Conversations with the cognoscenti at the world’s top hotels

Maria Shollenbarger reveals the switched-on hotels offering compelling informal encounters with movers and shakers

La Posta Vecchia’s MiniMaxi includes a black-tie candlelit dinner
La Posta Vecchia’s MiniMaxi includes a black-tie candlelit dinner | Image: Giovanna Di Lisciandro

During the summer of 2016, if you had dropped in on a Saturday evening at the elegant alfresco bar of Il Pellicano, the privately owned hotel situated in a quiet cove on Tuscany’s Monte Argentario peninsula, you might have been party to some interesting conversation. It could have been about independent filmmaking between the Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher (of I Am Love fame) and indie director and Venice Film Festival darling Saverio Costanzo; or it might have been Britt Moran and Emiliano Salci, co-founders of white-hot design firm DimoreStudio, ruminating with each other about the increasingly sophisticated ways design and luxury intersect, and what that augurs for authentic creative expression. This insider chatting over a cocktail or a glass of rosé, with a twilit view of the Mediterranean as the backdrop, is an entirely predictable scenario here at one of the chicest hotels in Italy.

La Posta Vecchia’s MiniMaxi has counted MaxMara’s Giorgio Guidotti, artist Indre Roberts and Vogue’s Naomi Smart among its attendees
La Posta Vecchia’s MiniMaxi has counted MaxMara’s Giorgio Guidotti, artist Indre Roberts and Vogue’s Naomi Smart among its attendees | Image: Giovanna Di Lisciandro

What’s interesting about these particular intimate seaside chats is that you’d have been welcome – even expected – to chime in. Because far from eavesdropping, you would have been participating in the inaugural season of Il Pellicano’s summer Conversation series. Rohrwacher, Costanzo and the DimoreStudio team were there at the invitation of Il Pellicano’s Marie-Louise Sciò, and the idea was as much for them to engage and interact with hotel guests as with each other – just as would, over the course of that summer and through the summer of 2017, Rosita and Margherita Missoni, Eco-Age founder Livia Firth, the eminent fashion photographer Paolo Roversi and others who have participated.

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“I meet so many interesting people during the summers here,” Sciò says by way of explaining how the Conversations came to be. “Very simply, I thought it would be nice for other guests to meet them too.” On these Friday or Saturday evenings at Il Pellicano there is no dais, no conference seating, no microphone. Just super-stylish business as usual down in the lower section of the bar, with hotel guests ensconced on the couches around whoever is speaking, drinks in hand, and the conversation moving “very organically” from there.

Christian Louboutin speaks in the Up Close series at The Upper House, Hong Kong
Christian Louboutin speaks in the Up Close series at The Upper House, Hong Kong

That they feel remarkably like naturally occurring cocktail parties – notwithstanding the fact that many of the hotel guests in attendance wouldn’t, in their daily lives, have occasion to indulge in a natter with the scions of the Missoni fashion house, or Europe’s champion of sustainable fashion design (and wife of Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth) – is down not just to the formidable roster of contacts belonging to Il Pellicano’s doyenne. It’s also down to her thoughtful vision of what time spent at the hotel is meant to deliver. “My motto is ‘luxury looks inwards’. It should be about enriching yourself, feeding your curiosity.” Sciò is the first to acknowledge that providing her guests with original opportunities to do so is an unending challenge. “So if these chats manage even a bit to do that, they’re successful.”

Fanny Moizant, co-founder of fashion site Vestiaire Collective, has spoken at The Upper House
Fanny Moizant, co-founder of fashion site Vestiaire Collective, has spoken at The Upper House

Successful they are, so far, and definitely an enhancement of the genius loci of her hotel. And Sciò isn’t alone in arranging such events for her guests. The past few years have seen a shift in the evolution of the hotel experience, with owners and managers delivering connections with people and ideas that lend a new immediacy and intimacy to their stays. Some borrow from the mega-cultural conference model, such as the Summit Series or Ted Talks (in 2016, hotel brand Marriott actually partnered with Ted to host fellows giving talks about topics such as the power of travel, which have so far taken place at Marriott-branded properties in London, Seattle, Abu Dhabi and Bangkok). Others have looked at the way private members’ clubs have curated such connections for years – think of the events programmes of Soho House members, which have always included film screenings, readings, book launches and the like. And in some cases, as with Il Pellicano, there are shades of the 17th- and 18th-century concept of the salon, updated for a generation of digital natives whose awareness of local culture, not to mention cults of personality – for artists and art dealers, filmmakers, novelists, chefs, publicists, dilettante socialites – has been vastly expanded thanks to Instagram. In the shaded area of the Venn diagram where cultural curiosity, the inclination to self-improvement, the desire for exceptional access and (let us be frank) a measure of good old-fashioned social aspiration meet, there is a sweet spot that is these hoteliers’ target.

