Sophisticated serenity is the best way to describe luxury hospitality in the Catalan capital where troubles including sky-high petty crime rates, legality surrounding Airbnb, and political tensions bubble under the surface. For a city once considered the coolest in Europe, its development is useful to watch for other cities just now entering their gilded age of tourism.
Barcelona has transformed from overlooked to overcrowded in a few decades, but the Catalan capital is now ready for its latest act.
There is no hotel that better marks its latest evolution as a tourism hot spot than the Sir Victor hotel. Opened this June off the famed Passeig de Gràcia, the city’s newest luxury lifestyle addition celebrates what Barcelona is and what its visitors hope it to be.
The opening comes from Liran Wizman’s Sir Hotel brand that spans Amsterdam, Berlin, Hamburg, and Ibiza. Wizman got his start in hospitality in Israel, first as a lawyer and then in real estate, where he purchased small guesthouses to turn a profit. His investment portfolio continued to grow until the runaway success of the Park Hotel and its restaurant, Momo.
“Everybody asked, ‘How do you open a restaurant in a hotel? Nobody from Amsterdam will go to the hotel,’” explained Wizman.
“It was the opposite, because it was such a big hit and packed from day one. The city loved it, and I really liked this idea of doing something in the city that people from there would actually want to go.”
Although his hotel group would go on to develop projects for major luxury brands such as the Edition and W across Europe, Wizman started to grow tired of third-party projects and the straight real estate play. He sought out to create a stand-alone brand of his own.
“It was very important to me that people would look at it, even if there were only 10, and people would know that it was one of ours,” he said at the recent opening of Sir Victor.
“We are in the business of craftsmanship and tailoring. It is not slogan. Every centimeter is thought through by someone.”
Through a branding exercise, the marque Sir came up. Wizman took this idea and attached Sir to each hotel, with the second word in the name connected to the particular locale where the property is situated.
Sir Victor is named after the Catalan writer Victor Catalá, aka Caterina Albert i Paradís, who wrote under a male pen name and became a symbol of gender equality. The concept of designing a hotel as homage to its neighborhood’s history and culture carries throughout. The Sir Victor holds more than 330 pieces of art from Catalan artists.
The expansion of the small family-led luxury brand throughout Europe is made more interesting through Wizman’s parallel work with major hotel brands.
“With Sir, we are not stuck to any luxury rules, but we really stick to quality. We want the best beds, showers, and amenities, similar to any five-star hotel. But it could be in a different set up. There is more flexibility,” he said.
Luxury Hospitality in Flux
Wizman also has keen insights into the landscape and evolution of luxury hospitality in Barcelona and beyond.
“One of the most important things in this sphere is to really activate the public areas — all the space outside of the room. A really big success for a Sir Hotel would be if 50 percent of the space is open to the public,” he says, reiterating his first experience with Momo’s success in Amsterdam.
“Hospitality is becoming very, very experimental. It is cool. People are constantly trying to invent the wheel all the time.”
International architectural studio Baranowitz + Kronenberg led the redesign of Sir Victor’s ground floor. Inspired by the city’s topography – between the mountains and the sea – B+K intended to design a ‘journey through landscapes’ by introducing multiple environments throughout the public spaces.
The Sir brand caters to a particular kind of luxury consumer who values detail and nuance over formality. It attracts the kind of high-end consumer today who is more about mindset rather than their bottom line.
Barcelona as a Luxury Market
Barcelona’s significance in the hospitality industry remains strong despite many travelers’ apprehension to visit amid seething crowds and a rampant pickpocket problem.
Last year The Edition opened a new property among its global expansion and Soho House opened its second property in Barcelona.
Located a 40-minute drive from the Soho House in Barcelona’s Gothic neighborhood, Little Beach House Barcelona offers all the personality of a Soho property with a distinctively Catalan view of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a kind of play on the alternative properties that Soho House is experimenting with, including the Soho Farmhouse.
Nobu Hotel’s third outpost in Spain, following Ibiza and Marbella, opens this September.
Similar to Sir Victor, the team behind Nobu is conscious that any Barcelona property should pay tribute to the culture that attracts visitors in the first place.
“We are committed to ensuring each Nobu Hotel has its own identity and mirrors the personality of its environment. Rockwell Group, the architects and designers behind the creation of Nobu Hotel Barcelona, blended local artistic techniques with elements of Japanese design to combine the philosophy of Nobu Hotels and the vibrancy of the city of Barcelona,”said Laurence Dubey, the general manager of Nobu Hotel Barcelona.
It is also crafting an experience that speaks to a more laid-back luxury guest. It seeks to deliver a sense of sophisticated serenity in place of white-glove treatment.
“Our guests want luxury, but in a discreet, laid-back, and unpretentious way. They are fun, adventurous travelers who seek discovery and want to unearth the secrets of a destination, exploring up-and-coming neighborhoods and hidden backstreets,” said Dubey.
Other luxury hotel groups such as The Standard Hotels have noticeably excluded Barcelona from their global expansion — either intentionally or for lack of space.
Barcelona’s Regulatory Challenges
Barcelona is also an interesting market to watch through a luxury lens, in light of the regulatory issues spurred by Mayor Ada Colau.
Spain was one of the first markets to start cracking down more heavily on the Airbnb ecosystem. And as Skift Global Tourism Reporter Rosie Spinks wrote in June, Barcelona was one of 10 cities that turned to the European Union for help in regulating Airbnb.
The cities representatives detailed the fear that “homes needed for residents to live and work in our cities will become more and more considered as a market for renting out to tourists.”
But in a post-Airbnb world, do lifestyle luxury hotels really match the value proposition offered by Airbnb? Do their curated attempts at local integration really match what’s possible in a small apartment in a side neighborhood?
Colau was also celebrated in certain circles for placing a hold on many hotel permits starting in 2015.
As European cities across the continent question what role tourism should play and in what way, Barcelona continues to serve as an accelerated market that is redefining what luxury hospitality is.
“Nobu Barcelona is located in an authentic Catalan neighborhood, offering guests the chance to discover a different side of Barcelona — while being just a stone’s throw away from significant sights such as the Montjuïc museums quarter. Our culinary philosophy also blends Japanese influences with local Catalan cuisine — the perfect reflection of a city that’s always at the cutting edge. With that, Nobu Hotel Barcelona goes above and beyond the experience you might have through Airbnb: You can integrate with locals, enjoy top-quality food and beverage and entertainment,” concluded Dubey in an email.
The value propositions of an Airbnb and a luxury lifestyle property such as Sir Victor or Nobu are clearly different — but there just might be a happy blending of the two in Barcelona as the definition of luxury moves toward something more understated yet still knowingly chic.
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Photo credit: The Sir Victor facade. The hotel is one of Barcelona's newest openings. Amit Geron / Sir Hotels