The world's hottest hoteliers

You might just want a bed for the night, but modern hotels are just as likely to offer an editing suite, cinema, hip bar, tattoo parlour or investment opportunity. Luke Crisell hails the visionaries shaking up the way we stay
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The Independent Travel

Guests of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York's Battery Park can stay on any of the first 12 floors of the building. The three-bedroom, 2,300sq ft apartment Cynthia Gray shares with her husband is on the 37th, just below the penthouse. Through floor-to-ceiling windows, Gray has an unimpeded view of the Statue of Liberty. She can also have practically any food her heart desires brought to her room within 15 minutes. Yes, life is good when you live in a hotel.

Of course, the concept is nothing new: people have been living in hotels since people have been building them. Celebrities, in particular, have long taken advantage of the privacy and convenience that comes with the arrangement. And it's the idea of being in possession of a part of a hotel - which, for the past few years, has been growing in popularity among those wealthy enough for such endeavours - that Ian Schrager, arguably the most celebrated hotelier in the world, and co-founder of one of the most infamous nightclubs of all time, Studio 54, is going to try to reinvent this spring when he opens 50 Gramercy Park North in the heart of Manhattan.

"I think it's an entirely new idea," Schrager insists. " People were dancing before I came into the nightclub business but I still did something that had never been done before. 50 Gramercy Park North is a new kind of hotel, and not the kind people will be expecting from me. I am hoping to have the same impact with it that I had 20 years ago." What he is doing this time is actually two separate, but concurrent projects. There will be 23 residences, designed by famed minimalist John Pawson, immediately adjacent to the hotel. Owners of the properties will, as Gray does, have full access to all the amenities of the hotel.

Buying into Schrager's venture, however, is a costly business: the larger apartments supposedly went for $3,000 (around £1,700) per square foot. So why own a part of a hotel? "Hotels give off a regular cash flow," explains Gray, who also owns a room at the Four Seasons Whistler, the Atlantic in Miami and the Star Pass in Tuscon, Arizona. "When you buy a room in a hotel you look at the price versus the projected amount of money that is going to be raised every month." The details are complicated (and quite boring) but basically you buy your room, you contribute towards (omega) expenses; and you share in the profits. It's not a timeshare: you actually own your room outright.

But ownership is not the only trend to be radically changing the role of inner-city hotels. Far more than simply places to lay one's head, they have become - in the wake of the boutique hotel revolution - places to view art, watch movies, get a haircut, get a tattoo, listen to the most cutting-edge bands and DJs, get all manner of spa treatments and be seen after dark.

André Balazs's Standard Hollywood - on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles - is the place to be on the Strip after dark. And although the accommodation itself is on a par with a slightly above-average motel, from 9pm onwards hipsters mingle on the blue Astroturf around the pool. But Balazs cannot claim to own the hippest hangout in Hollywood which, for the time being at least, is the pool and surrounding bungalows of the Hotel Roosevelt, on Hollywood Boulevard. Jason Pomeranc, of the Thompson hotel group, hired Amanda Scheer Demme, film music supervisor and former manager of the rap outfit Cypress Hill, to revamp the premises and her Friday night soirée now boasts the most enviable guest list in the city.

And these changes are not only visible in the US. At Hemmesphere, the lounge of Sydney's The Establishment hotel, the most well-heeled people in the city sip over-priced cocktails for no other reason, or so it seems, than to be able to count themselves part of the clientele. Meanwhile, The Murano Urban Resort (evidently the word "hotel" would not suffice) has brought boutique chic to Paris's Marais neighbourhood, and despite the fact that, on my visit, most of the inhabitants of the lobby and bar seemed to be slightly lost in their over-designed surroundings, it looks set to become one of the city's most popular nightspots. At Hotel Das Triest in Vienna , no one seemed to mind that the Silver Bar, one of the city's most fashionable, is roughly the size of a walk-in closet.

It must be noted, however, that more traditional properties, ones that earned their status not on the back of cheap gimmicks but stylish interiors and impeccable service, are still thriving. "I think the whole trendy nightclub lobby ridiculousness is so over, and people are so over it," says Jeff Klein, owner of the traditional City Club in New York and Sunset Tower (formerly The Argyle) in Hollywood. "I don't want to be the next Ian Schrager. I don't want to be known as trendy or hip, that's not what I'm doing. My market is someone who used to stay at a Schrager property, but wouldn't anymore." Klein's traditional values are something of a comfort in an industry in which hotels can be, occasionally, so cerebral they neglect to provide the most basic of services.

And it's especially in New York City that the shifting role of the hotel is the most clearly discernible. It was in Manhattan that Schrager and his then partner, Steve Rubell, reopened the Philippe Starck-designed Royalton in 1988. The opening of the hotel marked the advent of a lobby culture that has since swept the world. Make no mistake: Schrager is well aware of his own import. "I like to think that I have totally changed the industry," he says. "The importance of lobbies, restaurants, bars, started with us. When I got started, the kind of hotels I was doing were the exceptions to the rule." Now, however, they're pedestrian. The lobby of Schrager's 1,000-room Hudson is now a place where businessmen from out of town mingle with tourists seemingly unaware that Manhattan even has a downtown.

