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The Grupo Habita hotel collection launched in Mexico City with Habita Hotel in 2000. Since then, the unerringly edgy brand has expanded coast to coast with 13 hotels south of the border. In 2011, Grupo Habita made a big splash in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood with its first U.S. property, Hôtel Americano. And this month, the company returned to its roots with the opening of Hotel Escondido on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Managing partner Carlos Couturier’s illuminating session at the new LE Miami hotel tradeshow this past summer focused on how Grupo Habita builds hotels that build communities. You can download the mp3 here. It should be required listening for anyone in the hospitality industry because it exemplifies how the most innovative hotels are becoming much more than hotels.
Couturier opened his session with a couple questions: “A fun hotel can be built in a boring city; a boring hotel can exist in the most exciting city in the world. So what makes a hotel appealing? What makes a destination unique?”
When Habita Hotel first opened, younger international leisure travelers didn’t see anything all that appealing about Mexico City. By creating the first boutique design hotel in the capital, Grupo Habita began catering to a previously untapped market. According to Couturier, that would become the company’s defining legacy, with an overarching mission to create hotels representing the people who live and work around them.
“People seek specific essences in their travel, a particular point of view,” Couturier explained. “They also seek a hotel experience reflecting this essence, choosing a hotel for its translation of place and perspective…. [So] we don’t choose a city. We choose a community.”
Grupo Habita started attracting the attention of international travel media in 2001 with its second hotel, Deseo [Hotel + Lounge], in Playa del Carmen. Back then, Playa’s main role in Mexican tourism was basically a waystation for ferry transfers to Cozumel.
“Now, that has all changed, Playa del Carmen is a big tourist destination in Mexico, but we were there first,” said Couturier. “And then we realized how important it was, and what a hotel could do for a destination, for a town with this essence I was just telling you about.”
The third hotel in the collection, CONDESA df in Mexico City further capitalized on the idea that a hotel can be a community accelerator. It can, in essence, become the community.
The 40-room hotel opened in January 2005 in the Condesa district, which was slowly becoming the Tribeca circa 1980s of Mexican urban art and culture. Artists, designers and other members of the creative class were setting up shop in droves but with few places to network.
“There was no neighborhood, there was nothing around it,” recalled Couturier. “But it made sense to create a social hub, a space that was the center of action where all of this diaspora of creative people will interact… and will meet each other. And this is what happened at this hotel. The whole experience was about the community more than the space itself.”
With its business and design models now established, Grupo Habita began expanding more rapidly throughout Mexico. It opened successful small hotels in less traveled destinations like La Purificadora in Puebla outside Mexico City, Hotel Endemico in the mountainous wine country of Baha, and the only design hotel in Mexico’s northern Sierra Madre region: Hotel Habita MTY in Monterrey.
These destinations were all without significant international leisure tourism when Couturier & Co. showed up on the scene.
Couturier suggested that Grupo Habita could have chosen more established mass tourism destinations to expand from Cancun to Cabo. Explaining his perspective during the expansion, he said, “We chose a city where we could make a difference, where we could again integrate the design into the personality of the city.”
Back in Mexico’s capital, the hotel group continued to flex its community building spirit with a growing new trend in hospitality: the hybrid hotel/hostel concept. The adjoining Downtown Mexico hotel and Downtown Beds hostel cater to “young and not-so-young, well-informed, design-oriented travelers.”
The two projects offer a similar experience at two different price points, attracting a wide spectrum of traveler demographics to a previously underserved, yet intriguing colonial part of the city. The district itself was interesting. There was just no interesting place to stay.
“In the old part of town, where probably even three or four years ago, even if you were from Mexico City, you wouldn’t go there because it was either boring or not really happening,” said Couturier. “We said let’s do something with the space that has an essence, has a past, and let’s do something different. Let’s just break the mold…. And, it worked.”
After twelve hotels in Mexico, Grupo Habita was ready to spread it wings in America.
“It was tough to decide where to do it,” explained Couturier. “So we said, ‘Okay, let’s not make a mistake. Let’s go first to Austin, Texas because it’s smaller. If we don’t do it right, no one will notice.'”
Instead, some New York developers came calling, saying they had the perfect space in Chelsea. On the roof of Hôtel Americano, there’s a small pool, bar and restaurant. It feels like a house party. The scene is sophisticated with a crowd that spends a lot of time at gallery events and fashion shows. Most of all, it is a very New York experience—or rather, a very Chelsea experience.
The global media has fallen for this hotel like few others in Manhattan in recent memory. From BlackBook: “Hôtel Americano, the latest from those ceaseless purveyors of fabulosity at Mexico’s Grupo Habita, brings a decidedly civilized edge to a stretch of 27th Street that once served as nightlife’s depravity road.”
Next up is Austin, and the safe bet seems that they’ll do it right. Other projects under consideration are Guadalajara and a second hotel in New York.
“We really believe that it doesn’t matter where you build a hotel,” said Couturier. “It’s the passion you put into doing it. It’s the software that you add…. There has to be a human side to the experience. It’s about creating experiences for your guests and making the world better through hospitality.”
Greg Oates covers hospitality trends and next generation hotels. He has participated in 1,000+ hotel site inspections in over 50 countries.