Eric Laignel

There’s been a global explosion of design-focused, tech-savvy hotels. And with so many to choose from, here’s how to tell them apart—and find the right one for you.

August 18, 2015

With brands you've never heard of popping up on what seems like a weekly basis, choosing a place to stay has gotten harder than ever. It doesn’t help that so many of them sound the same, look the same, and promise the same amenities. In short, they’re all examples of what the hotel industry calls a “lifestyle” hotel—which generally means a sense of style at a reasonable price. To help you figure out the brand for you, Travel + Leisure scouted the fastest-growing newcomers to see what makes them tick and how well they live up to their ambitions.
 

1 Hotels

The big idea: High-end style with a (relatively) low carbon footprint, for those who like the idea of eco-friendly hotels but don’t want to sacrifice comfort.
Where they are now: Miami and Manhattan
Where they’re going next: Brooklyn
Starting rate: $399

As flashy, scene-driven hotels open up at lightning speed in Miami, there’s rarely much talk among developers of environmentalism. But at the 1 Hotel South Beach, sustainability is the driving force. The airy, earth-toned lobby has a living wall and a ceiling made from reclaimed oak from the East Coast. An excellent Tom Colicchio restaurant on the first floor emphasizes farm-to-table cooking. And in our whitewashed, 650-square-foot entry-level room, we found recycled-cardboard hangers, cedar-scented bath products in big, reusable bottles, and a thoughtful welcome note made out of plantable seed paper. The hotel even invested in 399a triple-filtered water system to encourage guests to reach for the tap, not the Evian.

A green ethos can sometimes make for awkward service (might I reuse my towels?), but not here: at the 1 Hotel South Beach, the youthful staff is more soulful than preachy. Room-service tea trays, for example, arrive within 10 minutes, bearing a tiny cactus as decoration. And upon checkout, guests who ask for a printed copy of their bill will be met with a polite refusal—the hotel, we were told, is trying to be paper-free.


Hyatt Centric

The big idea: Super-central locations and reasonable prices cater to the masses, while communal work spaces and a residential aesthetic appeal to a younger set.
Where they are now: Miami and Chicago
Where they’re going next: Atlanta, New York, Paris, and a dozen other cities
Starting rate: $229

Hyatt Centric was conceived for the “modern explorer,” an eye-roll-inducing term that could be ascribed to nearly anyone with a passport. But if broad appeal, rather than uniqueness, is what Hyatt is going for, then its first property, in Chicago’s historic Loop, gets it right. The rooms are monochromatic and soothing (some will call them crisp; others, generic), with smart tech features like Bluetooth-enabled TVs and free high-speed Wi-Fi. There’s little to draw a local crowd besides a solid French bistro, but small details, like an onyx fireplace in the lounge and vibrant artwork in the lobby, succeed at making the hotel feel more boutique than bare-bones.

An unbuttoned vibe helps trim costs—see the stripped-down room service, which swaps carts and china for bagged-up drop-offs. But without any real links to the city—not even local snacks in our mini-bar—the brand’s promise to supply an “authentic” experience rings a bit hollow. Maybe modern explorers can find all that themselves.

Courtesy of the Hyatt Centric


Moxy

The big idea: A budget-friendly, DIY-inspired chain (brown-bag breakfasts, self check-in) with an eclectic, highbrow design philosophy.
Where they are now: Milan
Where they’re going next: New Orleans, Munich, London, and Copenhagen
Starting ratee: $70

Owned by Marriott but developed by a division of IKEA, Moxy’s Milan debut could have been a showroom for flat-pack particleboard furniture. But the brand has aimed higher than that: the lobby-slash-bar is outfitted with colorful pendant lights and tweed-covered armchairs; the boxy but well-appointed rooms have Avedonesque floor-to-ceiling photographs; and the library “plug-in zone” is lined with shelves of design and fashion books. Moxy, it turns out, delivers on style as much as it does on value.

There are caveats, however. A location in Malpensa airport is better suited to business travelers than the creative types we saw at the self-serve coffee bar (several of the slated openings are near airports), and the “hassle-free” mobile check-in turns out to be a fantasy—by 9:30 p.m. the line snaked from the front desk to the front door. Want to explore? The bus to Central Station takes an hour. It’s a bargain not without sacrifices.

Rendering Courtesy of Marriott International


AC Hotels

The big idea: Catering to next-gen business travelers with a credo that “you get only what you need, and don’t pay for what you don’t.”
Where they are now: Throughout Europe; Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, and more
Where they’re going next: Across the U.S., Canada, and Latin America
Starting rate: $189

Marriott’s AC has a fiercely loyal fan base in Spain, where it has 61 hotels. So it’s no surprise that the U.S. debut, in New Orleans’ Cotton Exchange building, borrows from its predecessors, with tortilla española in the breakfast room and wines on tap in the lobby.

