Entering the hospitality industry can provide a path for product companies to become lifestyle brands, especially when they provide services appealing to both locals and tourists.

Though many brands boast to be “lifestyle brands,” few are accomplishing the feat as successfully as the those taking on the hospitality industry. With their strong brand identities, West Elm, a furniture and home goods brand, and Equinox, a luxury gym, have chosen to create hotels that embody their proposed way of life—Marine Layer, an apparel company, is also entering the space with styled Airbnbs. These brands are not only tapping into the growing travel economy, but are more importantly imbuing their distinct aesthetics, function-driven products and cultures into a livable and accessible space. This provides customers the opportunity to experience them in new ways, builds a stronger relationship between the brand and a local community, and invites new customers and locals to the experience.

One of the strongest precursors to these brands-turned-hotels is the Hard Rock Hotel and Cafe chain. Founded in 1971 in London as a theme restaurant, the company built its brand identity on Americana, rock n’ roll and music memorabilia, catering to the tourist market in large metropolitan centers. The company expanded internationally in 1982, opened its first hotel in Las Vegas in 1995, and has also established resorts and casinos. Today, there are 191 Hard Rock locations in 61 countries, including 173 cafes, 23 hotels, and 11 casinos, and the company continues to expand—it purchased the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and has also dabbled, with varying degrees of success in theme parks and stadiums.

Over time, Hard Rock hotels and cafes became a livable destination. From the Hard Rock t-shirts—a collector’s item that highlights the city where the shopper bought it—to the company’s gigantic, neon guitar signs outside each location, Hard Rock grew into an American landmark in each city it cropped up in, and continues to appeal to guests attracted to the brand’s rock n’ roll culture.

1) West Elm hotels advance the brand’s mission of community building and facilitate local experiences.

Today, more brands are evolving to find their place in the experience economy, creating a liveable experience around their brand in the legacy of Hard Rock, but adding their unique flavor. In September 2016, West Elm announced it would launch lifestyle boutique hotels beginning in 2018, with an emphasis on local community building. The company chose to stake out real estate in up-and-coming cities, and in neighborhoods undergoing a transformation: a less-developed area in midtown Detroit, at the old Coca Cola bottling factory in Indianapolis, and other locations in Savannah, Charlotte, Portland, Maine, Minneapolis and Oakland. Though the company says its hotels are about service and not about selling its furniture or home goods products, they are also livable West Elm showrooms, uniquely designed for each location, giving visitors the opportunity to access both design and function.

This was not West Elm’s first or only foray into growing its body of branded experiences: in 2015, the company launched West Elm Workspace, and began West Elm Experiences in April 2018 to sell customers workshops with local artists in five cities (indigo dying and woodworking). The entire hotel concept mirrors the company’s retail philosophy, which aspires to create localized, sustainable practices and promote community building. The company also already offers a program called West Elm Local that supports local artists, inviting them to sell and collaborate on products in local stores and meet with customers in person.

West Elm hotels go up against Airbnb, developing with personalization, customer independence and highly-localized experiences at the forefront. Launched in March 2018, a West Elm app called Local Experiences connects hotel guests with activities, sights, and “local tastemakers”—furniture designers, textile artists, welders, etc.—based on their individual interests and time constraints. Avoiding the label “tour,” Local Experiences is meant to be available to both tourists and locals. They exist both in cities where West Elm is establishing hotels, as well as others where they are not.

As it continues to build out its ecosystem to create services that champion its mission of meeting both the needs of local communities and customers, West Elm is surpassing the many brands that want to be seen as or claim they are “lifestyle brands.” With its hotels, the brand is reconceptualizing the hospitality industry to create a better experience for guests and provide employment opportunities to locals. In the summer of 2017, for instance, a free 10-week course, West Elm Academy, trained and hired local applicants.

For West Elm, rejuvenating hospitality is as much about modernizing room service as it is about harmonizing with locals. For one, the company has chosen to breathe new life into cities outside of the New York-Los Angeles-Miami trifecta—likely a smart financial move for West Elm—and disassociate its hotels from the typical connotation of boutique hotels—nightclubs and other exclusive scenes. But the company takes a step further, ultimately striving to embed in the local scenery and way of life. They are born out of a city and neighborhood’s unique fabric, promote the flavors of this fabric, employ the people who comprise the local community, and invite outsiders to come live it.  

2) Equinox extends its upscale gym culture and healthy habits to travelers, launching hotels.

