Loh Lik Peng stands in the grungy alley way behind the Clare Hotel in Chippendale, surrounded by overflowing bottle bins, barred windows and graffitied walls, and smiles. The Singaporean lawyer turned boutique hotelier is looking at this squalor and seeing a vision: high glass walls, lots of steel and wood panelling, accents of graffiti and broken tiles – the perfect elements for the lobby of his latest design hotel.
As the 41-year-old walks through the bar, over the beer-sodden carpet, past the overstuffed armchairs and upstairs to the stale-smelling storerooms and bedrooms, he chats excitedly about his planned conversion of the historically significant 1930s site, which also comprises the disused administration building of the former Carlton & United Breweries directly behind the Clare.
“I love this old brick structure with all its stains and graffiti, it’s got such character and history,” says Loh, as he points out the design features that initially attracted him to the site: the etched glass, the hand-carved wooden decorative flourishes on the walls, the intricate plaster air vents. “We want to not over-restore it; we want to keep the grittiness and the industrial, urban feeling of the building,” he says as he carefully peels back some old posters to see what lies beneath.
By the end of next year, after Loh’s company, Unlisted Collection, has pumped about $30 million into the site, it will be a 60-room design hotel, part of the $2 billion Central Park residential, retail and commercial development on Broadway. The hotel will include a rooftop bar and pool, two destination restaurants run by internationally renowned chefs and a dedicated dessert restaurant.
For most Sydneysiders, who likely associate the Clare with cheap beer and grubby students, and the Broadway area with cheap noodle joints and the eyesore that is the UTS building, Loh’s plans may seem ambitious. But Loh, who has created six hotels in Singapore, Shanghai and London, is a man known for opening quirky design hotels in unloved buildings, in equally unloved areas.
His first groundbreaking property was the 32-room Hotel 1929 – a former brothel in Singapore’s red-light district built in 1929 – which after opening in 2003 led to a revival of the off-the-radar neighbourhood. Similarly, his 29-room Wanderlust Hotel – originally a school built in the 1920s that now features a series of rooms decorated in bright Pantone colours – has, since its 2010 opening, managed to breathe new life into Singapore’s Little India district.
“It’s probably quite an unusual strategy, but I don’t like being in areas that are too gentrified or too central,” says Loh, who sees his hotels as forms of creative expression. “I like being in areas that have a bit of an edge, that are still a bit gritty. So Chippendale was perfect for me.”
But when Loh was approached by Dr Stanley Quek, the managing director of Frasers Property Australia (the group overseeing the Central Park development), who asked if he was interested in including one of his design hotels in the development, it wasn’t just an unloved building in an unloved area that made Loh say yes. It was also the shortage of cool design, or boutique, hotels in Sydney.
“I’ve always been surprised that in a city the size of Sydney, with the sophistication of Sydney and its food scene, there aren’t more design hotels here,” says Loh.
He’s right. Our Emerald City is noticeably short on intimate, design-focused hotel offerings.
There are a handful of stalwarts: Regent’s Court in Kings Cross – arguably Sydney’s first boutique-style hotel, which opened in 1990 – Terry Kaljo’s sexy Kirketon and bold Medusa hotels and Justin Hemmes’s fashionable former warehouse Establishment Hotel.
But since Establishment opened in late 2000, there has been a lack of new boutique-style hotels. An exception is the 200-room QT Sydney in the refurbished Gowings building and State Theatre. Condé Nast Traveller UK dubbed QT a “bright, bold addition to Sydney’s beige hotel scene” in its list of the best hotels around the world for 2013, paying particular attention to its thriving Gowings Bar & Grill, which attracts tourists and locals alike. QT is also the sole Australian member of the prestigious Design Hotels group, which has 200 member hotels in 40 countries.
To be accepted as a member of the Design Hotels group, a hotel and the guest experience offered there must be deemed “one-of-a-kind with factors such as personalisation, recognition, self-education, neighbourhood integration and sustainability at the forefront”, says Claus Sendlinger, the founder and CEO of Design Hotels. Sendlinger adds that to be considered “design”, a hotel must have a strong connection to its neighbourhood, meaning visitors can live like locals rather than tourists. He says such hotels appeal mostly to creatives and those looking for authentic experiences.
