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Sunday, February 17, 2019

Little-Known California Surf Town Looking to Become the West Coast's Newest Luxury Destination

Dana Point, the starting position of California’s Pacific Coast Highway, is currently known, among outsiders as that place just south of Laguna Beach. But Dana Pointers think their community, which they consider the surfing capital of California and the whale watching capital of the West, deserves greater accolades.
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Courtesy Dana Point Chamber
For now, though, while Orange County neighbors like Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Laguna Niguel revel in the reputation of the California luxe life, Dana Point is largely anonymous.
The area’s recently-formed destination marketing organization, Visit Dana Point, is looking to change that. The goal, according to executive director Jonny Westom, is to position Dana Point as a competitor to its OC neighbors, along with other upscale California destinations like Palm Springs, Monterey and Santa Barbara.
In the crowded California luxury marketplace, Dana Point has a chance to exploit its under-the-radar status.
“In markets that are oversaturated,” said Daniella Middleton, vice president of destination marketing consulting firm Development Counsellors International, “people are looking for lesser-known nooks and crannies. Luxury travelers are looking for off-the-beaten path destinations, not wanting to go where everyone else goes. An elusive destination that is down to earth is luxurious in itself.”
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Courtesy Dana Point Chamber
Dana Point isn’t starting its efforts entirely from the ground up. After all, the town incorporates four major hotel properties: The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, The Monarch Beach Resort, the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, and the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Doheny Beach. In some ways, these hotels have contributed to Dana Point’s anonymity over the years, although they are now a big part of the solution.
According to Westom, when he started in his position a year ago, he assessed the reasons why Dana Point was not well-known. He observed that “none of the hotels here have ‘Dana Point’ in their name.”
Since “the hotel mega-budgets promoting the area don’t have the name of the destination in their marketing presentations,” there is a gap in consumer recognition of the actual destination.
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Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel in Dana Point
But the quartet of hotels has stepped up to the marketing challenge. Back in 2009, they formed a tourism business improvement district in order to create a unified marketing voice. By mid-2016, the TBID had transitioned into a destination marketing organization, funded by a flat fee room tax.
In 2018, after Westom came on board, MMGY Global was hired to identify the area’s key assets, and to assess the perception of Dana Point among potential consumers. It was the beginning of “a rebranding exercise,” according to Westom, “that would help us identify what separates us from other destinations.”
Stewart Colovin is chief creative officer for MMGY Global and has been the lead on the rebranding project.
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“You have to understand the waters in which you are swimming,” he said. “To find the essence of a place, we first go and talk to everybody we can in a destination. That’s because the brand has to start at home, so that visitors can ultimately connect with locals.”
After speaking with locals, a study of visitors — actual and potential — found that while Dana Point evoked images of beauty and friendliness, some of the descriptors which it scored high on were local and proud, active and healthy, natural and picturesque, and homegrown and distinctive–the area was not necessarily seen as luxurious nor cool.
Compared to its competitors, Westom said, Dana Point rated low on descriptors like “surf-centric and soulful: stylish and chic; artsy and eclectic: and cool and trendy.”
In looking at these perceptions, Colovin said the survey suggested Dana Point could capitalize on offering a more relaxed experience than its competitive set.
“It’s an approachable place. People dress more casually; it’s not pretentious, it’s easy to get around. People here aren’t doing things because they are trying to impress everybody else; they are doing things because it’s what they love to do.”
After sifting through the studies, MMGY developed a brand architecture for Dana Point around brand essence; brand values; brand experiences; and brand voice.
The overall brand promise, which will be conveyed in everything from a new tagline and logo — currently a work in progress — to advertising and marketing campaigns. The promise: “In Dana Point, you are one of us. We make it easy to connect with the ocean and others around you.”
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Dana Point's Harbor is Undergoing a Major Overhaul
Branding aside, there has to be some real-life architecture in place to draw tourists. To that end, quite a bit of luxury development is already in progress. The harbor and marina are undergoing a five-year, $400 million renovation. The facelift will incorporate new restaurants and shops, plus a 126-room upscale boutique hotel and a 100-room luxury property (the latter owned by the group behind Newport Beach’s Lido House). 
Westom sees the development as the anchor in plans to become Southern California’s next great luxury destination. In fact, he is hopeful that within a few years, Laguna Beach will be seen as that place just north of Dana Point.