In 2015, Equinox, the luxury fitness company, announced its venture into the world of hospitality. Hudson Yards Development, a real estate company that shares Equinox’s parent company, Related, will debut the first Equinox hotel in New York in 2018-2019, a second in Los Angeles, and plans to bring 100 hotels to three different countries in the future. Though not all hotels will include the eponymous gyms, some will offer guest passes to nearby Equinox locations.

Like the gym, Equinox wants its hotels to offer guests the ultimate luxury experience: at the Hudson Yards location, they’ll have access to office space, indoor and outdoor pools, the largest Equinox gym to date at 60,000 square feet, a new spa concept focused on rejuvenation, and a “destination restaurant” with healthy options. Helming interior design is Yabu Pushelberg, an international firm known for its work at the Four Seasons, the W Hotel and the St. Regis Hotel.

Similar to West Elm Hotels, the Equinox properties are also being developed in less central pockets within cities, though the buildings and their surroundings are being built from the ground-up as luxury developments. However, because these areas are only now being developed and Hudson Yards Development is constructing a brand new building, Equinox has the ability to truly create its own haven of health, fitness and luxury, instead of trying to fit its hotel into preexisting real estate or neighborhood. With Hudson Yards Development under its belt, it is likely that Related will have a great deal of reign over other retail spaces and real estate populating the areas close to Equinox hotels, which will further grow the luxury brand as a lifestyle brand.   

Equinox is capitalizing on a market that will put its gym members and other travelers in touch with fitness and healthy habits, no matter how far they are from home. While many find it next to impossible to maintain a sense of normalcy in their routines and health-conscious behaviors while traveling, being healthy is more important than ever today. Equinox hotels answer this void in the market, providing services that its existing customers would like access to, which will likely attract new faces to the hotel brand—and to the standalone gyms themselves. Additionally, the company won’t limit the experience to travelers—the Hudson Yards space will have luxury condos above the hotel and its destination restaurant will bring all types of people to the area, though gym members will enjoy special privileges.

The hotel concept also fits well with Equinox’s identity, which it continues to build upon with its newly released digital magazine, Furthermore, and its acquisitions which include SoulCycle and Pure Yoga—two fitness companies which would also fit nicely into Equinox’s burgeoning hospitality arm. The webpage for Equinox hotels also includes travel-related information, crafted for the Equinox traveler: articles on how to establish better sleep routines, the healthiest ways to spend a layover, and the health scene in Berlin. Related, which bought Equinox in 2005, will also capitalize on Equinox’s new hotel venture as the fitness company explores new ways to utilize real estate property that merge experience with commerce.

3) Marine Layer is renting out apartments above its brick-and-mortar stores to Airbnb customers.

Instead of opening new brick-and-mortar stores, the West Coast apparel brand Marine Layer is growing its physical footprint by designing and furnishing apartments above its existing stores and renting them out on Airbnb. As of March 2018, the company has a two-bedroom apartment over its New Orleans store, lofts in Portland, Oregon and Chicago, and another soon-to-be space in Nashville. Guests enjoy a 15% discount at the stores located directly below each apartment and their proximity to the stores makes for natural introductions with sales associates and other employees.

The reasoning behind the apartments speaks to their authenticity; not only do the spaces extend the nostalgic style of the Marine Layer brand, but they also are the kinds of spaces the company’s own employees would want to occupy. The first apartment opened in Portland when Marine Layer’s founder, Michael Natenshon, wanted a home-away-from-home during his business trips from California. Though Marine Layer hasn’t officially partnered with Airbnb, maintaining its apartments will provide the brand with the tools and expertise to enter the hospitality industry in a more formal capacity in the future, whether it’s through an Marine Layer Airbnb brand or its own hotel company. Airbnb Co-founder Joe Gebbia, has also endorsed the apartments on Twitter.

With its Airbnb rentals, Marine Layer circumvents traditional retail expansion, while still acknowledging changes in the retail sector, both in terms of what shoppers want and what is most cost effective for brands. Because residential leases are much shorter than their retail counterparts—not least because storefronts are almost always on the more expensive first floor—Marine Layer is able to manage permanent spaces with shorter time commitments, which de-risks the rental strategy and will allow the company to scale them at a faster and cheaper rate.

Overall, the Airbnb experience is built to enhance customer loyalty (it refers to guests as members of the Marine Layer family). Much like private aviation, the apartments transport guests to different (and highly Instagrammable) time periods and spaces. Marine Layer is only breaking even with its apartments, but the company is profitable with its 34 U.S. stores and saw a 50% rise in sales between 2016 and 2017. Instead of waiting to confront potential retail troubles in the future, the company is acting now to set itself up for long-term success.

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