Airport hotels have always been necessary but unloved stopover spots for the depleted traveler, places to shower, rehydrate, and let the body recuperate from the merciless rigors of flying. But as I check into the Hilton Frankfurt Airport, which opened in December, I find much more than that. It is an example of the emerging generation of airport hotels that are intended to function as destinations, real places where one might reasonably stay longer than a single night. Or, as Andrew Flack, vice president of global brand marketing for Hilton, frames it, “Guests desire something more experiential, not just transactional.”
Some of the best and most spectacular airport hotels are in Asia: the Regal in Hong Kong; the Crowne Plaza in Singapore. Now the rest of the world is catching up, and the newest airport hotels in Europe, the United States, Latin America, and elsewhere are responding to the generalized craving for experience Flack describes. And there’s more going on than that: the increasing sophistication of these hotels parallels a reemergence of civilization—daring architecture; edible food—in airports themselves. The improved hotels are one component of a backlash against that shiny one-world placelessness that airports have long cultivated. Moreover, they are being retooled for a new breed of business traveler. “The nature of work is changing,” says Erin Hoover, head of design for the Sheraton and Westin brands, “and it’s very collaborative.”
These days, far-flung colleagues gather at convenient hubs and regard the airport hotel as the functional equivalent of a rural retreat—one that is, at the same time, seamlessly connected to the world. That’s more or less the point of the daylight-flooded Sheraton designed by Rome-based King Roselli that opened last year at Milan Malpensa and the Hilton that will debut in 2014 at Amsterdam’s Schiphol, a shimmery, rounded cube from the adventurous Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo.
The Hilton Frankfurt Airport is a stylish, hyper-connected oasis, too. It’s a painless stroll from Terminal 1 of Europe’s third-busiest airport, accessible from almost anyplace on the planet. The hotel, along with the lower-priced Hilton Garden Inn, occupies the eastern end of the Squaire (a name meant to evoke town square and air), an ultra-elongated mixed-use complex that rests on angled columns atop a high-speed rail station, is adjacent to the airport’s commuter-train station, and is squeezed between two major autobahns. When Squaire managing director Christoph Nebl characterizes it as “the best-connected spot in Europe,” he’s not exaggerating.
The hotel’s high-tech architectural style is an outgrowth of the Squaire’s, which, despite its name, is shaped like an enormous zeppelin with a clear-glass roof. The Hilton has two stacks of rooms on either side of the sunny atrium, with transparent elevators—even their mechanisms are exposed—at one end. Eye-catching touches include low-slung Patricia Urquiola–designed chairs in the lobby; beds with white leather headboards and cunning built-in stainless-steel reading lamps; and, my favorite gesture, a half-dozen orbs (like ultra-minimalist Chinese lanterns) suspended from the atrium roof that glow in different colors at night.
Despite the technocratic look—exposed steel trusses; a mirrored-tile-covered structure housing a ballroom; loads of LED lighting—the word general manager Charles Muller uses to describe it is cozy. Precisely because of all the glass and steel, and the close proximity to incoming jets, Hamburg-based interior design firm Joi “placed particular emphasis on bringing a tactile and comfortable experience into the bedrooms,” says Joi’s managing director, Peter Joehnk. “Soft forms such as leather-clad wardrobes and stylized wingback chairs that curve gently around one’s shoulders,” he says, “help create a nurturing ambience.”
A nurturing ambience. At the airport. In addition, there is comfort food, all very German, very grounded. For dinner at the hotel’s warmly decorated Rise, I order the “local special,” a Vogelsberger onion tart. This cultural specificity, the exact opposite of placelessness, the last thing you expect at the airport, is the point. Hilton should be good at this. Not only did the company invent the airport hotel—it opened the very first one, in San Francisco, in 1959—but, as Flack argues, specificity is a corporate strong suit. “As a brand, we’ve always been focused on being sympathetic to the region or the location. It’s always been about what’s right for this place.” It’s just that, until very recently, airports didn’t count as places. Now airport hotels—like the newly opened Hilton in London, Novotel in Auckland, New Zealand, and Element in Miami—are catching up, bringing technology, design, and style to the international stopover. —Karrie Jacobs