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Heavy Mettlers

A single hotel can ride the eye of the perfect storm—the right neighborhood, the right design, the right timing or even just the right influencers checking it out. Maybe a second outpost can tag along on that vibe. But how do designers and owners keep making an impact beyond that?


t’s a question more and more flags need to answer if they want to thrive in an economy where recession looks set to come sooner rather than later, and key U.S. markets might not be the hottest deals going. Whether world domination or local superstardom is on the agenda, taking the easy way out (in design, operations or branding) is, well, out.


Steve Wilson, who co-founded 21c Museum hotels with his wife, Laura Lee Brown, never thought he’d need to think about what happens when hoteliers try to re-create their own magic. The couple just wanted a way to marry their love of art and the need to repurpose historic buildings as part of a downtown revitalization.


“We opened the first 21c in 2007 in our hometown, Louisville, Kentucky,”

he says.

“We weren’t planning to start a hotel company and weren’t thinking about what size city we were developing in. It was a project dictated by passion rather than any traditional hotel development strategy.”

Nonetheless, the success of that first property led them to turn 21c into a management company to expand their efforts. Fast forward to 2017, and seven 21c hotels dot U.S. secondary cities (another one is soon to open in Kansas City, Missouri, and the company also has a property under development in Miami’s Design District).


But not every hotel revolution starts so quietly—or with such modest goals. Even the masterminds behind some of the least conventional concepts are taking a hard look at how to use the best of corporate thinking to scale their ideas.

Take, for example, Pete Davis and Jon Staff, cofounders of Getaway—a tiny-cabin rental company. Their enterprise might offer micro-size products (starting at about 160 sq. ft.), but they never set out to be a one-hit wonder. Instead, the two Harvard alums met during their undergrad days and formed the Millennial Housing Lab with other students, including those in design, business and law, to develop alternative housing ideas. The idea of letting guests test-drive the tiny-house concept made a “hotel” set-up the perfect forum for bringing those unusual living spaces to a wider audience.


So, they knew from the time their first cabin was driven out to a site north of Boston in 2015 that they wanted to turn their debut effort into a brand. The biggest stumbling block to doing so was finding a place to set up the cabins, which are built as trailers and towed to their destinations.


A fresh approach to a public/private partnership provided one answer, at least for the company’s three pop-up cabins in New York Harbor, open Memorial Day to Labor Day 2017. The National Parks Service manages the land that those cabins sit on. Another permanent site (not in partnership with the NPS) outside of New York City came online in 2016. Now, thanks to a $15 million investment from investor/developer L Catterton, the duo are set to bring Getaway to new markets.


Clearly, more than great ideas are at work here. Read on for these pioneers’ best practices for making design revolution a marathon, not a sprint.

First and foremost: Know when not to innovate. Even the cleverest concepts are only sustainable if the methodology behind them is as well-considered as the elevator pitch. And, beyond obvious efficiencies of scale for giant hotel chains and a few specific corporate amenities like loyalty programs, unconventional operators like 21c and Getaway still choose to follow most of the conventional wisdom about how to build a lasting corporate framework to support even the quirkiest design.


21c, for example, has a book of brand standards that spans everything from the big picture overview of cutting-edge art and great F&B to a detailed design strategy. “The formula may not be visible, but to us the public areas are always about art. The upstairs [guest spaces] should feel like home,” says Deborah Berke, partner at her eponymous design firm, who has collaborated on all the 21c hotels.

Even the guest room floors aren’t exempt from their own entry in that brand encyclopedia.

“We try to avoid using carpet in the rooms, for example, unless there is a special case; we’ve used everything from terrazzo to wood instead,” says Berke.

Keeping the back-of-house spaces as standard as possible helps streamline the process of converting old buildings (though, Wilson notes, complete consistency isn’t possible in historic sites) and prevent overruns.


Davis and Staff took a different leaf out of the big-brand playbook: tiered room offers that let guests, even in a retreat setting, choose their own experience each time they stay.

“We build each cabin around big central elements: real wood, high quality materials, big windows that let nature be the star and lots of space for lounging, reading and reflecting,”

says Davis.

“Various cabin families (each unit can sleep two to four people) arrange our key elements in different ways.”

And people don’t want their style cramped, even in a small space. Electric toilets and real showers are built into one end of each cabin, all of which also have a kitchen. Guests won’t settle for cheap finishes or subpar build quality, even in what is, effectively, a trailer. (Staff lived in one in his pre-Harvard days, so he should know).

“Fortunately, the scale of the cabins makes superior finishes more affordable,”

Staff points out.

So, ultimately, even visionaries have to know their way around Excel sheets, paperwork and TripAdvisor reviews. But before designers or owners tear their hair out over that, they can take comfort in the fact that doing so allows them to take style risks when they’re backed up with good business sense.

Homework still pays off. Sorry ‘bout that.


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