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5 MIN

No Amenities? No Problem. The Rise of the Minimalist, Design-forward Hotel

The future of hotels is adorable and affordable. Growing hotel chains Aloft, citizenM and Canada's own Alt offer stripped-down services and slick design

At the Alt hotel in Griffintown in Montreal, one can’t help notice the extraordinary work done by Quebec architects Lemay Michaud, the four-decade-old firm behind all of Groupe Germain’s properties. You see the heptagonal hammock chairs by Quebec designer Felix Guyon suspended from the ceiling, the wall of tiny user-supplied phone pics, the naked concrete pillars, little stickers on the floor that suggest you “take your selfie here.”

What you do not see right away is the reception desk. It’s tiny, and there’s usually just one person behind it. It’s like a vestigial tail. To the left, there’s a refrigerated wall, like in a convenience store, with food and drinks you might want for breakfast, lunch, supper or a snack. After about a minute at reception (because most of your basic check-in business takes place online) you head up to your room, where you’ll find more cool furniture and upholstery, more naked concrete, a small room that’s well enough designed not to feel small, like a well-thought-out tiny condo. The plugs are all where they should be, wifi is obviously not a problem, the bed’s high and comfy (they test beds and general updates to room designs by having employees spend a night in a mock-up room in the Plessisville, Quebec, factory where their beds are made) – and that’s that.

Besides looking nice, another key benefit of minimalist hotels is that they’re cheap. The idea is simple: Make design an amenity, and then cut out most of the other ones. The thinking is that people don’t need mints on their pillows, but they do sometimes need spaces to hang out, and maybe work.

“We call it the art of the essential,” says Christiane Germain, co-founder of Groupe Germain, a Montreal-based company that includes the Alt Hotel chain as well as the Le Germain hotels in Montreal and Toronto.

Stripped-down-but-design-forward hotels like Montreal’s Alt are popping up in urban locations and next to airports all over the world. The Alt Hotel brand has spread to seven Canadian cities, with a new location planned for St. John’s this year. Then there’s citizenM in New York and five European cities, Cloud 7 in Istanbul, and 25hours in five German-speaking cities in Europe.

The biggest player by far is industry giant Starwood, with 100 hotels worldwide under its Aloft brand. A year after the first Alt Hotel opened in Montreal in 2007, Starwood got in on the concept with the world’s first Aloft by Starwood the following year – pointedly located at Montreal’s Trudeau Airport. Starwood, (which had also followed the boutique hotel trend with its W Hotels brand a decade earlier), hired the Rockwell Group – the designers behind Nobu and half a dozen W properties – to come up with the original concept, which has now been scattered across the globe, from Calgary to Kuala Lumpur.

'We call it the art of the essential'

What these hotels all offer is cool design, locally sourced stuff, genuine connections to the community they’re in, and rooms reliably under $200 a night in even the most expensive cities. It’s a concept that’s tough to argue against.

Germain deserves credit for the minimal/design hotel. Back in 2005, Germain and her co-founder brother noticed a hole in the three-star hotel market. “So we decided to work on a project that would be like a boutique hotel, but a little more conscious of smart design, and at a very affordable price.” In 2007, Groupe Germain put up its first Alt in Brossard, Quebec, and has since opened half a dozen more, all in Canadian cities.

Courtesy Alt Hotels

At the Alt Hotel Montreal

Hotels used to be fancy because travel was fancy. It was the purview of the wealthy, or those on once-in-a-lifetime travellers, both of whom required a lot from their hotels: concierges to give them advice, bellhops to carry their many bags, restaurants and room service in case the food out there was scary.

But as the United Nations World Tourism Organization has been tracking it, there’s been a tourism explosion in recent years. In 2012, we tipped over the 1 billion mark – 1 billion tourists travelled that year. In 2016, the number’s about 1.2 billion. Travel is getting exciting in ways our grandparents couldn’t have imagined, but as we do more of it, there are certain things we may no longer need.

Such as bellhops. “We reduced the number of people working in the properties,” Germain says. “What we like to say is that we personalize the service, but reduce the number of services being offered.”

The services these sorts of hotels do offer tend not to be the remnants of 19th-century approaches to travel – made with dukes and robber barons in mind – but harbingers of the 21st. Like nearly free VoIP long-distance calls, keyless doors (just download their app and use your phone), or Bluetooth shower speakers.

Courtesy Starwood Hotels and Resorts

Don't feel like actually talking to reception? At the Aloft Manhattan Downtown, guests can order room service via emoji

Have we stayed here before?

Though minimalist hotels look very now, the essential concept is not unlike another, earlier cheap-and-simple hotel format: the motels of the 1950s and 60s. They were also affordable; they often had cool bars where locals hung out; and as the few survivors of the era can attest, those old two-level motels were crystalline reflections of the design zeitgeist of the day, with the aesthetics of Danish modern and Populuxe dripping from the papered walls and Calder-influenced balustrades.

What’s different, then? One important distinction is the priority that that design-first hotels place on connecting to their local community. Minimalist design hotels typically have lobbies designed not only to be comfortable for guests, but also locals in search of attractive WiFi spots offering coffee and negronis.

'We personalize the service, but reduce the number of services'

Not feeling like an out-of-the-loop tourist is a key benefit of the minimal hotel. The bar is the first thing you see after you climb the spiral staircase from the ground floor of Rotterdam’s citizenM, and the first thing you notice about the bar is the people sitting around it. They don’t look like tourists. Too much hair product. And they’re drinking the local Bobby's gin, one of the best anywhere. Tourists don’t know to do that yet. These must be locals – cool locals. They’re the kind of people you want to meet while travelling, but rarely do, because they don’t hang out where tourists hang out.

Courtesy Starwood Hotels and Resorts

Basic, automated check-in kiosk at the Aloft London

The hallway carpets at that citizenM are prints of Rotterdam street maps. The souvenirs in the gift shop in Istanbul’s new Cloud 7 are designed and manufactured in Turkey. And even more significantly, not only the beds but the mattresses and pillows in the Montreal Alts are made in Quebec.

As these hotels open, many of them immediately become some of the coolest spots in town. Like the one that opened in Halifax in 2013, or the one that’ll be opening in St. John’s this year.

But will these hotels keep their cool when they’re everywhere (as they soon will be)? The fundamental fact is that the basic-yet-slick hotel will remain a useful thing. Like its forebear the motel, it will likely settle into a quiet future as a reliable, economical option for putting a roof over one’s head for a night – just more urban, and with a nicer-looking bedspread.

Courtesy citizenM

A room at the citizenM Glasgow – with colour-changing lights you can toggle to suit your mood

Published Friday, January 13th 2017

Header image credit: The lobby of the Alt Hotel Montreal / Courtesy Alt Hotels

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