Brands in the serviced apartment and aparthotel sector are using design inspired by location to distinguish their properties and give guests a sense of community and connection.
It’s fair to say that until recently the words ‘serviced apartment’ would not have been enticing ones. At best, most serviced apartments are forgettable: anonymous in design, with no connection to the local area and inoffensive in fixtures and fittings. The thought of weeks spent in such accommodation isn’t the sort of treat some would associate with business travel.
Then there is that hybrid of apartments and hotels called, rather unimaginatively, aparthotels. It’s an ugly neologism, rather like bleisure, but at least then there’s the chance of some time off for good behaviour.
Still, there are some brands hoping to change the reality – and our perception – of serviced apartments. “It’s a nascent sector still and it’s been very corporate in the past,” says Stephen McCall, chief executive of Edyn, which has the serviced apartment brands Cove and SACO as well as aparthotel brand, Locke. McCall blames the hospitality industry for being slow to respond because of “the traditional hospitality trope of consistency”.
“It’s bland, it’s transactional, it’s dead functional,” McCall says. “I wish the travelling public were more aware of the breadth of choice available to them. People think serviced apartments are corporate, white-washed, stain-proof, with indestructible plastic furniture. It’s what you get in the US, which has a massive extended-stay market, but it’s very boring.”
In its place the Edyn brands “…try and get very inspirational designers with keen vision and an incredible aesthetic to give you an experience in your room that’s a bit edgier and sharper than you would have at home. And maybe you wouldn’t do that at home because you don’t upgrade there every ten years.”
A FRESH AESTHETIC
This approach, with variations, can be seen in many of the new aparthotels, though there are challenges when a development might have hundreds of units in it.
Kayleigh Millington is group head of interiors for City Suites, which also has the Wilde aparthotels brand. The dilemma, according to Millington, is to “design en masse” while also keeping things “tonal, tasteful, but not going overboard with a particular type of finish or artwork”. Millington was clear about what she wanted to change. “My perception of serviced apartments before working in the sector was they were pretty basic.”
Instead, Millington’s design aesthetic is fresh with quality materials. “A well-engineered timber floor and a carpet that is comfortable underfoot – it won’t be a bold, bright print that you might put in a hotel where you are only staying one or two nights. You are going for the design side of things.”
Frédéric Carré is regional general manager for UK, Germany, Spain and Georgia at The Ascott Limited, and is responsible for both serviced apartments and the Citadines aparthotel brand, which is expanding across Europe. Carré believes the design must give a sense of the local, something Ascott achieves by using both its internal design team and an external team from the location of the new aparthotel.
“This allows the design of the property to both express the DNA of the brand through the input of the internal team, while the local team expresses spirit of the location.”
Pointing to the award-winning design for the Citadines in Islington, Carré says that its previous use as a Royal Mail sorting office inspired the team to put a post box in reception and a London skyline in the guest rooms. In the new Citadines property in Nantes, the fact that French novelist Jules Verne was born in the city inspired an ‘Around the World in 80 days’ theme.
The basics are important as well. As Millington says, “the design of the apartments means ensuring there is enough storage in the bathrooms, hanging spaces with good-quality hangers with skirt clips and somewhere to put your suitcase. There’s also a dining table with a plug nearby so it can be worked at with a laptop and a glass of wine nearby, and rooms with as much natural light as possible, yet at the same time offering black-out curtains in the bedroom and good quality beds so people get the sleep they need.”
The challenge for designers – and brands – is how to achieve scale and efficiency without sacrificing the style of a place. Rolling out one design a thousand times is a lot less expensive than individual properties. This is true of hotels, but perhaps we don’t notice it so much when we are staying only a couple of nights.
“Our job is to look for scale and efficiency yet avoid that homogeneity,” says Edyn’s McCall. “We don’t want to replicate things for the sake of our comfort. We don’t use the same designer for each of our hotels. We don’t just put a picture on the wall and call it design. We work with different designers in each place to give it a unique design. Fifty years ago when you stayed in a hotel it was a serious upgrade on your house, but now many hotel rooms are nowhere as attractive as where we live. We even have faster broadband at home.”
This is taking a bet that people want that variety and will pay for it. McCall admits that not everyone does, but then the majority of the market can cater for those happy with cookie-cutter serviced apartments. McCall’s business case is that “people will pay more for beautiful design; they will be more loyal to the brand and they will book direct.”
“All our serviced hotels and aparthotels look different,” he adds. “I don’t want to travel to Berlin and have a hotel that is identical to one in London. Where’s the fun in that? We have amazing common areas and collaborations with artists, and a community of relationships with people in the area to devise a programme for each property – we’ve put on in-lobby talks on diversity and inclusion, held calligraphy lessons, hosted DJ nights and mescal tasting.”
This approach is also being used by Ascott’s new coliving brand, Lyf, which is for “next-generation travellers, such as digital nomads, technopreneurs, creatives and self-starters” and uses design to “enliven the spaces and foster a sense of community”, according to Norman Cross, head of Lyf brand and general
“Lyf features plenty of flexible communal spaces, such as the coworking areas which can be easily transformed into zones for workshops or social gatherings [and] the units are also customisable to suit the guests’ individual needs and preferences,” says Cross.
For the social side, Lyf has regular programmes of activities, including workshops with local artisans, hackathons, innovation talks, music jamming sessions, cooking sessions and many more. The guest service managers, rather than being called concierges, are rather punningly termed “Lyf Guards and Ambassadors of Buzz” providing not just guest services but also city and food guides, and bar-keeping at the properties.
To date, Ascott has a total of 17 Lyf properties with more than 3,000 units in 13 cities and nine countries, with 14 more set to open. Lyf Funan Singapore, for instance, worked with local designers to create unique furniture pieces for its ‘Connect’ social zone including a ‘seesaw piper chair’, ‘rocking piper stool’ and ‘rocking piper lounger’. The lobby has a work by local artist Justin Lee called ‘Celebration of Life’ which pays homage to Singapore’s past and present. In a similar way, Lyf Tenjin Fukuoka in Japan features wall art by local artist Kazuhiko Ifuku.
Also in Asia, Lanson Place is another brand which invites travellers to ‘Make yourself at home’, yet aims to have a design which ‘creates energy’. “Our interiors have to be aesthetically pleasing, functional, user-friendly, enjoyable, safe and maintainable,” says a spokesperson. It builds its design on three brand pillars: home comfort, community spirit and the art of hosting. These are demonstrated in practice as staff introduce guests to the local neighbourhood, sharing their enthusiasm for everything from food stalls to specialist shops that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.
“Not everyone wants community and togetherness,” says McCall, “But we are betting that people don’t want something that looks the same everywhere they go. We believe people also want great staff who know the local area and can recommend local food and drink.”
But is this localism really what travellers want? Frédéric Carré is in no doubt. “When I speak to our guests, they are clear that they appreciate the relationships with the local area – the small restaurants nearby, the cinema.”
It seems that for serviced apartments and aparthotels the future is not just more design, but more connection.