Luxury hotels today are opening with a new amenity that seeks to satiate its curious clientele while simultaneously courting locals for a visit. The emergence of cultural programming at luxury properties is a global trend seen from the artistic center of Johannesburg to the countryside outside London.
The ever-evolving definition of luxury now includes knowledge and information as well as intimate access to influencers and experts.
Heckfield Place, a 400-plus acre estate, hotel and farm, opened this September an hour outside of London. Its existence extends beyond traditional hospitality, seeking to establish it as a cultural center for tourists as well as weekenders from London and the affluent communities that surround it.
The property opened with a year-long series of events and talks, dubbed “The Assembly,” featuring an impressive lineup including talks with journalist Christiane Amanpour and chef (and on-site culinary director) Skye Gyngell. There are talks and screenings with authors, documentarians and explorers as well as hands-on workshops and courses for adults and families.
General manager Olivia Richli joined the team for the opening after opening luxury properties for Aman and Soneva across Europe and Asia.
“The inspiration behind The Assembly really came from our owners. He’s an academic and very keen that you take away more than a luxury hotel experience, that you leave with something you learned,” said Richli.
Each month the team curates a different area. October’s theme was fashion. Speakers included Giles Deacon, Alexandra Shulman and Justine Picardie as well as a fashion illustration workshop. The team is also working on a series of talks around what professionals do after a high-profile and successful career.
There are daily tours of the grounds, several movies per week, a talk every weekend, and live screenings, such as this winter’s showing of The Nutcracker. Children can take part in kids activities designed around the grounds. They learn how to navigate the woods, make a fire, meet piglets and plant seeds.
Richli is aiming for a 50-50 mix of attendees including guests and day visitors from the educated, cultured and affluent commuter belt surrounding the property.
Guests and day visitors pay for the events which range from $13 (£10) to $33 (£25) or more. Speakers aren’t paid, but get dinner and a night at the hotel in exchange for their presentation.
Curated Arts in Johannesburg
The Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff in Johannesburg, South Africa, is another property that’s making use of its location and abundance of fresh air in an otherwise crowded metropolis.
The hotel opened in 2014 after an eighteen-month, $56 million redevelopment and in 2017 introduced a specially curated program of arts and culture events called Art on the Hill. That initiative actually began as Jazz on the Hill and grew into a full calendar of events across a range of disciplines and arts. A new website recently launched detailing the calendar with a booking portal for guests and locals.
The hotel seeks to be more than a luxury destination, almost like the privileged kid on the hill who insists that he too can be cool, welcoming the local community to experience the city’s cultural and artistic communities in a different way and boasting its new role.
“With the advent of Art on the Hill, the hotel’s beautiful premises on Westcliff Ridge…have become more than a beacon of luxury and the high point in Johannesburg hospitality. Now, it is also an experiential cultural and artistic destination – the home of a unique new engagement with the city’s artistic and cultural life, as well as with select international performers,” read the hotel’s announcement.
The program’s inaugural photography exhibition was a pop-up gallery in a temporarily converted basement parking area. Subsequent programming included music and jazz performances, art, visual and photographic exhibitions, ballet, fashion events, and art talks — with a vision to turn all public spaces into ever-changing exhibitions of local and regional art.
Art as homage to Johannesburg’s past plays a central role. The hotel opened with a curated collection of contemporary African art and giant concrete plinths topped with sculptures created from mining core drill in homage to the area’s mining history. In all, the hotel commissioned 375 original artworks from local artists for the its guest rooms and public spaces.
A Space to Create in Barcelona
Boutique hotel Casa Bonay in Barcelona opened an events and cultural center in January 2018.
Dubbed Nica, the multifunctional space was designed by Brooklyn-based Studio Tack for events of 300 people with a layout that adapts to individual events through the use of six moveable monoliths. It be set up as everything from a screening room or lecture theatre to yoga studio or exhibition hall.
“This new addition is key for the hotel…it will enable us to offer further added value to our clients, providing them with a unique space for events and meetings. At the same time, through the new space we will be able to create and develop great cultural content for the city and our guests,” Casa Bonay co-founder Inés Miró-Sans, said at its launch.
A year in and the space is best known among locals with music, movie nights and album listening parties — simultaneously offering an intimate nightlife experience for hotel guests.
The creation of these cultural programmings marks a shift in the luxury market where experiences and knowledge are, if not more, significant than a material or superficial manifestation of luxury.
A younger but growing affluent demographic doesn’t necessarily save up for a luxury hotel stay.
“They save up to do amazing experience whether it’s jumping out of a plane, going to the theater, eating in an amazing restaurant, going to hear your hero speak, or going to a literary festival. I think it adds another layer to have the Assembly part of what we do. It makes a good reason to go and adds to it,” said Richli.
“From my perspective, it’s not just about a beautiful room. It’s about amazing food, what you can experience there.”