Picturing the Future

Picturing the Future 2

Remembering the grand hotels of the past may provide the hospitality industry with a glimpse into the future.

By Aytan Litwin

Usually when I travel, I go hip. I make it a point to stay at the trendiest new hotels I can find because they not only provide me with insight into what the latest and greatest in the industry looks and feels like, but also reminds me that our grip on what is fashionable is perpetually tenuous.

What’s trendy today is rubble tomorrow – a reality that pushes me to stay up-to-date and that drives me further, ever closer to the cutting-edge. The last time I was in New York however, I found myself indulging in a different kind of experience. I found myself in going back in time and simultaneously having an epiphany about the future.

I was ensconced in a room that possessed truly timeless sophistication, bathed in gold light, with my drink teetering on a table of brass-rimmed smoked glass and figures drawn by a famed artist dancing over our heads, spinning across muraled walls and into my memory. This space has represented the pinnacle of elegance since it was conceived almost a century ago.

I was in the Carlyle Hotel’s Bemelmans Bar, finding myself seduced by the romance expressed by the frescoes that graced the walls, which were created by the eponymous artist. (If they remind you of the illustrations for the famous Madeline picture books, they should: Bemelman created both.)

Obviously, there’s something charmingly nostalgic about the grand hotels of yesteryear and the time machine effect of walking into one of them. But as I sat in Bemelmans’ I started thinking about what they represented when they were new – how the guests of that era would’ve experienced them. I started contemplating the cultural position these institutions originally occupied. Which in turn gave me a new perspective on the future of the industry.

Welcoming Spaces

The grand hotels of the past were vibrant and bustling centers of urban activity – spaces that were at once public and private, that invited everyone in and offered an experience that was at once democratized and elevated. They were elegant, but made no effort to be cooler-than-thou as is the norm today. They focused on making a heightened level of service a universal standard. Cesar Ritz, who gave his name to an adjective, famously handed down a dictum that should inspire every hotelier: “Never say no when a client asks for something, even if it is the moon. You can always try, and anyhow there is plenty of time afterwards to explain that it was not possible.” 

I believe that many of our generation’s best new hotels are coming close to the standards set by their forbearers: they provide great service to everyone who comes through their doors; they also host cool nightclubs and restaurants representing the culinary avant-garde; they accommodate independent movie lovers and independent design lovers; they’ll sell you the highest-end art, and (where legal) they’re beginning to provide the weed you might need to convince yourself that you’re actually enjoying it.

Like the classic hotels, many newcomers also design spaces that cultivate a sense of community. The most interesting lobbies that I’ve seen (or helped to create) feature open floor plans dotted with cool, yet comforting furniture – conversation pieces for the strangers that share them. These hotels find ways to draw in the local color, creating a sense of authenticity and cultural relevancy that can’t be faked. They give everyone a reason to come back, whether you live in town or visit it regularly.

A difference, though, is in attitude and formality. Take a look at photos of the classic hotel lobbies and you’ll see people attired in the most elegant garb of their day. People dressed for tea more formally than Hollywood dresses for the Oscars. Naturally, the furniture and fixtures reflected the same stiffness and often pretension.

Upholding a Legacy

While we aren’t going back to brocade and ormolu, there are still some lessons that we, as an industry, must take to heart – some ways in which we’re failing to uphold the legacy of these grand hotel parents. Especially when we begin to consider the broader historical context in which they existed, and that is the context of cultural and scientific change.

When they were new, the grand hotels were cutting-edge, representing a jolt of progress and innovation. To quote Rebecca Onion of the Boston Globe, “they were seen as triumphs of modernity, offering guests access to new technologies like the elevator, the telephone, and increasingly sophisticated types of indoor plumbing.”

That journey hasn’t stopped. We need to bring the comforts and marvels of modern technology into each and every room. And to build modular furniture that can reshape itself to accommodate as new technologies crop up.

We also need to ask ourselves some hard questions that challenge our norms. Should we charge guests for pay-per-view when there’s so much easily accessible content available online? How will VR fit into the hotels of tomorrow? And should we really be charging for WiFi rather than truly being in the service business and showing our guests how to use their iPhones as a hotspot?

The hotels that answer those questions first – combining it with the distinctly human touch you get from good service and colorful community – will be creating a strong bridge into the future, and into the hearts of their guests.

Twelve years ago Aytan Litwin, founder and CEO of White Space, identified a white space in how custom-designed furniture, casework and architectural finishes are created for the hospitality industry. The company redefines global production through its "active management” approach of marrying craftsmanship to speed and scale. White Space's ultimate ambition is to build a global supply chain that creates positivity throughout the entire manufacturing ecosystem - making the world a better place, for those who build our furniture, and those who relax on it. Litwin and his team can be contacted at info@white-space.com.

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