So why doesn’t Sydney have more of these kind of hotels? “Because they’re hard to make money out of!” says Justin Hemmes, who pretty much monopolised the boutique hotel market in the CBD until the opening of QT.
“A boutique hotel’s not a great model, especially in Sydney,” he adds. “You need 150-plus rooms for the model to work right, and once you get over that you’re moving away from the boutique feel.”
Hemmes attributes the survival and the continuing relevance of Establishment to the restaurants and bars attached to it, which include Mr. Wong, est., Hemmesphere and Palmer & Co. “If we were just trying to live off a 30-room hotel, we’d be struggling,” admits Hemmes. “Establishment is food-and-beverage focused, the accommodation rides on the back of that. It’s an ancillary; it’s the icing on the cake.”
James Baillie, owner of Kangaroo Island’s luxurious Southern Ocean Lodge, which was last year voted the third-best hotel in the world, lists labour costs and industrial relations laws as major impediments for creating world-class hotels in Sydney. “The cost of real estate has also been so high that it’s prohibited the financial success of these properties,” says Baillie. “The numbers just don’t stack up and that’s why, you could say, there are better boutique hotel offerings in Melbourne than there are in Sydney.”
Despite these issues, Baillie is currently hatching plans to open an exclusive boutique hotel, Baillies Sydney, in The Rocks next year. “We’ll deal with all those issues like the expensive cost of property, labour and food and wine by going, ‘We’ve got to offer something unique, we’ve got to do it bloody well, but we’re going to have to charge a significant premium to make it stack up.’ ”
A “significant premium” in this case means room rates from between $1400 and $3500 a night, which will make Baillies Sydney one of Australia’s most expensive hotels. Designed by architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer (the same architects Loh is using), Baillie says that lodging at Baillies Sydney will be akin to staying in a “six-star B&B”, or like “staying with incredibly wealthy friends”. The hotel will be an amalgamation of four buildings in The Rocks, three of which are state heritage-listed and date back to the 1840s. The tariff will be all-inclusive of drinks, snacks, meals and a “town car” service.
Having more sophisticated accommodation available in our city will help Sydney be taken more seriously as a global city, says Baillie. “Every other world-class city has fabulous intimate hotels. I’ve been amazed, and so has the hotel industry, that Sydney hasn’t been better served with more intimate, design-focused boutique properties.”
Financial viability was certainly an issue for the Art Series Hotel Group when it opened its first Sydney property in 2007. The group owns three thriving small hotels in Melbourne – The Cullen, The Olsen and The Blackman – yet 18 months after opening its 70-room Storrier hotel in Sydney, it was forced to sell to Quest Apartments.
“It was probably a little bit small to operate profitably,” says the chief executive of the Art Series Hotel Group, Will Deague. “Sydney is restrictive because of the property price to get a hotel there in the first place.” Despite the recent failure, Deague says Art Series is “actively looking” in Sydney for the right property for a Whiteley hotel. “Done the right way, of course it’s going to work in Sydney,” he says.
Over in Darlinghurst at Guest Residences by The Country Trader, where rates range from $295 to $545 a night for three nights or more, owner Geoffrey Clark says he decided to open his three boutique apartments six months ago because he was, “quite frankly, sick of staying in hotels”.
“Whether you’re paying $1000 a night or $200 a night, very few hotels actually make you feel at home,” adds Clark. “I don’t want to feel like a commodity, I don’t want to feel like I’ve been stuck in a box.”
He likens the “evocative, individual spaces” that constitute true boutique hotels (a word he thinks has been “way overused” and that people are getting sick of hearing) to a tailored suit, as opposed to a suit off the rack.
When he was decorating the three luxury apartments in two adjoining Victorian terraces, Clark wanted to offer guests the “bespoke, highly personal, true experience” that he feels is so lacking in the Sydney hotel scene, and that he believes is virtually impossible to carry forward once a property offers more than 10 rooms. Clark has used eclectic antiques from around the globe to decorate the Guest Residences, ensuring that each apartment is completely unique in style, and incorporates all the comforts of home so guests feel as though they’re house-sitting for a friend – albeit a fabulously wealthy one with exquisite taste. He also offers the services you’d expect in a swanky hotel, such as a concierge who’ll buy your groceries.
