Today’s travelers are after those all-important personalized touches that leave them with real, lasting connections to the places they visit. Indeed, people have always sought those experiences, but the isolation many felt in the early months of the pandemic has made the promise of authenticity a bigger draw than ever, and as a result, a handful of new brands are making it their top priority.
They’ve partnered with designers, chefs, and performers from the surrounding communities to dream up innovative new ways to immerse guests in local culture from the moment they step through the door.
Take Janu: Like its sister brand Aman, it attracts those desiring a restorative experience, but it offers a more spirited social scene than its ultra-secluded older sibling. Partnering with longtime collaborator Jean-Michel Gathy of Denniston, the first Janu hotel will open in Tokyo’s Azabudai Hills community this winter. In addition to six dining options, the 122-room property will boast a 43,000-square-foot wellness center, making it one of the largest in the city.
Meanwhile, Trailborn is bringing boutique hotels to some of the most spectacular and rugged parts of the U.S., starting in the Rocky Mountains with its inaugural Electric Bowery-designed property, which opens this fall, and expanding to places like the Grand Canyon and the Blue Ridge Mountains. “We spent a lot of time looking at the most iconic outdoor destinations in the market,” says company cofounder and co-CEO Michael Weiss. “The hotel supply in those markets was not the inspirational places we see the traveler looking for today. [We’re offering guests] new adventures in one big package.”
Here’s a closer look at four other new brands hoping to speak to the evolving traveler with their unique proposition.
Lark Hotels is returning to its roots with a collection of one-of-a-kind guest houses under the Blind Tiger brand. “Lark started out with very small, highly bespoke properties,” says Rob Blood, the company’s founder. All the Blind Tiger locations are “under 20 rooms, in highly cultural small cities, and they have a very distinctive focus on design,” he adds.
Each room comes with a unique welcome letter and itinerary created by someone from the community. The brand’s name, a euphemism for a speakeasy, alludes to the Prohibition-era legacy of its first guest house in Portland, Maine.
Blind Tiger now encompasses a pair of six- and nine-room houses in Portland, a stately 14-room house in Asheville, North Carolina, and an even grander 14-room mansion in Burlington, Vermont. Blood and his wife, Meg Kennedy, Lark’s creative director and cofounder of design firm Elder & Ash, are on the lookout now for the next addition.
The details are different at every property and in every room. In Asheville, Kennedy brought in sculptural wooden furniture pieces in homage to the city’s street art and scenic natural views. In Burlington, she drew inspiration from the city’s quirkiness and eco-consciousness, finding ways to repurpose existing furniture (and include plenty of flannel). The building’s solarium came with a green and white checkered marble floor—“something that would be cost prohibitive to do [now]” Kennedy says—which inspired her to add a matching U-shaped sectional with an eye-catching pattern and fill the space with plants.
Guests are meant to “feel like they’re in a residential setting, staying with a friend who is connected to a lot of other people in the community,” Blood says. “Our focus is on that sense of communal interaction, rather than a transactional stay experience.”
Having debuted in Newport, Rhode Island in 2020 with a design from New York studio Reunion Goods & Services, Dovetail + Co’s Wayfinder brand brings boutique hotels to “iconic, deeply experiential locations,” says Phil Hospod, founder and CEO of the hotel development and ownership company. He aims to show Wayfinder’s guests there is more to Newport and Waikiki, home to the second Wayfinder property, than pretty beaches and photo ops—all at an affordable price point.
“When we started the Wayfinder Newport, we wanted to be able to show you the sailing capital of the Northeast and the polo fields and vineyards, but we also wanted to get you to the oyster farmer and show you what it feels like to taste an oyster that’s pulled right out of the ocean,” Hospod says. The hotel, which was damaged in a fire last year, has since reopened with limited service.
The brand enlisted Honolulu-based design firm the Vanguard Theory to translate its vision from the East Coast to the Pacific and weave O’ahu’s multiculturalism into every element of the 228-room Waikiki hotel. For instance, a Brutalist-inspired mosaic of hand-dyed natural fabrics, made by another local designer, hangs behind the front desk. The pool bar contains wood from invasive albizia trees that were removed from the landscape and topped with a salvaged slab of monkeypod wood.
“We want to present a story that connects the guests not only to the physical space but to the people there that make a space special,” says Vanguard Theory cofounder Michelle Jaime.
The next Wayfinder is in the works in the eastern Sierra Nevada of California, where a history of gold mining adds depth to the high desert region’s outdoorsy, adventurous spirit.
Romer Neighborhood Hotels
Romer Hell’s Kitchen, the inaugural 295-room location from Highgate-owned brand Romer Neighborhood Hotels, was created to become a community pillar. The New York property (the Romer Waikiki at the Ambassador opened in September) draws on pre-war apartment style to give guests the sense that they’re staying in a home arranged by someone with excellent, if eclectic, taste.
Individual rooms curated by Brooklyn, New York firm Islyn Studio pair vintage-inspired furniture and retro-informed wallpaper with works by emerging Hell’s Kitchen artists. The Goodrich-designed public spaces, meanwhile, clad in wood paneling and illuminated with soft lighting, are meant to adapt easily to a wide range of uses. Musicians perform nightly at the hotel’s piano bar, and in the Neighborhood Café, stars of the Hell’s Kitchen culinary scene are invited to bring their creations directly to guests.
“We want the guest experience to be personalized with recommendations around the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood,” says Callie Peck, the hotel’s creative director, “combined with the residential feeling of an apartment stay, and the polish and hospitality of a boutique hotel.”
Room keys double as “keys to the neighborhood,” with QR codes linking to exclusive offers from local businesses, while the hotel’s Corner Store is packed with information about the products and brands available nearby. The idea, Peck says, is for guests to “check in, then get out of here.”
Collective Retreats recently launched the Conservatory, a portfolio of design-forward, nature-based existing hotels around the world “that are more unique, different, and special,” says founder and CEO Peter Mack. “There’s no one-stop shop where a consumer can find a curated group of properties that intentionally connect people to nature through thoughtful design and beautiful hospitality. That’s what the Conservatory is.”
The brand’s eight announced locations—with more to be added soon—tend to have standalone rooms that connect guests directly to the outdoors along with design elements indoors that call on the landscapes around them. The 24-room Piaule in New York’s Catskills, for instance, positions its beds directly across from floor-to-ceiling glass doors that look out over the mountains. Meanwhile, the five suites and collection of safari tents at Casa MUSA in Mexico are situated on a lush peninsula on the Pacific Coast beneath the Sierra Madre del Sur range.
“It’s important for people to truly connect to nature,” Mack says. “We were built to savor the sunset. We were built to respond with positive feelings when we hear the wind blow or birds chirp. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the Conservatory.”
Photos by Sean Davidson, David Dworkind, Dorothy Hong, Matt Kisiday, Lover Lover, Read McKendree, Mariko Reed, Surf Please, and rendering courtesy of Janu
This article originally appeared in HD’s October 2023 issue.