Which is a shame, because it's down in SoHo, TriBeCa and on the Lower East Side that the true potential of hotels as destinations is being explored. Balazs's Mercer Hotel, in the heart of SoHo, is quickly becoming a contemporary classic; the Hotel on Rivington is bringing a design-conscious crowd to the gritty Lower East Side; and Jason Pomeranc's 60 Thompson attracts a refined crowd with the resources and inclination to drop $20 on a Martini. But it's the SoHo and TriBeCa Grand hotels that incessantly shake up the very industry of which they've been a mainstay for five and 10 years respectively. By appointing a creative director, Tommy Saleh, to oversee everything from the music that's played in the lobby to what's stocked in the mini bar, the two hotels attract rich business types and comparatively broke creative types simultaneously. "Other hotels are trying to copy what we've done," says Saleh, "but they get it wrong because they make it all about a strict door policy that keeps the cool artsy entity out." Saleh has been responsible for bringing fashion shows and rock shows to the SoHo Grand and plans to stage a "mini-British Fashion Week" at one of his hotels in the near future.

"The hotels are both built on an idea that they're downtown and we're trying to deal with downtown creative individuals and to connect these people," he says. To this end, both the SoHo and TriBeCa Grand hotels have resources for film editing, and the TriBeCa even boasts its own cinema. To further the image of the hotels, Saleh attends the most glamorous events around the world, and this finger-on-the-pulse sets the Grand hotels apart. "I think every hotel needs a face," he says. "We're not just two hotels, we're a media centre. A cultural broadcast where we showcase what we learn from our immediate culture to others."

Such hyperbole may sound a little pretentious, but it's entirely justified. "The envelope has been pushed and the whole industry has had to adapt to what the alternative independent hotel groups have done," says Jason Pomeranc, who is opening properties in Beverly Hills in September and Columbus Circle in Manhattan soon after. Pomeranc insists that the demographic independent hotel groups are targeting is extremely specific. "It's an ironic, tribal socialisation among a segment of the world population not defined by age or finances," he says. "There's a buzz within this culture, and they're constantly telling each other what's new. It's is very, very tribal." The fact neither Pomeranc or Saleh point out, though, is that many of the "creative types" they are so eager to attract to their bars and lounges are not staying at their properties. Because, quite simply, they can't afford to.

One person who knows exactly who makes up this "tribe" is Nick Jones, the founder of Soho House in London and Babington House in Somerset. By making the concept of a private members' club so, well, public, Jones has redefined the concept of exclusivity; members (who pay an annual fee) can enjoy the facilities at any of his properties, of which he has many more planned.

As customers make increasing demands on hotels, including - in some cases - actually owning a part of them, hoteliers and hotel companies are going to ever more creative extremes to satisfy them. There's a hotel revolution going on: get a room.

The ultimate lobby group: movers and shakers who are transforming the hotel world

Jeff Klein

Scourge of lobby poseurs and gawkers, this Manhattan socialite is a prime mover among the new hotelier elite, championing discreet elegance and exceptional cuisine at his properties. His City Club in Manhattan was launched to instant acclaim in 2000 on the site of a former political club. He followed it up with the equally popular Sunset Tower Hotel in Los Angeles.

Jason Pomeranc

Pomeranc, who runs the Thompson Hotels group with his two brothers, launched the 60 Thompson hotel in Manhattan four years ago. Now he is busily expanding his chic boutique empire, with two new properties opening in New York this year - one with a luxury condominium scheme attached - and another out west in Beverley Hills.

Grace Leo-Andrieu

Leo-Andrieu worked for Inter-Continental Hotels and Sheraton before founding GLA Hotels in 1985. She is now a major player, operating properties in Cyprus, Italy, India, Portugal, the Maldives, France, Thailand, the Seychelles, the French Riviera and the Caribbean. Her other projects have included an acclaimed renovation of Paris's Hotel Lancaster in 1995.

Ian Schrager

Opened the seminal New York nightclub Studio 54 in 1974, with Steve Rubell, and founded the Morgan Hotel Group in 1983. The group's first venture, New York's Morgans Hotel , opened in 1986 and was closely followed by the Royalton in 1988. But it was with LA's Mondrian Hotel and New York's the Hudson that Schrager's (and Philippe Starck's) style became the de facto look for wannabe trendy hotel lobbies worldwide. Ever ambitious, he launches 50 Gramercy Park North this spring, an innovative hotel/residential complex in Manhattan.

André Balazs

Balazs started out in 1990 by refurbishing the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. Eight years later, he opened the Mercer Hotel in New York and unveiled the Hollywood Standard, the first of a mini-chain of mid-price hotels that added locations in downtown Los Angeles in 2002 and Miami last year. Balazs also owns the Raleigh in Miami and in 2005 opened Hotel QT in New York's Times Square. Oh yes, and he's dating Uma Thurman. Though his day job means he is discretion personified.

Nick Jones

The former marketing manager of Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane, Jones opened Soho House in London in 1995, Babington House in Somerset in 1998 and Soho House in New York's Meatpacking District in 2003. Not content with all that, he now plans to unveil Soho Beach House in Miami next year and new properties in London's Chiswick and Shoreditch districts. There are 7,000 members of Soho House. Not bad for someone who only decided to make his first venue a private members' club because, "it had a small door" .