Settling down to breakfast at your hotel, you might sniff at a slice of toast if it looks too, well, sliced – especially if the butter requires unwrapping too. Clearly not ‘artisanal’ enough. You want your roughage rough-hewn, not straight from a packet of Kingsmill.
For bread, read bedrooms. However artfully styled a hotel room is, with locally sourced nibbles in the mini bar and locally commissioned art on the walls, it can still feel formulaic. Just like the ‘lobby as social space’, where your macchiato should now be made by a moustachioed hipster and you’re invited to ‘connect’ with locals (is this really where they hang out?) Such scene cuisine is becoming the very thing it is designed not to be – familiar.
Any hotel can achieve the look of the moment. Consequently, there’s an irony in the big chains moving into the ‘lifestyle’ market – the word itself becoming gratingly overused. Lobbies luring arty looking locals, deli counters dispatching lunch to go, an Eames chair here, a row of pewter pendant lamps there – it’s all carefully orchestrated to deliver an individual feel. To not feel like a big brand hotel. Which is very often precisely what it is.
Individuality is having a moment, and it’s equally as evident in other sectors. In high end fashion, the ultimate status symbol for wealthy shoppers is now individuality rather than conformity. Low-key, logo-free pieces that are unique and hard-to-find are increasingly favored over the highly recognizable handbags of big-name brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada.
Quality, craftsmanship and design were still the top three attributes defining luxury in a recent US consumer survey, but what has changed is that consumers – particularly millennials – are eschewing the ostentation that traditionally comes with it. For hotels, it’s a trend that means the old-school signifiers of luxury – crystal chandeliers, acres of marble, white-gloved butlers – are out. Unique, authentic and one-of-a-kind are in.
But how to be one-of-a-kind when actually you’re mass produced? How to stay quirky and unconventional when behind the vintage distressed mirrors and reclaimed brickwork lurks a corporate behemoth?
Taking a lead from other sectors (think Coca-Cola and Innocent Drinks), the big brands are busy eyeing up and buying up. Kimpton Hotels, the distinctive boutique brand beloved of independently minded US travellers, caused dismay among fans when it became part of the nine-brand giant that is IHG in late 2014. Time will tell whether its “unscripted and heartfelt approach to hospitality” will change. But this was surely a pivotal point in the shift from standard to stand out. Time was when travellers generally preferred the consistency and reliability of branded hotel chains. Authenticity wasn’t so high on the agenda. But times have changed along with the signifiers of luxury, as millennial preferences for authentic, individual travel experiences become the majority preference. Now, all the big brands are responding by either launching their own ‘lifestyle’ brands, buying up others, or courting the best independent upscale hotels to join a ‘soft’ brand collection. Think Marriott’s Autograph Collection or Hilton’s Curio.
Back in the day when Andaz Liverpool Street in London was the Great Eastern, its website and print collateral were enviably avant-garde. Since the Hyatt treatment however, originality has waned somewhat, in brand identity if not in the guest experience.
Of course, it’s the guest experience that matters. This brings us back to bread. Or any other small part of the bigger whole. Does the whole experience ring true? Or are the signs in the detail that this is less one-off, and more off-the-shelf?
Many would argue that there’s inevitability about the homogenisation of individuality. If people want it, brands will duly oblige – and why shouldn’t they?
But fast forward five years to a time when we’ll all have moved on from “millennial”, when “lifestyle” will be last year’s cliché, and “artisan” as a descriptor will need a stamp of authenticity more than ever. There will still be truly individual operators out there, under promising and over delivering, serving up the best, still-warm bread and freshest fish in town while resisting the advances of the big fish.
And I’ll bet they’ll be the places that people will most want to tell their friends about. Because there’s something about the joy of different – of discovering the undiscovered and trumping your peers with it – that brings out the real traveller in all of us.