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AAA Traveler Worldwise | Travel Inspiration
Hotels That Make a Scene

ONCE CONTENT TO BLEND IN, TODAY’S HOTELS WORK HARD TO STAND OUT.

When it opened in 1955 on the main drag of St. George, Utah, the Wittwer Motor Lodge was positioned perfectly to attract drivers en route to Las Vegas and California. Six decades and one interstate highway later, the town is blossoming—it’s the third fastest-growing metro area in the country—and the hotel, now part of the Best Western portfolio and called Aiden St. George, is still operated by the same family.

That generations-old legacy has become part of the hotel’s story. It’s there in the old cigarette trays and embroidered towels displayed on a memorabilia wall and in continued traditions like the delivery of bottles of water and buckets of ice to guest rooms. But the hotel lovingly embraces the modern era, too, with Instagrammable vignettes, including a new piece of sculpture crafted by a local artist and a neon sign that reads “Stay.”

The trajectory of the property, from an ordinary roadside inn to a personality-filled hostelry, echoes a greater narrative now common throughout the hospitality industry. The days when brands, whether Radisson or Ritz Carlton, used their familiar identities and cookie-cutter qualities as selling points are rapidly waning. Instead, major hotel companies—including Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and Best Western, with its Aiden and Sadie brands—are ripping pages from the playbook of independently owned hotels and making them their own.

ACME Hotel Company Front desk
The front desk of the ACME Hotel Company in Chicago is backed by one of numerous murals in the hotel. Photo courtesy of ACME Hotel Company Chicago

CURATING EXPERIENCES
Design is just one of the tools that major hotel brands are using to tell their singular stories. In Savannah, Georgia, The Alida, a Marriott Tribute Portfolio Hotel, for instance, features a curated lobby shop that sells locally made wallets and ceramics instead of toothpaste and deodorant. In Chicago, Best Western’s ACME Hotel Company, part of its WorldHotels’ Crafted Collection, has a basement Bunny Slope bar, with a chill vibe that includes a hot tub. In El Paso, Texas, Hotel Paso del Norte, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, brings a heritage property and its jaw-dropping leaded glass dome back to life. And in Anaheim, California, Best Western Premier Collection’s whimsical Hotel Lulu enchants families with a namesake mascot who wanders the hotel, setting the mood for their visit to Disneyland, which sits just two blocks away.

Referred to in the industry as lifestyle hotels, imaginative properties such as these are attracting today’s travelers in search of accommodations rich in character. “Over the years, Best Western has started thinking about how to reposition its aging hotels so they convey that cool boutique feel that’s become popular,” says Amy Hulbert, vice president of boutique and upscale brands and the driving force behind Best Western’s Design Excellence Program. “It’s smart to evolve,” she adds. “So many of today’s guests are looking for more than just a place to sleep.” 

 
The ACME Hotel CompanyThe ACME Hotel Company Chicago sitting area. Photo courtesy of ACME Hotel Company Chicago

Often, they’re in search of memorable experiences; think the thrilling rides, rotating restaurant and amazing views found at the top of The STRAT Hotel, a Best Western Premier Collection property in Las Vegas. Or they’re intrigued by the idea of enjoying the movies shown at an adjacent drive-in theater from the comfort of their bed at Best Western Movie Manor in Monte Vista, California. Or perhaps their interest is piqued by the thought of indulging in a cocktail at a re-creation of the basement speakeasy that operated during Prohibition in what is now the Aiden San Antonio, currently undergoing a $5 million renovation estimated to be finished in March 2022.
  
JW Marriott Nashville
Guest rooms at the high-rise JW Marriott Nashville feature the same sleek industrial style found in the hotel’s common areas. Photo by David Mitchell Photography
  

HOPPING ON THE BRAND WAGON
The influence of boutique hotels started with pioneers such as W in the late 1990s followed by the higher-end Autograph Hotels about 10 years later. Now both members of the Marriott portfolio, these brands focus on experience-driven hotels with attention-getting design and an authentic connection to the local ethos.