While QT is a true hotel, rather than a converted residence, David Seargeant, the managing director of QT’s owner, Amalgamated Holdings, says a large part of the appeal for guests is that it gives experienced travellers a richer, more layered experience of Sydney by drawing them closer to the local community.
“If our restaurants and bars are packed with local crowds, then obviously by mixing with those people guests can learn more about the city, and about interesting places to go that only locals know about,” he says.
Seargeant has been greatly encouraged by the likes of Baillie, Clark and Loh’s boutique and design hotel developments. “The more of this style of hotel, the more the appeal of the city internationally,” he says.
“There’s been a large number of Australians who have travelled overseas in the last few years because of the strength of the dollar, and they’re becoming more familiar with this style of hotel. It’s an important style of hotel that Sydney has been missing.”
DESIGN HOTELS: THE CRITERIA
The five elements of a design hotel according to Design Hotels:
– Individuality of architecture and design Whether it be the art lining the walls, the designer furniture in the rooms, the contemporary twist of the architecture or the rich colours used, a unique aesthetic is key.
– Staff The hotel has to have soul and a human touch, and this means staff who have an intimate knowledge of the neighbourhood and city in which they’re working. They need to know the best bars and eateries, the latest art shows and cool stores. They have to be able to relate to guests on a casual level.
– Local integration A hotel that is integrated with the neighbourhood gives guests a feeling that they are living like a local rather than visiting like a tourist. The hotels are also gateways to experiences that locals enjoy, too.
– Corporate, social and environmental responsibility This is an increasingly important factor of design hotels, and one that could include organic kitchen gardens, programs that support local communities, high ecological standardsand the reinvention of heritage buildings.
– Owner focus The spotlight is turned towards the stories, the passion, the inspiration and the background of the hoteliers, designers or owners who have created these destinations.
FIVE OF THE BEST NEW DESIGN HOTELS WORLDWIDE
1 Treehotel, Harads, (2010)
Deep in Swedish Lapland, the five sustainably designed rooms at this peaceful treetop wonderland were designed by different Scandinavian architects (the futuristic mirrored aluminium cube room is particularly impressive).
All rooms are suspended four to six metres above ground with spectacular views of the Lule River and are accessible by bridges and ladders. Treehotel also has a lofty sauna that can hold 12 people.
2 Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona (2009)
Set on the famous Passeig de Gràcia, near Las Ramblas, this 98-room getaway was originally a mid-20th century bank. It has been touched by interior designer Patricia Urquiola’s magic by mixing modern designer Spanish furniture and elements of Mediterranean style (antique tile floors, white cane furniture, palms) with the luxurious Asian minimalism that typifies the Mandarin Oriental brand.
3 Conservatorium Hotel, Amsterdam (2011)
Standing on the site of Amsterdam’s former Sweelinck Conservatory of Music in the centre of its museum district, this neo-Gothic building features 129 luxury rooms, restaurants and the Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre. Designed by Italian architect/interior designer Piero Lissoni, the Conservatorium mixes historical architecture with modern design, including a glass-covered atrium and exposed beams.
4 Hotel Viura, Villabuena de Álava (2010)
This precarious-looking cubist stack of 33 rooms was designed by owner- architects Joseba and Xabier Aramburu. The design merges interior and exterior with exposed concrete walls, floor-to-ceiling windows and the occasional private terrace overlooking the stunning Sierra de Cantabria mountains. The topsy-turvy mass is a beautiful foil to the 16th-century church that stands beside it.
5 12 Decades Johannesburg Art Hotel, Johannesburg (2010)
A stay in one of the 12 rooms at this hip hotel in the newly developed district of Maboneng, in Joburg’s CBD, is like sleeping in an art installation. Each room has been outfitted by a different local creative to represent a period in the city’s history – from 1886 to the present. As an example, rising furniture stars Dokter & Misses filled a 1920s-themed space with their Bauhaus-inspired metal piece.