Boutique on a budget

Innkeeping, along with nursing and that other less reputable occupation, must be one of the world’s oldest and most resilient professions. Over the last decade, the hotel industry has been rapidly morphing. Like so many economic areas in post-industrial societies, it has been responding to the emergence of fractured markets frequently referred to as “niche markets.”

In the 1980s, many travellers, turned off by standardized accommodation in comfortable but bland mass-market chains, embraced the hit-and-miss individuality of bed and breakfasts. So-called boutique hotels, small unique up-end market establishments, frequently realized with the help of design-oriented architects for individual innkeepers, followed. Corporate capitalism, however, is nothing if not resilient and the last decade has witnessed the emergence of boutique hotel chains, considered by some as oxymoronic given their size and increasing standardization.

Initially, many were newly created operations. More recently, however, well-established corporations have considerably upped the ante in efforts to exploit niche markets. Few are as large and have as aggressively followed this direction as Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. With almost 900 owned and franchised properties operating in 100-plus countries, the 155,000 employee-company operates Sheraton, Westin and Le Mridien, among others. Its first venture was the upscale W Hotels, featuring cool, spacious loft-like rooms above lobbies, restaurants and bars which sought to touch all the senses. Element, Starwood’s more recent chain, enlisted residential architect Costas Kondylis and the interior “smart space” design firm AvroKO to create elegant urban living for extended-stay clients with an interest in “eco-chic.”

The most recent and perhaps ambitious launch, however, is the budget “aloft” hotels, inspired, says the company, “by the ongoing democratization of design and an emerging segment of high-style, low-cost brands such as Mini Cooper, Target and West Elm.” The 136- room aloft at Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (franchised to a Canadian joint venture between Silver Hotel Group and Northampton Group) is the chain’s first to open.

The boutique hotel revolution emerged experimentally through trial and error and often in response to opportunities presented by re-adapted older buildings. The corporate approach has left less to chance. In one sense, therefore, the opening in Montreal is the second, albeit first real debut of an aloft hotel. The first in 2006 was a virtual version on the San Fransisco-based web site Second Life, a 3D-digital universe where close to half a million people live out alternative lives. As reported by BusinessWeek’s Reena Jana, Starwood joined “a growing list of other companies who are using the online world to build their brand name, test products, or simply sell merchandise.” The company’s motive, she continued, was to test-market and adjust the aloft design by observing how people reacted. A blog was created for users to post reactions and suggestions. Concurrently, a hard prototype, constructed in a warehouse, evolved as its Second Life counterpart gathered information.

Design help came from New York architect David Rockwell (Rockwell Group) whose work in set design, such for stage versions of Hairspray and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and reputation for creating unique narratives and immersive environments made the firm an ideal collaborator. (The cheeky hotel internet site HotelChatter, enigmatically tags his work as “Jesus-for-hospitality-design.”) “For aloft,” Rockwell reports, “our goal was to re-imagine the select-service hotel model by creating a concept that would encourage guests to spend more time in the public areas.”

Resolutely contemporary in design, the hotel exterior presents a modest but interesting composition of forms and materials, including colourful, glowing linear light sources on the building facade, inspired by the ideas of travel and motion. A sweeping carport canopy with a rainbow-coloured underside leads into the lobby, although staff would prefer if you used the moniker “re:mix.”

Re:mix is a fluid, open space marked by an industrial vibe created with such elements as exposed ducts and polished concrete floors. Functional areas are defined by different floor levels, including a sunken lounge with a two-way fireplace -literally suspended in a glazed wall – separating this area from a crisply modern patio. Porous screens and bentwood ceiling treatments also help mark spaces. Re:mix also includes the hotel’s signature bar, “w xyz,” with its crushed glass and back-lit bar, a custom-made pool table and games room and a casual work/reading area. This fluid, casual public space with its bright colours and eclectic but contemporary furnishings “is intended to encourage guests to forsake their rooms to socialize, read or even work online with their laptops using the hotel-wide wireless internet access,” says sales manager Tina Woo. All re:mix spaces operate as revolving art galleries, giving local artists two-week shows. Montreal’s first includes works by local painters Vince Like and Adle Blais, as well as the photography of Wayne McKerness.

There is no restaurant per se in the hotel. Instead, a stylish nook called “re:fuel” offers Starbucks coffee, salads, sandwiches, drinks and other light fare made fresh on the premises on a 24- hour “grab-and-go” basis. The idea is to have a gourmet pantry with a decidedly New York deli influence. During the day, the space is chic industrial; at night the lights recess into a red transparent canvas, transforming it into a luminous evening experience.

All public spaces are overlooked by a circular, rainbow-coloured check-in kiosk, the “aloha desk.” A multi-panelled mirror located in front of the desk produces a kaleidoscopic effect and allows staff to monitor all the spaces. Alternatively, arrivals can check in via high-tech kiosks similar to those used by airlines.

While re:mix is eclectic, brightly coloured, full of light but electric by night, the rooms -oops, that should be the “lofts” -are very quiet. With their nine-foot concrete ceilings, large windows, loft-like use of continuous space, high-comfort platform-style beds with white cotton sheets and duvets, and walk-in, glass walled showers, the rooms, though moderately smaller, are clearly modelled on those of the W Hotels. Similarly, bathroom amenities are from Bliss Spa, now owned by Starwood. The rooms are 275 or 325 square feet, with a muted but calm palette offset by touches of blue and purple. Furniture is custom-designed and the bed’s headboard acts as a wall partition with built-in storage, a night-stand and a backdrop for artwork.

The visually spacious and light-filled rooms (pull-down blackout shades are included) are also directed at the technically savvy traveller. All units, therefore, offer wireless Internet access and “plug and play” which allows guests to connect their laptops, PDAs, iPods/mp3 players, cell phones or BlackBerrys directly into the 42-inch flat-screen high-definition LCD television. Printer capabilities allow flight-bound guests to print boarding passes right in their rooms.

Starwood has ambitious plans for its new brand. An additional 18 hotels are scheduled to open by the end 2008. In total, 90 projects in more than 10 countries have been confirmed with up to 500 predicted to be in place by 2012, half at airports. Like Starbucks and other successful trend-setting services, aloft will have the difficult task of staying fresh while going big. cI