The formula translates well. AC delivers on what you need to be productive, like free bottled water, Wi-Fi, and outlets galore. There’s no restaurant or room service, but the airy design makes you think you’re in an indie hotel, complete with arched windows and high ceilings.

The Miami and Chicago locations, however, don’t benefit from a character-packed building—one was a takeover of a nondescript budget hotel; the other, a new build—and their amenities are too insubstantial to add to the experience. AC Libraries amounted to two workstations in the lobby, and a calendar of events with various influencers has yet to be determined. The saving grace: the no-frills rooms are always comfortable, with fair prices, to boot.

Courtesy of Marriott International


Graduate Hotels

The big idea: Alumni can relive their glory days in a college-town hotel that’s done its homework on the local scene.
Where they are now: Athens, Georgia; Charlottesville, Virginia; Madison, Wisconsin; Oxford, Mississippi; and Tempe, Arizona
Where they’re going next: Richmond, Virginia, and Durham, North Carolina
Starting rate: $119

Graduate Athens, a stone’s throw from the University of Georgia, aims to reflect the city’s preppy-but-quirky culture and prove that it “gets” its hometown better than its competitors do. In the lobby, vintage prints hang above glen-plaid-patterned chairs, and the colorful rooms mix details like Georgia-pine-green walls, bright-yellow headboards and collegiate tartan pillows. Our favorite design feature was a framed chalkboard with the chemical equation for sweet tea—a little offbeat, yet substantively Southern. Just like Athens itself.

But the hotel struggles in other ways. While the public spaces, including a coffee shop and a live music venue, are in a former iron foundry with exposed-brick walls and dramatic, beamed ceilings (all but one of the Graduate properties are in repurposed spaces), most rooms fill a lackluster two-story building across the parking lot. In other words: getting from your Athena Suite to the lobby is a bit of a buzzkill. Architectural pitfalls aside, Graduate is a step up for travelers to Athens, as it should be in other small towns, too.

Courtesy of Graduate Hotels


Lark Hotels

The big idea: A collection of design-centric inns in popular (mostly Northeastern) vacation destinations, each with its own name, a handful of rooms, and a family-run feel.
Where they are now: Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts
Where they’re going next: Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley, and Nashville
Starting rate: $129

With a sitting room awash in magenta and purple and a lobby covered in kaleidoscopic butterfly wallpaper, the 17-room Gilded, in Newport, Rhode Island, doesn’t trade in the usual New England nautical clichés. Instead, it was inspired by nearby mansions from the Gilded Age (or, as some locals call it, the decadent era of “Keeping up with the Vanderbilts”). The ironic twist: the building once included servant quarters for employees of the wealthy. As with many Lark hotels, some old charms remain, like creaky wooden floors, hidden staircases, and oddly angled rooms.

Along with gold accents and vibrant, velvet-covered headboards, the guest rooms are stocked with iPads (given at check-in) and have free Wi-Fi and sleek (though incredibly small) bathrooms. But where service is concerned, Lark keeps things pleasantly old-fashioned. Front-desk attendants appear within seconds of a bell chime, and the general manager has been known to sit with guests for drinks on the porch. Breakfast, included in the stay, is another brand-wide, inn-inspired perk, with dainty, single-portion servings of everything from blueberry-topped oatmeal to cups of fresh fruit arranged by—what else?—color.

Rare Brick


Even Hotels

The big idea: InterContinental Hotel Group’s ode to healthy living, complete with calorie-conscious food offerings and in-room fitness zones.
Where they are now: Norwalk, Connecticut, and Rockville, Maryland
Where they’re going next: Manhattan and Brooklyn
Starting rate: $149

The first brand to be completely dedicated to wellness, Even wants to help its guests maintain physical and mental balance—something that can easily come undone on the road. Its key components—Keep Active, Rest Easy, Eat Well, and Accomplish More—are more than just marketing-speak: they’re the product of thorough research, during which IHG documented guests’ at-home habits and dissected every way in which the experience of traveling can be disruptive to sleep, fitness, nutrition, and productivity.

The end result meets the mark, as it’s nearly impossible to make bad choices at Even’s first location in Norwalk, Connecticut. At check-in, guests receive maps of outdoor running routes and reusable water bottles to stay hydrated (there are fill-up stations on each floor). As an alternative to the lobby gym, the spacious rooms have balance balls, yoga mats, and resistance bands, plus a workout manual and videos by celebrity trainers. Healthy foods help keep the momentum going: at the aptly named Cork & Kale, the menu slants toward superfood-packed salads and wine rather than burgers and beer. Overall, the experience feels surprisingly motivating—lazy travelers, be warned.


Courtesy of Even Hotels

Reported by Nikki Ekstein, Allison Weiss Entrekin, Jacqueline Gifford, Katie James, Brooke Porter Katz, Amy Tara Koch, Greg Oates, Sandra Ramani, and Valerie Waterhouse.

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