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“So if you want to know the secret of Ace, it’s all about baking,” said Brad Wilson, president of Ace Hotel Group, during last month’s Hospitality Design Americas show in Miami Beach.

“I’m a professional baker and I ran an artisanal bakery for seven years, and in some ways that’s the root of everything we do at Ace,” he continued. “It’s about handmade, it’s about craft, it’s about organic and good quality ingredients.”

Wilson was on hand to discuss the development and design of the 50-room American Trade Hotel Casco Viejo, which opened in the fall last year in the original part of Panama City. But as he talked, he was really discussing the development of the Ace brand and its evolution beyond the brand.

He opened his speech by stressing that, while people know him as the president of the Ace Hotel Group, his real role is president of Atelier Ace, which he said is the creative force behind the hotel operation, as well as other products and services outside hospitality. The company presently has about 50 people with a dozen or so working full time in architecture and design.

That’s an interesting distinction because this is the first hotel in the group that’s not branded Ace. It has its own public relations arm, it did have its own dedicated url before redirecting to the Ace portal, and it’s the first hotel in the group to be positioned as a luxury property.

This is purely conjecture, but the American Trade vision could scale beautifully worldwide in other emerging urban cores in important historic places. Whereas, Ace Hotel works well in L.A. and London, but does the hipster-ish vibe translate well in Ho Chi Minh or Buenos Aires? Or more importantly, does Ace’s low-fi ambience attract a high enough average daily rate to make development worthwhile in emerging or underserved markets.

Wilson showed how American Trade’s RevPAR (revenue per available room) compares with the other luxury hotel product in Panama City. The local, upscale Bristol Hotel averages $72.85, Trump Panama is $103.20, and American Trade is delivering $131.83—in its first year.

He added, “The culmination of everything we do in design in the end is how it’s a draw for demand, and how it builds revenue for the properties.”

Therefore, a higher-tier brand like American Trade opens up new opportunities in new markets as a boutique luxury flag with a more polished design narrative, integrating a hint of Graham Greene intrigue and romantic Somerset Maugham sophistication.

Although, the way he positions it, you really don’t get the sense that Wilson is looking to open up new markets in order to open up new markets.

It sounds more like the hotel group just wants to create killer spaces for creatives by rebuilding historic buildings and funk-ifying the bejesus out of them, much like two other future-thinking hotel brands we’ve covered: Singapore’s Unlisted Collection and Mexico’s Grupo Habita.

The overarching goal seems to revolve around building a community of various artisans and creative professionals first, within a rough-around-the-edges area with a faded yet glamorous pastiche. And then, let’s just see if we can’t find a cool building somewhere around here to fix up nice and hang out in.

“So there in the crossroads of the world, the American Trade Hotel is the first bespoke luxury hotel by Atelier Ace,” said Wilson. “Our typical approach to projects is to bring in a lot of talented people who do things that inspire us. And as we bring them together, we try to get a building that really has a sense of people, and the people behind it, and the people who make it.”

Casco Viejo, just like Shoreditch in London and downtown Los Angeles, where the two latest Aces opened, is exactly that kind of community with exactly those type of people.

Equally important, Ace found a kindred spirit in the Conservatorio real estate development company whose mission is to revitalize the UNESCO-designated city. Wilson said that partnership lured Ace to Panama City more than anything else because Ace wanted to be involved in the place making opportunity to redefine Casco. It wants to help redefine Panama as the new hub of the Americas, or what he calls “the next Miami.”

“We find it to be a natural meeting place for influencers, creatives and cultures from around the world,” explained Wilson, “which is what draws us to a lot of what we do.”

The Next Luxury

All of the doors for American Trade’s guest rooms were rescued from New York’s Plaza Hotel before it was converted into condos. The local wood floors were reclaimed from flooded forests created by the new canal construction.

Other interior design elements include original commemorative posters of the canal in the Café Unido coffee shop, and a photographic mosaic of Panamanian graffiti lining the main staircase.

The building itself dates back to 1917 when it opened as a department store importing U.S. goods, with the offices and the owner’s apartments located upstairs. Atelier Ace also incorporated a couple adjacent townhouses and an old bank that it converted into one of Panama’s largest ballrooms.

“We worked very, very closely with Hache Uve, a historic architectural firm, and they helped us really bring the building back to its original heritage and focus on making it have that sense of time and place,” Wilson said. “And we worked with Commune Design out of West Hollywood for the interiors to bring in a more modern approach.”

The end result, as he describes it, is Italian post-modernism meets Mexican modernism meets American colonialism.

In tune with Ace’s M.O., the hotel experience integrates local partners to oversee all of the outlets. Actually, Ace kind of invented that trend.

Local chef Clara Icaza, ranked among the top 20 young chefs in Latin America, helms The Dining Room at American Trade Hotel. Grammy-winning Panamanian jazz pianist and composer Danilo Perez operates Danilo’s Jazz Club.

Summing up the design mission, Wilson said you can’t remake old world elegance, you can only interpret it, so the designers made sure the hotel references Casco Viejo today.

“By staying at the American Trade, our guests are in the right place at the right time to be part of something, and it’s our job to give them what they need to harness the full potential of the moment,” said Wilson. “Every guest is part of history because their interaction, experiences and the stories they bring home will influence what happens next.”

When Atelier Ace first arrived on the scene, the hotel was in “rack and ruin.” The historic city was just beginning to regain its identity after losing so many residents to the high-rise apartments lining the beach across the bay.

According to Wilson, the old city was filled with gangs and mobsters in the 1980s and 90s during the height of the international cocaine wars before the area began to redevelop. At the time, the skeletal American Trade building was home to some colorful residents like the only lesbian gang in Panama.

Wilson said, “They unfortunately have left.”

Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email:

Photo Credit: American Trade Hotel Casco Viejo, Panama City / Ace Hotel Group