As a boutique hotelier going on two dozen years, I'm constantly struck by how many otherwise sensible folks imagine getting into this 24/7/365 life of servitude. I've met many savvy investors and celebrities who were passionate about creating their little dream hotel or resort, only to find out it was more financially (and emotionally) rewarding closed than opened. And I've met countless restaurateurs and nightclub promoters who somehow see boutique hotels as grad school for serving the needs of the terminally hip.
The wisest are those that just ruminate about the subject. Moby created an album named Hotel based upon his fascination with the nature of these nests for global nomads, where humans can spend significant portions of their lives, but have all traces of their tenancy removed for the next guests. And, then today I happened upon Tyler Brule's thought-provoking Monocle periodical in JFK airport with the cover story about what makes for a spectacular hotel (you know Tyler, he's the style maven who created the magazine of the 90s, Wallpaper).
The highlight of this deep dive into hostelry was philosopher Alain de Botton's essay:
A good hotel is an embodiment of the act of love: love understood as the commitment to the wholehearted care of another human being. The ideal hotel would for a time manage to satisfy with the utmost intelligence all the needs, physical as well as mental of its clientele...Bad design is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of architecture...The hotels we love are the work of those rare hoteliers with the humility to adequately interrogate themselves about their desires and their tenacity to translate their fleeting apprehensions of joy into logical plans -- a combination that enables them to create environments that satisfy needs we never consciously knew we even had.
Wow, Abe Maslow couldn't have said it any better.
While the words "love" and "hotel" usually conjure up the image of a Japanese flophouse where one pays by the hour, it is reassuring to read this modern day philosopher's perspective on how to be a great hotelier. At a time when our industry is under siege and something like a quarter to half of American hotels are in technical default with their lenders, it's heartening to be reminded that a healthy bottom-line isn't just the result of skillful financial engineering. A great hotelier -- especially in this modern age with rapidly changing travel tastes and needs -- is one-part cultural anthropologist, one-part psychologist, one-part circus showman, and one-part humble servant. But, more than anything else, the premiere hoteliers know that it comes back to anticipating and serving people's expected and unrecognized needs.
But, just delivering on guests' needs alone doesn't capture the magic that makes a hotel legendary. Joan Didion once wrote, "Of course, great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service." How true, and, yet, until recently, most of the world's largest hotel chains thought that the mirror we wanted was purely banal predictability with the Hilton in Austin feeling no different than the one in Boston. Road warriors like George Clooney in Up in the Air want consistency but they also want a sense of place with a soul. Aldous Huxley once suggested, "Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead." And, dead describes most big chain hotel lobbies. Compare that with the Peabody in Memphis or the new Standard Hotel in the Meatpacking district of New York. Great hotels have always been a reflection of place and they provide the ultimate civic living room for locals to mix it up with visitors.
So, a big thank you to Alain de Botton for reminding me why I called my odd little company "joie de vivre." How many companies do you know that chose their name to also be their mission statement? Creating joy for hotel guests (and employees) and creating a spirit of "joie de vivre" in our communal living room is a noble goal and one that will continue to be relevant in good times and bad.
Follow Chip Conley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChipConley