The world’s coolest hotels want to tell you a story

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A new niche of high-end hotels makes a big promise.

Unlike your run-of-the-mill boutique hotel, these properties aren’t only about cool decor and on-site bars and restaurants. Through grander concepts and designs, they claim to immerse guests in a story or social movement, or even transport them to another time period.

Dream of joining Gertrude Stein’s salons in early 20th-century Paris? That’s the vibe on offer at the flamboyant Le Grand Mazarin in the city’s Marais neighborhood. Wish you could live inside the campy aesthetic of cult-film writer/director John Waters? Check into Baltimore’s Hotel Ulysses, one of a growing number of eccentric concepts from hospitality group Ash. Want your travel choices to align with your concern about climate change? The upcoming Six Senses Svart in Norway promises “an immersive and purpose-driven journey” in a spaceshiplike building designed to generate more energy than it uses.

These examples couldn’t be more different from one another, and that’s the point. But there is one thread that tends to connect them: the creators of such concepts frequently describe them as weaving a “story” or “narrative.” So, we’ll call them narrative hotels. They are built to stand out in an era in which corporate chains masquerade as boutiques and design trends are dictated by social media algorithms. A few fast-growing hospitality groups have even made the narrative concept key to their plans for global expansion. But that’s where the plot gets complicated.

The evolution from boutique to narrative

Creating a sense of place — often through living-room-like lobbies and art-filled guest quarters — was the calling card of the boutique hotels that emerged in the early ’90s, with hoteliers such as Bill Kimpton leading the way. Throughout the decade, fashionable travelers began seeking upstart brands such as the W, launched in New York in 1998, and Ace Hotel, which opened in Seattle in 1999.

But by the 2010s, everything started to feel boutiquey. Marriott International, the biggest hotel company in the world, acquired the W brand in 2016. Similarly, IHG Hotels & Resorts acquired Kimpton in 2018. Elsewhere, boutique tropes have trickled down to more budget-friendly chains such as the quirky Moxy Hotels, which Marriott teamed up with IKEA to launch in 2013, and CitizenM, whose Instagrammable lobbies overflow with plastic plants.

Whether the industry calls them “boutique” or “lifestyle,” those terms tend to lose their meaning when they’re mass-produced, said Amber Asher, CEO of the Standard Hotels. “Now, a lot of the bigger chains and bigger companies are looking to do what lifestyle’s always done.”

One reason so many hotels tend to look the same, said Kyle Chayka, author of “Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture,” is that much of the industry is chasing the same design trends set by powerful social media algorithms. “You’ve had a lot of homogenization, particularly in hotels and rental properties, over the late 2010s,” he said. Which means standing out demands a bolder strategy: “Since people are recognizing this homogenization, in order to be compelling, you have to go in the opposite direction.”

And few things are as compelling as a well-told story. Hoteliers seeking to differentiate themselves nowadays are lining up to work with design firms that recognize this.

“We start every project with a narrative,” celebrated hospitality designer Robin Standefer said via email. Her firm, Roman and Williams, which she founded with Stephen Alesch in 2002, is behind such pioneering properties as the Standard Highline and the Ace Brooklyn. Travelers “want to be characters in their own movie,” she explained, and with every project, her team is tasked with “creating the stage.”

You’ll encounter undeniable cinematic pomp at one of the newest properties designed by Roman and Williams: Estelle Manor, a hotel and members club set on 60 manicured acres in Oxfordshire, England, that may give guests the sense they have stepped into the opulent sets of the movie “Saltburn” (sans murder).

“Our focus on experience and narrative is driven by an ethos, rather than a style,” Standefer said of creating these fantasies. “In each place, it’s the idea of collapsing past and present by taking a dreamy narrative from history and making it a reality.”

The challenge of too many stories

Stories based on a building’s past are among the most common narratives that hotels spin. The luxuriously redesigned Hotel Chelsea, for example, fully embraces its pedigree as the former home of rock-and-roll legends. There are also narratives inspired by cultural figures and movements, like at Maison Proust in Paris, a hotel dedicated to its namesake literary giant. And then there are the mission-driven stories. Cases in point: D.C.’s “first activist hotel,” the Eaton, which features a “Radical Library” in its lobby and has hosted protest song performances in its rooftop bar. And the city’s feminist-inflected Hotel Zena, where you will encounter a huge portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg made of tampons.

