by Michael J. Shapiro | October 01, 2016
There's a new wave of European immigration arriving on our shores -- one comprising hotels, not people. These brands straddle the segments of design-driven lifestyle and business travel; they are stylish, they prize affordability over luxury and, while not loaded up with meeting space, they are very big on small meetings, offering space that seeks to inspire and foster creative collaboration.
Of these newcomers, the one with the biggest footprint is, not surprisingly, the one that now enjoys the backing of the world's largest hotel company. Marriott partnered with Spain-based AC Hotels in 2010, with the aim of growing the design-focused brand worldwide. In the past two years, the flag has debuted nine properties in the U.S. and three more in Latin America.

"After starting the joint venture with AC, we realized that this focus on design in this service level and price tier is really unique and something that would resonate very well with consumers in the U.S.," notes Toni Stoeckl, global vice president of lifestyle brands for Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International. "That's where we have focused our growth." At the end of the second quarter this year, 81 of the 91 open AC Hotels were in Europe -- but a remarkable 91 of the 96 hotels in the pipeline were set to open in the Americas.

The AC Hotels brand is about unpretentious style and "purposeful design" -- "It's the stripping away of the unnecessary, the clutter," says Stoeckl. "It leaves more room for the beauty, for the essential elements."

The less-is-more approach is a common theme in the marketing of many new lifestyle brands, particularly the new limited-service, Millennial-focused entries stateside. Which is not to say details are ignored, says Stoeckl about AC's hotels. "Everything you see has a why," he notes, "everything is motivated. The location of the light switches, for example, is something we obsess over to a strange degree -- how you can access them conveniently, without strain and without thinking about them. But it all makes sense, because we want to understand how you use the room. These little things are important, and they carry through the entire DNA of the brand."

Similarly, adds Stoeckl, AC properties are designed with local art pieces in mind, with such works naturally integrated into the building's design. The idea is to create an aesthetically pleasing, creatively stimulating space, but with no element of the design calling too much attention to itself.

British-born photographer/media personality Nigel Barker, an AC Hotels "ambassador" who collaborates with the brand on some design elements and whose artwork appears in some properties, says there is something uniquely European about that approach. For him, the ideal hotel needn't be entertaining, but rather "a sanctuary that incorporates art and design into an environment where you can focus and concentrate."

That European mindset is appearing in some other brands as well. In June, Spanish hotel company Meliá debuted its first Innside property in the Americas, the 313-room Innside by Meliá New York NoMad. The new hotel's stylish approach to a lifestyle business property is very similar to the AC Hotels look -- particularly in the guest rooms, featuring uncarpeted floors, a muted color scheme, thoughtfully designed charging stations, and contemporary furniture and details.

The Innside brand has a pedigree similar to AC's: It was first launched in the 1990s (as was AC Hotels), with its roots in Germany. In 2007 it was purchased by Spanish hotel giant Meliá and has since grown to 16 properties. While most of those are in Germany, there is speculation that the brand could be a good fit for the urban expansion Meliá has publicly discussed for cities like Miami and Los Angeles.

The Innside New York lobby vibe is young and the chill-out music in the elevators loud enough to be noticeable, but the clientele represents a wide mix of demographics, says director of sales and marketing Michael Newman. "We draw different types," he says. "We get a lot of business travelers, due to our location, and from a variety of age groups." The hotel is close enough to Javits Center that a lot of groups book blocks during conventions, he adds. The hotel has two meeting rooms of its own, totaling 1,170 square feet of space.

Two years ago and slightly uptown, the Dutch hotelier CitizenM opened its first U.S. outpost, the 230-room CitizenM New York Times Square. While the style here is considerably more whimsical than that of other brands mentioned above, it likewise prizes affordability and technological necessity (such as free WiFi, a hallmark of every one of these brands) over unnecessary luxuries. Its guest rooms are pod-size, but the common areas are large, comfortable and conducive to networking. CitizenM has a few developments in the works stateside, according to a spokesperson; the only one that's been announced to date is a property on the Bowery in Downtown New York, set to open in the second quarter of 2017.