Fashion maestro Nick Wooster’s session at The Upper House
Fashion maestro Nick Wooster’s session at The Upper House

Call it content, or programming, if you like; that’s what most of the hoteliers are calling it. “Director of content” and “director of programming” are titles one sees with increasing frequency across the breadth of the world’s fine hotels. Sciò’s full title is, in fact, vice president and creative director of Pellicano Hotels Group – which also includes La Posta Vecchia, the former J Paul Getty estate in Palo Laziale, near Rome, where last May she launched another buzzy event: the MiniMaxi series, a hedonistic weekend intended to convene a cross-section of recognisable names from the worlds of art, fashion, design and media, at which a very Déjeuner sur l’Herbe sort of afternoon in the beautiful grounds is followed by a black-tie candlelit dinner and dancing in La Posta Vecchia’s grand vaulted dining room.

Troutbeck’s salon evenings might culminate in fireside conversation
Troutbeck’s salon evenings might culminate in fireside conversation

Not surprisingly, local culture often shapes the form this content takes and the function it serves. At The Upper House in Hong Kong, the Up Close series of speakers skews to art, fashion, design and architecture – all touch points both for its affluent global clientele and for the worldly, celebrity-conscious locals who use The Upper House’s public spaces like living rooms (including a stunning 49th-floor space with fireplace designed by André Fu – called the Sky Lounge). They’re a great hit with hotel guests, but, says general manager Marcel Thoma, “the locals tend to come to our events to be in the orbit of the famous person. They arrive, meet and briefly chat, get their picture and go. They’re not necessarily interested in really interacting on a topic.” This has, he notes, resulted in Q&A sessions of varied success among the featured guests, who have included Victoria Beckham, Phillip Lim and Tom Dixon. (One unexpected hit: the architect Thomas Heatherwick, ostensibly there to discuss his rejuvenation of the Pacific Place development, who instead captivated guests with his thoughts on travel, art and life in London, among other extemporaneous topics.)

A historic manor house is Troutbeck’s centrepiece
A historic manor house is Troutbeck’s centrepiece | Image: Paul Barbera

Elsewhere, particularly at small rural hotels, the programming takes a more esoteric turn. Take, for example, Troutbeck, which opened in late October. An 18th-century estate in woodsy upstate New York, it was purchased by the hotelier Anthony Champalimaud and renovated to create a luxuriously appointed retreat. A personal passion project to which Champalimaud has dedicated the past three years of his life, Troutbeck will be a nexus of what he calls “intellectual and cultural engagement and fellowship among friends, in a house that’s neither ostentatious nor austere, set in a beautiful landscape. What initially attracted us to it was its preeminent history as a gathering place” – for the likes of Sinclair Lewis, Henry Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt, WEB Du Bois and John Burroughs, luminaries of 19th- and early-20th-century American politics, civic activism and culture. “We view that history as preface and precursor to our programmatic ambitions.” In its few weeks of operation, these have included the inauguration of a “gentlemen’s salon” evening, at which guests and local residents – many of whom are highly cultivated New Yorkers with weekend homes in adjacent Litchfield County – engaged in conversation with a prominent economist. Come the spring, these meetings of minds might be transposed to the surrounding woods, some of them protected as part of an Audubon preserve, in which a long hike will culminate in a picnic supper or hog roast, with the conversation happening beside a roaring fire. Champalimaud is shortly to revive Troutbeck Press, which will reprint historical materials produced on the estate (previously privately published in the 1920s and ’30s as the Troutbeck Leaflets) and will eventually publish new and original work, created at Troutbeck and previewed exclusively there for guests, by their creators.

The Troutbeck estate also features an Event Barn
The Troutbeck estate also features an Event Barn

