What makes a great hotel? According to Andrew Zobler the Founder and CEO of the Sydell Group, it's about the ideal mix of character and comfort. We spoke with Zobler, the man behind some of the most incredible large-scale hotel developments around the world - the likes of LINE DC, NoMad New York and LA, The Ned in London and the group's latest addition, the NoMad Las Vegas - to begin to understand that alchemy.
1. For those not familiar with the Sydell Group - what makes you different from other large property developers?
We don’t think of ourselves as a large property developer. We see ourselves first as hoteliers. We play the role of developer when necessary in order to secure the hotel that we want to create, and we have a particular fondness for restoring old buildings with character and a rich history.
2. You have a number of different brands/hotels under your umbrella - walk me through some of the differences between each one?
People tend to want to think of our brands as high to low or luxury to value, etc. We don’t think that way. We think of our brands as having different styles and characteristics, and then we try to find buildings that call out to them. There is actually a lot in common among the brands that we have created, with the most underlying principal being that they are each focused on telling a story and creating a layered narrative for the guest to experience.
3. How do you decide where to develop a new property or projects?
There are certain places that we love such as New York, London and San Francisco. However, we are mostly driven by the uniqueness of the building itself first and the market second. We search for properties that speak to us. The LINE in DC is a great example where the moment we walked into that old church we knew we wanted to be there. The Ned is a similar story. The first time I walked into that building with Nick Jones and stood in the old banking hall perfectly preserved from the days that it was designed by Lutyens, we both knew it had to happen.
4. What are some of the trends in travel you're excited about for 2019?
I don’t know if you can call it a trend, but one thing that excites me is the reimagining of convention houses or large- scale hotels, arguably the last remaining category in the hotel business to have been seriously reconsidered in the last 10-20 years. There are plenty of small and interesting hotels out there for those who seek that kind of experience, but historically, large-scale properties have generally lacked an attention to detail and thoughtfulness of the experience. We have had the opportunity to turn this notion into reality through our recent collaboration with MGM in Las Vegas on the recently opened Park MGM, as well as bringing the NoMad brand to the city. Each was created in such a way that we have sought to blur the lines between intimacy and scale.
5. How do you go about choosing a particular architect and team to work on a project?
We like telling a story through our hotels, and seek to find collaborators that add to the narrative. We are also loyal to people we love. We have done multiple projects with Jacques Garcia, Roman and Williams, Stonehill and Taylor as well as Sean Knibb, who each have a very distinctive point of view, but one that we feel really speaks to each of the brands that we have created together.
6. You've been working with Chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara on the restaurants at the NoMad properties. The Las Vegas project marks the second restaurant and bar outside of Manhattan from Humm and Guidara, the team behind Eleven Madison Park, the 2017 winners of the World's 50 Best Restaurants list - what do chefs of that calibre bring to a project?
They are a critical part of making NoMad what it is today. We created it together. It is hard for me to imagine a NoMad without them. I am not objective as I don’t see them as industry luminaires but rather as my dear friends and collaborators. In each of our projects we always seek to collaborate with interesting and talented people who are considered the best in class - whether it’s chefs, artists, designers, retail partners – and then steer each of them to a sum total that becomes a seamless and transporting experience.
7. The hotel industry is a challenging one - what are some of the unexpected things you've picked up along the way?
Expect the unexpected especially when dealing with older buildings. You need to constantly “bob and weave” as Andre Balazs used to say to me. It’s not the easy way to do it, but we find breathing new life into an older building to be that much more rewarding.
8. The industry has changed a lot over the past 5 to 10 years. What have been some of the most surprising changes?
The biggest change that I see is that the consumer is getting smarter and smarter and more sophisticated. I would like to think this plays well for us, as we stack up against the bigger companies. I think luxury continues to be more and more defined by quality and the authenticity of the experience and service, and much less about the amount of marble in the bathrooms.
9. What's your favourite hotel in the world? What about your favourite destination to travel to?
There are so many that I love. One that comes to the top of the list is Strawberry Hill in Jamaica. It is an absolutely magical place on a mountain overlooking Kingston, Jamaica, and created by Chris Blackwell. I also love Fasano in Sao Paulo and Soho Farmhouse. My favourite beach is still Fire Island, only 60 miles from Midtown Manhattan, reachable by boat. The world there is transformed into a great camp for adults the second that you step off the ferry.