury Group forecasts the number of domestic travellers in China to increase by more than 25 per cent, reaching 3.3 billion by 2015.
Other popular domestic travel locations – including Sanya, Hangzhou, Tianjin and Chongqing – are also welcoming a steady influx of these smaller, intricately designed but more luxurious hotels.
There is no denying that China’s hospitality market is booming. But is there still a future for gimmicky hotels? For now it’s difficult to say, but Nagata understands the appeal. “It’s an adventurous and unique experience [for guests].”
That said, when his clients do suggest a trendy and uniquely themed hotel, he is wary. “We try to talk them out of it,” he says.
With hotels, as with fashion, it seems that truly luxurious hotels should be timeless. As Nagata puts it: “They should age gracefully.”