Starless Firmament, with Design Hotels’ Claus Sendlinger
Claus Sendlinger got his start in the hospitality business organizing raves. Since founding Design Hotels™, a collection of curated hotels handpicked for their extraordinary experiences, he’s remained inspired by festivals like the Ezera Skanas festival or Burning Man that propose transformative journeys. We sat down with Claus to learn more about what it takes to create a destination hotel, and how he’s revolutionizing the industry.
What makes a hotel “a destination hotel” for you? Is it geography, history, culture, a dream, a design?
It all started because there was a culture in these initial places that created the wave that everyone’s now jumping on. Design and architecture were only a filter used to bring like-minded people together. The places which will stay and stay in our memories have their own culture.
Is it a culture of a place or is it the director of the hotel who sets the programming with events?
The predominant part of most of the new hotels is missing exactly that. There are only a few where you really see a strong concept. Everything starts with the concept. At Design Hotels, we're getting hundreds of applications every year. The first question we ask is about their concept, and they often refer only to architecture or design. Everybody's “boutique” and everybody's “hip” and everybody's kind of cool. But then you ask, "what will make your place different than all the others?" It starts with a strong vision.
“Design and architecture were only a filter used to bring like-minded people together.” – Claus Sendlinger
A vision that defines the concept?
Yes, exactly. We are designing architecture that obviously needs to fit the overall concept, but then the real activation, and I think this is becoming more and more important, is really how to activate the place, how you program, how you train your people, who at the end of the day, on a daily basis, need to deliver this vision.
What are your favorite hotels in the world?
Philosophically speaking, I love people who are pushing boundaries, who see more than what is already in the market. I’ve been highly inspired by the likes of Adrian Zecha, who started Aman, and Georg Rafael, and Andre Balazs. I, of course, have followed Ian Schrager from his first hotels and love his interpretation. What Nick Jones has been doing with Soho Houses is great.
How do you determine if a property stands out?
As a professional, I know that hospitality is produced on a daily basis, and not every person or business is in the same form every day. The personal experience of places can be subjective. I look for a conceptual point of view and how people execute it, how they’re operating and creating magic, not only on a single experience but over a longer time span.
Where do you think the future of hospitality and hotels is going? Could you see Design Hotels being a geo tag on social media, that people will simply populate?
We need to be realistic about that. I believe in the future... sense of places and destination will even become more important. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a hotel, but it can be an idea of hospitality in a neighborhood or a destination. The smaller a hotel gets, the more intimate and more special the crowd is there. But there might be surrounding businesses which help to create scale without diluting the experience of people coming to a very special place. The minute you open the two-hundredth-something hotel room, it's relatively difficult to have this attention to these people. But if you have a neighborhood with different kinds of establishments, and each establishment is a small outlet, you could potentially host many more people. I think the business model is potentially changing.
I know this is a question you've been asked many times, but how do you think Airbnb has changed your approach to hospitality?
I don't think it has changed a lot in our kind of hotel, on our side of the industry.
Because yours is more premium?
Yes… although I'm not saying that people who stay in Design Hotels don't use Airbnb. They do. The affluent traveler will find his way around, but from a commodity point of view, which most of chain hospitality is today, there is much more struggle between new models like Airbnb or the likes. Because if you go into a Motel Six or an Accord hotel, you might as well go into a nice apartment. The problem is finding a nice apartment first. Airbnb on a brand level is doing fantastic, but if you go down to a product level, then it dilutes very fast.
Because it lacks what you provide, which is attention and culture?
Yeah. You know, I think the brand they’ve created looks super-sexy. It's a complete lifestyle. But if you scroll through apartment after apartment, you see 90% of stuff which you’d never touch. Everybody’s talking about it, but I can see the good and not-so-good sides. I'm not worried about Airbnb. If you do hospitality, and are worried about Airbnb, then you have a fundamental problem in the first place.
How do you reconcile the way experiences appear online, and what your guests actually experience?
Here's what we try to do with that. We try to tell a story around what is possible in a particular hotel, in that destination. If you go to San Marita Portracina and you're not jumping out of a heli because you're not a snowboarder or a skier, and you're just sitting in the hotel, it might be completely detached from what we're showing you. But there's more to the story. If you want to jump out of a heli, if you want to go on that powder with your snowboard, then what we’re saying is this may be a great place in Europe to do it.
“I believe in the future: sense of places and destination will even become more important.” – Claus Sendlinger.
So you’re showing the full range of experiences?
Gramercy Park is a pulsating place from the morning until late evening in the Rose Bar. I don't think people will necessarily travel to copy what we show them, but it gives a variety of what our portfolio represents and shows the different approach to a classical hotel experience. It's not about three-star, four-star, five-star or six-star, whatever, you know? It doesn't even work in all the big chains. Where there’s a Sheraton that’s twenty years old and one that’s two years old, obviously the one that’s two years old is better, or should be. I think what we’re trying to do is more like inspiration, showing the variety of experiences you can have. The experience, as such, is more about having the choice to choose one or the other. This is the true luxury.
For example, a three-star hotel where you can have a life-changing experience can be in your portfolio, because the experience will be unique.
In our communication, we disregard stars. Some of hotels don't care less. Some of them care because of tax reasons or listing reasons, and some of them truly care, and for them it's really important to be a four-star-plus or a five-star. For me, traveling since a young age around the world, it's such poor system. It's completely meaningless if you compare it between India and America. I can tell you hotels in our portfolio that are registered as three-star properties in Spain, but give you a better experience than if you stay at the St. Regis in San Francisco.
Do you see a destination hotel as a ‘togetherness’ experience?
No, because if you go to the Eremito in Umbria, it's a single traveler's hotel. It's fourteen rooms and they're all single rooms. It's like a monastery. What people then do in front of the open fireplace is what they choose to do, but the dinners are silent. And they are truly silent. I think what becomes a bit difficult is what most of the industry is doing trying to please everybody and then it becomes gray. If you say "you know what, I'm a highly communicative place," then everything designed around the guest experience should be highly communicative. If you say, "I'm a place where you can seek privacy and find yourself," then it should focus on that. And I like both. What I, as a consumer, would like to see is a clear communication around it.
So would you say that Design Hotel is like a portfolio of different utopias?
Not yet (laughter). No… but I wish.
Words by Claud Sendlinger and The Editors. Opening photo: Satojama Jujo Hotel. All photos: courtesy of Design Hotels™.