With the rise of so-called urban “innovation districts” rearranging so many downtown cores so quickly, there’s been a lack of hotel product to keep pace that aligns with the startup and creative professional crowds swarming to them.
Launching today, Proper Hotels is a new lifestyle hospitality brand that will attempt to bridge the luxury mindset of a brand like Viceroy Hotels with the quixotic underground spirit of ones like Ace Hotel or 21c Hotels. Opening first in San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood at the end of 2015, Proper is the brainchild of CEO Brad Korzen, the founder and former CEO of Viceroy Hotels.
Along with co-founders Brian De Lowe and Alex Samek, Korzen envisions a hotel experience we really haven’t seen before that’s attempting to embrace the interdisciplinary fusion taking place in innovation districts around the world.
These are urban residential/commercial mixed-use environments that blend historic ‘hoods with high-tech startup firms, DIY culture, low-fi attitudes, and creative influencers of all backgrounds and economic classes.
On top of that, Proper is very much positioned as a luxury hotel brand. So how does that work?
“Our well-traveled, well-educated, creative-minded customers grew up with the wave of boutique hotels, and now they’re looking for something high-end,” says De Lowe. “We want to give them a culturally rich experience, but at the same time, we don’t want to compromise on some of the things that once made the grand hotels of the world so great.”
The world is ready for such a dichotomous vibe that this brand is building, embracing techies, creatives, artists and luxury seekers. It parallels the next generation traveler who is comfortable morphing easily through multiple environments with different people working among a whole strata of economic and professional rungs.
That mashup of identities is immediately evident between the physical disparity of the first two Proper Hotels announced today. The 135-room San Francisco Proper is a reconstruction of the historic, flatiron-style Renoir Hotel located near the offices of Square, Twitter, and Zendesk. It will have three “chef-driven” restaurants and a rooftop lounge with views of the Ferry Building.
In Austin, scheduled for opening in mid-2017, the Austin Proper will be a new 35-story, 250-room contemporary high-rise hotel. It’s located at the Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment that’s extending the borders of Austin’s buzzy 2nd Street District.
“Green Water Treatment Plant is a great example of an innovation district,” says De Lowe. “It’s a warehouse district that’s now the center of the booming downtown Austin area in the southwest quadrant that’s walkable with great retail, offices and restaurants, etc.”
You know we’ve entered a new era, where startup culture reigns, when “offices” are included in a list of cool things that define a neighborhood.
“On a fundamental level we’re bringing great hotels to neighborhoods that really need them,” says De Lowe. “The most exciting neighborhoods in many cities lack hotels that combine world-class services and amenities with creative and cultural energy. We want to change that. The two primary elements defining the brand are the Proper Neighborhood and the Proper Experience. So we’re looking for smaller pockets within culturally rich cities where great thinkers, entrepreneurs and other visionaries are clustering.”
De Lowe adds that the hotels are designed to cater to both locals and visitors equally well to create an eclectic neighborhood hub for all of these freethinkers to gather. Explaining what’s driving that decision, De Lowe says, “We want to create hotels that the locals are proud of.”
Creativity Is the New Luxury
When Viceroy Hotels launched in 1999 (at that time it was called Kor Hotel Group), the lifestyle hospitality sector was just beginning to scale. Korzen says the landscape today is much different because a whole generation of travelers and people working in hospitality are now accustomed to the boutique/design hotel, and they want something more. He says startup culture is the new cool, in America at least, supplanting the designer brand scenesters from a decade ago.
“[Viceroy Hotels] was obviously a valuable experience for us, but we did definitely feel like we’d lost the entrepreneurial spirit,” explains Korzen. “And I think that’s critical, and that’s a driving force for us as a company, to bring back that entrepreneurial, almost startup spirit. That’s how we approach all of our projects and partnerships, and that’s what the really innovative partners want in the local community. They want to work with other entrepreneurs, and I think we really understand that.”
De Lowe says Proper invested in a startup hotel technology company 12 months ago, presently beta testing “cutting edge” guest experience management services. “That goes way beyond keyless entry and virtual concierge, or being able to offer room service off your phone,” he says, which will be announced in late spring.
To corral all of the techy, creative and luxury hotel muses at play here, Korzen hired Joshua Katz as creative director, who previously worked at Levi’s and Quicksilver. Korzen is returning to his Viceroy playbook when he was one of the first hotel CEOs to integrate fashion and runway style into hospitality.
Likewise, Korzen’s go-to interior designer back then was Kelly Wearstler, who singlehandedly defined the Viceroy vintage-residential-glam narrative that made her the darling of interior design mags nationwide (Wearstler is also Korzen’s wife). Korzen is again employing Wearstler to handle interior design duties, which should be interesting to see how she brings Austin’s gritty weirdness and San Francisco’s nouveau nerdiness into the upscale lodging experience.
“A lot of design inspiration is going to come from local and residential, and with Kelly there’s always an interesting juxtaposition of vintage and modern in the public spaces and the rooms,” says Korzen. “Her work is often unexpected and that’s always going to be our focus—unique and thoughtful—blended with refinement and luxury.”
The new website provides a glimpse into what that actually might look like. It’s difficult to define. The video begins with images from the halcyon hotel days of 1950s California, Florida and New York, ranging from Miami’s Fontainebleau to San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. It then segues into modern imagery of someone pouring a French Press coffee, reading a newspaper in bed, bike-walking a dog, and Austin’s live music scene.
It’s really a chronology of travel from the early part of the 20th century to today. And perhaps that’s the best way to define where we’ve arrived as inspiration-seeking travelers in 2015—a mashup of the entire journey.
In the website and press materials, there’s numerous mentions about “grand hotel” experiences. Both Korzen and De Lowe speak about returning to classic notions of service and civility of grand hotels, but that’s difficult to square away with visions of hyper-caffeinated groups of coders swinging by for early breakfast.
The idea of it, however, is a bit of marketing smarts and the sweet spot in the crowded lifestyle hotel space. Imagine hanging out at Proper Austin’s bar with the Trammel Crow executives developing the Green Water Treatment Plant, a tattooed West Coast band playing nights at one of Austin’s top 56 bars, and a group of TeXchange boys fawning over their craft beer.
Just like today’s modern, difficult to categorize travelers, Proper Hotels is all over the place in terms of its physical delivery. Psychographically, however, we’re keyed in. We get it. We can’t really explain it, but we know what it’s going to feel like and who’s going to be sitting at the bar when we get there.
Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email him at email@example.com.