A decade ago, while walking through the lobby of a posh five-star hotel in Hamburg, a jet-setting executive wondered whether or not the lifeless hotel bar was actually closed. The space was filled with threadbare furnishings, frayed oriental rugs and a creepy flickering antediluvian lamp, giving it “the eerie air of a funeral parlor,” he recalls, many years later. “Plus, the bartender looked like a holdover from the Depression Era. It was horrible.”
The bleak bar, of course, wasn’t closed. But it should’ve been, insists the high-flying executive who never returned to the stodgy property. It’s a make-it or break-it scenario shared by many in his coterie, for whom a drink, a meet-and-greet or just solitary reflection in an atmospheric space is as central to their on-the-go lives as their Blackberrys.
Which is exactly why, in the past few years, hotel bars have undergone a slow but steady broad-based transformation. Says Bjorn Hanson, a hospitality consultant and researcher with PricewaterhouseCoopers, “Hotels have already done flat-screen TVs and improved beddings, so the new frontier is the creative and competitive element of bars.”
Nowadays, when that same executive disembarks from his first-class non-stop, he skips past the dusty Hanseatic grand dame and instead makes his way to East Hotel. This achingly fashionable new boutique bolthole was once an iron foundry; it’s been repurposed to include a rollicking multi-storied lobby space that contains four bars and a Eurasian restaurant by Chicago-based architect Jordan Mozer.
Whereas the bar and lounge areas of many hotels were once pad-locked until happy hour and then embrowned by a hitherto mélange of cheerless habitués, they’ve recently morphed into enlivened all-day hives of activity. Thanks to their moneyed polyglot clients, these bars are, in many cases, revenue streams that outpace the proceeds from overnight stays, says Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services at PKF Hospitality Research. “Beverage is a very profitable department for the hotel industry — especially for a certain type of hotels, namely those operating in the boutique segment, where beverage has become very important. Profit margins are very high, because there is a large mark-up on liquor and it doesn’t require as much labor as food does.”
While not every hotel features a quartet of mod bars that morph into discothèques complete with velvet ropes and burly bouncers, more upscale lodges are becoming decidedly hip. They’re also blurring the lines between where the bar ends and the lobby begins. Consider the 26-room La Purificadora, the latest hotel from Mexico’s avant-garde Grupo HABITA in a converted water purification plant in Puebla, Mexico’s fourth-largest city. The open lobby is anchored by angular cobalt sectionals that are arranged around limestone fireplaces that double as tables where high-heeled locals raise flutes of the bubbly and nibble on finger food.
“It’s not just one feature that accounts for the attractiveness of a venue,” argues Claus Sendlinger, CEO and president of Design Hotels, a consortium of 150 decidedly chic boutique properties in more than 105 destinations in 42 countries (including La Purificadora). “For me, a hotel bar is most interesting when it’s a meeting point for both locals and cosmopolitan travelers. It’s about having a good concept that considers all components, including excellent service, beautiful design and the clientele to match.”
That’s even starting to happen at the bars of — gasp — big-box chain hotels, which have also been getting makeovers. Says Hanson, the lodging analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers, “Traditional hotels are feeling the competition from lifestyle hotels and one way they can compete is to redo their bars and offer that lifestyle attribute ... Part of the lifestyle image is either facilitated by, or in some cases made distinctive by, what happens in the bar and lounge area.” An appealing bar and lounge area can inspire new perceptions of an otherwise well-known hotel.
That’s exactly what has happened at Zurich’s luxe Park Hyatt outpost, where the hotel’s bar, Onyx, has rightfully trumped many of the city’s stalwart nightspots to become a favorite with private bankers and creative types alike. Among the draws are rare vodka offerings served on the eponymous backlit table-top material, separated by iridescent copper mesh glass panels and showered in soulful tunes. The upmarket and recently renovated Mayfair Hotel in London, one of three five-star properties Radisson Edwardian operates in the British capital, has upped the nightlife ante even further. The outsized and dimly lit bar corner space is defined by black marble surfaces and leather sofas, lending the area a moody nightclub ambiance. They feature UK’s leading DJs every Wednesday through Saturday nights until 1 a.m.
For some properties, simply installing a new bar with a trendy décor isn’t enough. Like East in Hamburg — which sought out a recognized name in Mozer — some properties have enlisted the help of boldfaced-name interior designers to create a new look and start a buzz with the fainéant crowd. That’s very much the case at the Plaza Athénée in Paris, which was given a once-over by the Philipe Starck scion, Patrick Jouin, in 2002. Six years later, the bar, done-up in backlit morphine colors and with period furnishings and light installations, remains an elegant and imaginative space frequented by passels of A-listers.
And those are the exact sorts of intangibles that most hotels are now seeking with their new-look bars. “For many hoteliers this is certainly an aspiration, that the lobby and public areas become so appealing as to become a nightspot destination,” explains Hanson. “And in that respect and especially for those high-end lifestyle hotels, this is a wonderful outcome.”