NEW ORLEANS — Cherubs cavort above the registration desk in the high-ceilinged lobby. Crystals dangle from brass light fixtures that cast the jazz-filled bar in a voluptuous red. Stylish guests balance cocktails and pool cues as they eye the angle of their next shot on a lavishly carved wooden billiards table.
Past the klieg lights that play across leather daybeds, film noir shows in a continuous loop on flat-screen TVs in elevators that lead upstairs to the sleek and sexy Archangel Lucifer Suite, which comes complete with claw-foot bathtub surrounded by Carrara marble and a stage and dance pole. “Play Naughty,” advises the inscription on the beds in all the rooms, as if in homage to the vices of the nearby French Quarter.
With its saints-and-sinners motif, the Saint Hotel near Bourbon Street does not look much like any Marriott you’ve ever stayed in. But Marriott is a partner with this hotel, part of its small but fast-growing Autograph Collection, and includes it in its global reservation system, along with other quasi-independent hotels worldwide that have similar unique themes tied to their locations.
It’s part of a strategic acknowledgment by the big hotel chains — whose selling point was once the comfortable predictability of unwavering sameness — that travelers increasingly want their accommodations to be as memorable a part of their vacations as the destinations themselves.
“People are fed up with the status quo. I think they’re bored to death,” said Frances Kiradjian, founder and chair of the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association. “When people finally arrive at a destination now, they want an experience. They don’t just want a bed in a room.”
Now big brands and independent operators alike are betting that distinctive and quirky hotels like the ones pioneered at theme parks will sell not just in Anaheim or Orlando but in cities like New York.
There, the Japanese-owned Kitano offers its Japanese-themed Tatami Suite, for example, with tatami mats on wood floors surrounded by shoji paper screens. The Library Hotel, near the New York Public Library, has put shelves of books in rooms on floors arranged by the Dewey decimal system, with each focused on a different subject and lots of cozy nooks for reading.
“You’re seeing this in restaurants, in office space, in almost every kind of market, that there’s a real focus on creating an experience that’s memorable,” said Robert Brown, managing director of the Boston office of the architecture and design firm Perkins+Will, whose work includes hotels.
The family-oriented hotels at the Great Wolf Lodge water parks will this winter debut holiday-themed rooms, with snowflakes hanging from the ceilings, Christmas trees, and wintry bedspreads.
“We really want to create an experience, and we want you to forget about home. We want you to feel you’re completely someplace else,” said Susie Storey, spokeswoman for Great Wolf, which will charge an additional $40 a night for its special Snowland Suites and also offers rooms in “wolf den” and “log cabin” themes.
Not everyone is looking for this kind of thing. Some travelers like knowing what to expect from a hotel room.
“You’re going to have the frugal traveler who books the cheapest airline and gets the cheapest room, and this is not for them,” said Jay Pecotte, senior director of hotel development and design at the Hard Rock chain, which was one of the first outside Disney and Universal Studios (where Pecotte used to work) to “theme” its hotels, and whose Rock Star Suites are each based on musicians or genres that connect to their locations. “But there are those who want that differentiator in their travel, and we’re seeing more and more of that — a segment of travelers who are looking for that escapism when they go on vacation.”
There’s plenty of business to go around. US hotels are breaking records. July had the highest occupancy rate of any month since records of this have been kept, industry analyst STR Companies reports. New rooms are being added at a fast pace.
“Business is good, so they have the opportunity to explore these special niches in this way,” said Fred Becker, associate professor of hospitality management at York College of Pennsylvania.
But there is also growing competition from the likes of Airbnb, which offers unique native accommodations in its own right. And consumers are not only more savvy about design today, thanks to cable television; they can easily see photos of all the hotels available in any city.
“You used to book a hotel through a travel agent. You never saw a picture of it. Now guests are seeking that unique experience,” Pecotte said. “Plus, the public has gotten a lot more design savvy and a lot more cultured in architecture and the arts. It’s exciting for us who are designers that they want something different.”
It’s also increasingly important that consumers share on social media their experiences at a hotel, and they’re much less likely to tweet about their cookie-cutter room at the Marriott than the dance pole in the Archangel Lucifer Suite.
Travelers are different, too, said Srikanth Beldona, director of the Hospitality Business Management Program at the University of Delaware.
“These hotels are looking at the millennial travel. And the millennial traveler is looking for unique experiences.”
Business guests are also more likely than in the past to combine work with leisure. And in an American Express survey of all travelers, 90 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they want travel companies to provide more customized experiences.
All of these things are bringing giant chains into what the industry calls the “lifestyle segment,” with partnerships and spinoffs such as Marriott’s Autograph Collection.
“There are a lot of big-box brands that are diving into sub-brand territory, that are trying to force diversity within their brand,” said Pecotte.
There are also potential pitfalls. Saints-and-sinners themes may not necessarily appeal to everybody, for example.
“That’s the challenge,” Becker said. “The hotel industry is a real-estate industry first and foremost. Once you build it, you can’t change it a lot. And marketing to a particular individual looking at more upscale experience within the hotel, that certainly limits flexibility.”
But with the trend at full throttle, said Kiradjian, even the big hotels are paying close attention.
“They’re going to have to change, to come up with something that’s unique,” she said. “Why would you not take full advantage of staying at a property that’s in your price range but offers you something more?”Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.