But the most popular narratives are probably the ones pegged to location. These properties deploy design choices, event programs and culinary offerings intended to make them feel like an authentic part of the local experience. This has been the angle for many openings from Ennismore, the hospitality group behind the Hoxton and 25hours, chains that position themselves as hangouts for cool locals in the city’s coolest neighborhoods.

“Having a concept or narrative running through the design and the guest journey of an individual hotel is critical to ensuring it stands out,” Sharan Pasricha, Ennismore’s founder and co-CEO, said via email. He pointed to 25hours Hotel One Central in Dubai, the brand’s first property outside Europe, as a particularly telling example. “The history of the region is reflected throughout the hotel’s interiors, with each floor’s design charting different moments in time until you reach the top floor, which has a futuristic aesthetic.”

Ennismore — which completed a joint venture with Accor Group in 2021 — is on a rapid growth trajectory, with a dozen hotels and resorts slated to open by the end of the year. Making each property feel like a true destination for locals (not just out-of-towners) is central to the business model, Pasricha said. “Our restaurants and bars generate around 50 percent of our revenue, most of which comes from people who aren’t staying with us,” he said.

But how do you keep those narratives compelling through chapters of expansion? “It’s the fun of what we do,” said Asher, who aims to grow the Standard from its current eight locations to as many as 20. For each opening, she said her team immerses itself in the destination from the outset, forging local partnerships and getting to know community members — asking what they would want out of the property. Still, she conceded, nailing the local vibe “is also the most challenging part of the business.”

And therein lies the tension: Authentic storytelling is tough to replicate on a global scale. “You can’t be both local and everywhere,” Chayka said. “At a certain point, that paradox becomes impossible to resolve — and your aesthetic or brand becomes cringy.”

The risk that a narrative won’t land

The line between narrative and gimmick can also be perilously thin.

Hotel Zena, the “feminist” lodging in D.C., was met with some skepticism after its 2020 opening, amid news that a “hotel dedicated to female empowerment” had hired a man to be its executive chef. (In a written response to questions from The Washington Post, the hotel’s general manager, Sherry Abedi, did not address the chef issue but emphasized Zena’s ongoing partnerships with female- and minority-owned businesses and influencers; artwork celebrating gender equality and civil rights; and “comfortable spaces that highlight our hope for change and inclusivity.”)

Amid its expansion to 40-plus member clubs and hotels in recent years, Soho House has faced criticism that its establishments simply don’t feel special anymore. The recently opened member club Soho House Portland, located in a gentrifying neighborhood of Portland, Ore., has raised eyebrows for claiming to support local artists, when it occupies a building that used to provide affordable studio space. (The artists who worked there were displaced when the property was sold in 2016; it sold again to developers, who leased it in 2019 to Soho House.)

When Soho House Portland debuted in March, it talked up its local connections, emphasizing that the art on the walls came from Oregon artists and that its restaurant is helmed by a local chef working with Pacific Northwest suppliers. But Portlanders aren’t all convinced. Celeste Noche, founder of Portland in Color, a nonprofit that supports BIPOC creatives, describes Soho House as “vibewashing.”

“In trying to say they’re not like the businesses that came before them, it’s like they’re trying to correct the wrong things — correcting the look versus the impact of what it means to be in those communities,” she said. “It feels like a disservice,” Noche added, that most artists whose work is displayed there weren’t directly paid. Rather, they were offered memberships and credits, as Soho House acquires the vast majority of its art through bartering.

Soho House’s chief art director, Kate Bryan, who manages the company’s sprawling art collection, said the intent is not to avoid paying for the art but instead to build a relationship with artists that “goes beyond financial value.” She said, “It operates outside this very kind of rampant commercial art world,” emphasizing that credits and memberships have dollar value, too. “It’s not Monopoly money,” she added. But coming from a publicly traded $1 billion brand, the approach has received a mixed reception in the Portland art scene.

Speaking generally, Roman and Williams’s Standefer cautioned that many narrative hotel concepts will invariably fall flat because developing them is a complicated process, and not everyone wants to invest in it. “There’s no formula to history and authenticity, and visitors are discerning enough that they can see through shortcuts,” she said.

But on the whole, Standefer hopes the rise in narrative hospitality will make travel more interesting: “Hopefully it will lead to more original ideas, to more intellectual heft and consideration in design, as well as more engagement with local traditions and … regional craftspeople.”

When they do land, narrative hospitality concepts approach the immersive realms of stage design, helping you suspend disbelief. In other words, you’ll know it’s working when you get lost in the story.

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