These days, that trend extends to select service brands such as Marriott’s Fairfield and Residence Inns, where owners are breaking away from brand prototypes. For example, the newest generation of Courtyards are becoming a bit more concentrated on custom design, according to Laurie Woliung, senior director of interior design for Marriott’s AC, Aloft, Element and Moxy brands.

“Lifestyle brands allow Marriott to cast a wider net,” Woliung says. “We can style generationally and offer something for everyone.” Sometimes, that can even happen in the same place thanks to dual- and even tri-branded hotels, a concept that unites distinct hotels in adjoining buildings where the pool or event space is shared. “We now offer more than 40 different pairings,” she adds. “They encourage different travelers, such as the tech-savvy AC guest and the fun-hunting Moxy fan, to interact and experience each other’s worlds.”

Whether they’re seeking a luxury leisure experience, a family-friendly adventure or something that add pizzazz to business travel, “guests want more variation, uniqueness and character,” points out DeeDee Sanchez, a designer for Stonehill Taylor, an architecture and interior design firm in New York City that’s handled projects for independent hotels as well as various brands from Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott. Increasingly, a residential feel is important for every kind of traveler, Sanchez says. “There are a lot of ways we can achieve that. We can mix up the wood tones and the styles of furniture in the rooms. We can add throw rugs around the bed or a seating group. We can make sure there’s lots of different kinds of lighting available.”

In hotel common areas, designers often warm up spaces and give them a sense of home with installations of original art and disparate assemblages of found objects, board games and books.

Also critical: a recognition of the destination’s community and culture. “With every project, our team really immerses itself in the neighborhoods around the hotel site. We try to absorb as much as we can and dig below the surface to find a story that goes beyond what you see all over the place,” Sanchez says.

For Stonehill Taylor’s work at the JW Marriott Nashville, for example, that meant avoiding the tropes of honky-tonks and country twangs. Instead, the idea of the city’s industrial history caught the design team’s fancy and informed its material choices. A moody mix of masculine textures such as blackened steel, cognac-hued leather, and smoky marble and warm Tennessean woods like oak and hickory subtly celebrates the city’s robust manufacturing heritage. “At a JW, you don’t want to hit the guest over the head with the narrative you’re trying to build,” observes Sanchez. “The idea isn’t to create a theme park.”

With a project like the Renaissance New York Chelsea, though, the proximity of the city’s intoxicating wholesale flower market emboldened the design team to more directly reference the hotel’s surroundings. The nod to our love of flowers and the emotions they engender starts with an immersive wall covering that depicts greenery climbing up a brick wall. It continues inside the guest rooms, where flowers dance across the bathroom mirrors and appear in the artwork hanging over the bed. The city at large gets top billing at the rooftop bar, which showcases a skyline view.

“Through design, we’re encouraging the guest to pay attention, to look around and to take away something from this specific locale,” Sanchez says.

 

  
The STRAT Hotel The STRAT Hotel, Casino and SkyPod in Las Vegas is a destination unto itself. Photo courtesy of The STRAT Hotel, Casino and SkyPod
 

CRAFTING A NARRATIVE
Chicago-based KTGY + Simeone Deary also worked diligently to craft a story for the Austin Marriott Downtown that went deeper than the city’s “Keep Austin Weird” mantra. Motifs from the rippling of the skyline’s reflection in the Colorado River and the shape of native cactus spines appear in textiles and pendant lighting, cleverly responding to the mingling of urbanity and nature. Elsewhere, a tile mosaic made of moveable pieces of red gumwood serves as a dynamic accent behind the reception desk, and furnishings in the hotel’s concierge-level M Club are inspired by the warm hues of the Copper Canyon daisy.

“We’ve always designed this way,” says principal Gina Deary, “but the difference is that all the brands are open to going through that process of discovery now.

“It’s like cinematography or stage design,” she adds. “There’s a layering of elements—the art, the custom lighting, the carpets—so that everything works together to tell a story that celebrates the idea of the place you’re visiting and helps you better understand it.”