Pretty recondite stuff for a little country-house hotel. But cultural deep-dives aren’t limited to the independents and passion projects. One urban hotelier who has proven herself adept at the game is Kit Kemp, whose Firmdale Hotels in London and New York, 10 strong, are known for being by-design intersections of celebrity, culture and local tastemakers. For a few years, Firmdale has hosted weekend film clubs and special screenings in the lavishly decorated cinemas at its hotels. More recently, however, Crosby Street Hotel has evolved the concept with an invitation-only series called Writers on Film. It sees authors of the calibre of Martin Amis, Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan and Michael Cunningham in discussion with the screenwriter Michael Maren, who helped Firmdale develop the series, about films that have inordinately influenced them, creatively or personally. A screening is followed by cocktails and an informal book signing, offering opportunities for the limited number of guests to engage directly with the author. In London, at Firmdale’s Charlotte Street Hotel in Fitzrovia, the Food & Film series swaps the famous novelist for a well-known chef or food writer, and the post-screening cocktail party becomes an exclusive multicourse dinner based on the inspirational film in question, created by the guest speaker (the first of these, which featured the Australian culinary hero Donna Hay, was a sellout). Meanwhile, at London’s Ham Yard Hotel, Kemp herself has just initiated a series of intimate Salon Art Talks. First on the agenda: Eileen Cooper, Royal Academician and the first female keeper of the RA.

Katherine Lo, founder and president of Eaton Workshop
Katherine Lo, founder and president of Eaton Workshop

In conversations with various industry leaders, it becomes clear that it’s no longer really a question of whether a good hotel needs this kind of compelling content to compete in an evermore saturated market (the near unanimous verdict: yes, it does). It’s about how central a place the content needs to take in defining the hotel’s value. This is something Katherine Lo, the founder and president of Eaton Workshop, has been pondering at length. A 36-year-old raised in Hong Kong and the US, she has been a music video director, screenwriter, social activist and, latterly, an executive director at Langham Hotels – a brand owned by Great Eagle Holdings, whose chairman is her father, Lo Ka-shui. “After I got my MFA in film, I trained at Langham,” she tells me. “My first big project was to develop the Langham Chicago,” housed in the 52-storey IBM building, the last building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The building, and Mies van der Rohe’s seminal place in the pantheon of modern American architecture, captivated her. When she discovered his grandson, Dirk Lohan, was also an architect, she commissioned Lohan to design select interiors at the hotel – and ended up making a documentary feature film about grandfather and grandson. “I was immersed in this world of design and architecture. That rich experience, that availability or exchange of ideas – hotels need to be so much more about that,” Lo says.

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Fortunately for Lo, her burgeoning ideas about such exchanges dovetailed with an opportunity presented to her by her father: to create and oversee a new luxury-lifestyle hotel brand, separate from Langham. “He wrote me a very moving letter, saying that he no longer really understood the world around millennials and what they might want from luxury hotel experiences – but that he wanted me to create a brand that would embrace and respond to those changes.”

The result is Eaton Workshop, which will debut this spring with a hotel in Washington DC and another in Hong Kong in the summer (two more in San Francisco and Seattle – new-build projects – will open in a few years’ time). “Eaton Workshop reflects this wish I saw everywhere, from Soho House to all the music festivals I went to, to belong to something – a longing but also a concrete desire for community, for gathering places,” says Lo. Within Eaton Workshop, directors of culture – management positions filled exclusively, Lo says, by people from outside the hotel world: art and music professionals, curators and producers, journalists – have prominent roles at each hotel. Each property will have its own radio station, with all-original content, and its own gallery. There are events spaces dedicated to regular talks, performances and unique festivals, curated between the directors of culture and Founding Members Committee from the co-working spaces that each hotel will also house, comprised of well-connected locals (the Washington DC club will accommodate up to 370; Hong Kong 320). Long-term residencies for important artists and activists – who will then participate in the development of programmes – are catered for with state-of-the-art recording studios (Hong Kong) and artists’ studios (Washington DC).

“We’ll have regular founding members’ dinners, held at the hotels, which hotel guests will be welcome to attend,” says Lo. “We might start by asking the committee to nominate 10 or 12 women citywide doing amazing things, in politics or design or journalism, and host a dinner for them and guests together.” Regular events – Eaton Discussions, Eaton Workshops and Eaton Retreats – are all built into each hotel offering. If Lo delivers on her vision, it will be difficult to stay a few nights at an Eaton hotel and not be engaged by someone, or something, interesting on a world-class level.

Lo hasn’t forsaken the more conventional luxuries: Eaton DC and Hong Kong will both feature state-of-the-art wellness centres, where treatments such as reiki and shamanic retrievals will be offered alongside massages; and design talents along the lines of Kengo Kuma and AvroKO are contributing to the interiors. But they are, to her, not the primary consideration; connecting is. “There’s really something to be said for that fireside-chat thing, retrieving that classic Parisian salon,” she says admiringly, after I describe the goings-on at Il Pellicano and Troutbeck to her. “I’ve been to so many ballroom events with hundreds of ‘important’ people, and I’ve been to tiny dinner parties with the same sort of people, and there’s no comparison. The kind of interaction that happens when there’s that more intimate connection is irreproducible.”

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