There goes the neighbourhood!

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The most successful hotels are becoming community hubs too, enjoying symbiotic relationships with their local district. We explain how.

Alternative national treasure Grayson Perry – The Turner Prize-winning transvestite – once said that his fellow artists and musicians were “the shock troops of gentrification.” When creatives settle in the unloved districts they can afford, a rich community steadily springs up around them often characterised by artisan coffee shops, independent galleries, craft breweries, and that sort of thing.

Now though, it’s hotels too that are revitalising communities. In fact, the hospitality industry is not only ideally placed to reflect local culture, but it can give something back to the locality in the form of that most historic driver of gentrification, one that’s maybe been missing too much from the transformation of, for example, east London – creating jobs. This is more than ‘regeneration’ or ‘gentrification’ – it’s called ‘place making’.

HOUSE IMAGE FOR IH BLOGThe term isn’t, actually, a whizz-bang piece of jargon straight from the TED Talks YouTube channel or Wired magazine. It’s been around since the 1960s, when New York-based architecture journalist Jane Jacobs first suggested putting ‘people before buildings’. Danish architect Jan Gehl is possibly placemaking’s foremost advocate – Copenhagen’s Strøget ‘car free’ zone is credited to his work, and he won UK Civic Trust Award in 2009 for his work in Brighton.

“A hotel plays a multi-layered part in placemaking,” says Imran Hussain, director of hospitality consultancy THC/Endeavour, who hosts a series of talks on the subject at The Zetter hotel in London’s Clerkenwell titled Time & Place.

“A hotel is a public space that can represent a locality’s soul,” says Imran, “But, vitally, it’s also somewhere that outsiders can come and live for a short while. A hotel in an up and coming neighbourhood can help introduce the area to an international, and possibly influential, audience.”

How does one’s hotel make a place? Start by transforming an unoccupied building. Create a ‘lobby culture’ that lures local entrepreneurs during the day plus drinkers and carousers in the evening. Offer a compelling events program that entertains and educates guests and locals, so you begin to garner cultural capital. That’s the simple version. Sounds great, but… expensive too, right? And even a little… forced?

imran“King’s Cross’ regeneration has been a polarising one, but at least there’s a sense that something is happening, a community is growing, and most importantly jobs are being created,” says Imran whose résumé includes opening hotels in and around the area: “there are arguments against placemaking, usually coming from a preconceived notion of what it is or could be, but in my view taking an underused part of a city, and understanding its unique culture, helping to energise it, cannot be a bad thing.”

Moreover, the finest form of placemaking, Imran explains, is job creation and other community work – making an effort to train and employ locals, and treating them as neighbours rather than a here today, gone tomorrow workforce. Some hotels have gone even further by offering shelter to locals affected by disaster incidents within major cities, such as New York’s Lower East Side branch of The Standard, which offered free beds to anyone effected by a 2010 terrorist incident.

What’s more, a sincere commitment to humanistic values has recently proven to be a surefire marketing tactic that’s not fading from fashion any time soon – because it pairs opportunity with purpose.

“Placemaking, especially hiring within the local community, is good sense,” says Imran, “if hotels can create an ecosystem that nourishes their immediate borough, then in my view it will not only generate goodwill but, over time, evidence suggests it will help impact real estate value, too.”

caro-somersetPerhaps the most colourful example of a hotel placemaking comes from Jake’s of Treasure Beach, Jamaica. Founded by British couple Perry and Sally Henzell, it’s spearheaded the transformation of the island’s rugged south into its most fashionable destination. It’s also found jobs for almost every single local, plus paid for a school, and ambulance, a fish sanctuary and a sports centre – where a House of Lords XI travelled to launch the cricket pitch. “We believe that doing good business means being good company,” reads its manifesto. In 2015 Jake’s made the Condé Nast Traveller Gold List.

Placemaking, and the wider genre of conscious marketing, is a strategy that’s here to stay. You don’t even need a ready-made Shoreditch to make your place in – hospitality projects are cropping up in the most seemingly unlikely places, from the Somerset wilds (Caro contemporary guest house) to London’s Holloway Road (now christened ‘LoHo’ by estate agents and the openly-in-cahoots Evening Standard).

“As a whole, the hotel industry, in terms of marketing trends, has been behind lifestyle brands. Brands like Toms and Shinola have a clear cause which inspires. It can sound idealistic, but I think we have a moral responsibility; and the more we do for a neighbourhood, the more people will be attracted to us as guests or visitors.

As worthwhile initiatives go, placemaking represents universal values that the whole team can get behind.

It certainly beats ‘joining the conversation’ on social media.

By Steve Beale
Langsford Crimson