A longer version of this story ran in Skift's New Luxury Newsletter, for which I am a correspondent.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Spilling the Beans on a New Partnership: TWA Hotel and Intelligentsia

Long gone are the days when a hotel could install a nameless coffee outlet in the lobby and expect a steady drip of customers. But nowadays, even one-size-fits-all Starbucks outlets are being filtered out by many boutique properties, which are opting to align with coffee brands that are more on the cutting edge.

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According to market research firm Ibis World, “One of the fastest-growing segments over the past five years has been independent coffee shops, which target coffee connoisseurs. This trend, which has been termed ‘third-wave’ …considers coffee an artisanal product rather than a commodity.” The Coffee and Snack Shops in the US report goes on to say that “prominent third-wave coffee exponents, such as Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon and Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, have led the charge.”

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That helps explain why hipster brand Ace Hotels partners with Stumptown. But to understand what’s brewing between two high-design New York City properties and Intelligentsia takes a bit more explanation.


MCR Development, led by founder Tyler Morse, owns scores of hotels across the United States. Most operate under the flags of big hotel brands. But two of the company’s crown jewels, the soon-to-open TWA Hotel at JFK Airport and The High Line Hotel in Manhattan, are run as high-end independent properties.

In 2013, before The High Line Hotel in New York opened, Morse sent a coffee shop request for proposal to 30 operators. The grounds for selecting a partner, according to Morse, “The vibe that the coffee purveyor would bring — the je ne sais quoi — was vital.”

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Intelligentsia at the High Line
Enter Intelligentsia. The Chicago-based company was founded in 1995 by a California couple looking to bring fresh-roasted coffee to the Midwest. According to James McLaughlin, Intelligentsia CEO and president, “Our philosophy and approach is very particular. We want to educate consumers about extraordinary coffee. It’s our belief that the coffee bar should be a culinary experience. So, we look to elevate the coffee bar experience by spending a lot of time and money creating an experience designed for specifically for the neighborhood.”

That approach was appealing to Morse. “What we liked about Intelligentsia (at the time four stores strong) is that it’s not the Starbucks approach of the same thing over and over again. I visited their stores (in California and Chicago) and was taken with how each one fit the neighborhood they are in.”

Just as Morse appreciated the diversity and design-forward creativity Intelligentsia brought to its spaces, Intelligentsia, according to McLaughlin, appreciated that Morse was “trying to curate an experience for his hotel guests in a way that we are trying to curate experiences for our customers.”

And so, Intelligentsia opened its first retail outlet in New York at the High Line. Attracting both guests and locals, the coffee operation brings in $3200 per square foot in annual revenue, exceeding expectations.


Given the success of the partnership, when it came time to select a cafe operator for the iconic TWA Hotel at JFK, Intelligentsia was first in line.

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When he took on the project, Morse felt the pressure to do the conversion of Eero Saarinen’s landmark 1962 TWA Flight Center at JFK proud. “The TWA building is wildly iconic, and has so much historic fabric. So, we are looking at everything with a 1962 lens.” For perspective, Morse notes that was a time when “Kennedy was president, John Glenn had just circled the earth, the Jetsons aired on television, and the first James Bond, featuring Dr. No, came out.”

Given the history, “We couldn’t just plop a coffee shop in there like a Marriott or a Sheraton. The coffee shop had to fit in with the building’s mid-century modern atmosphere. We had to consider how Saarinen would have designed this.”

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Morse was closely involved in the “hands-on, iterative process,” as were representatives from Intelligentsia and the project’s interior design firm. Morse says historic design elements include everything from the glassware to the seating. As McLaughlin says, “We are going to activate a coffee experience reflecting the period. It’s going to be a perfect representation of a coffee bar that feels like it has always existed in that building.”

Just as the High Line Hotel does not rely on hotel guests, surprisingly, neither will the TWA outlet. Morse points out that the hotel is physically connected to the JetBlue terminal and a short walk from the Delta terminal. So, it’s easy to for passengers, and for airport workers, to get to.


“The thing a lot of people don’t realize is that airports are communities,” said Morse. “Forty thousand people work at JFK. There are FAA and Port Authority employees; baggage handlers, air cargo, flight attendants, pilots — all of whom may be stopping by to get a cup of coffee.”

While passengers rushing to their flights are unlikely to amble over to the hotel, Morse points out that 54 percent of JFK’s traffic is international. And, given the original design of the airport, passengers transferring from international to domestic flights (or vice versa) have to leave the secure area.

That’s why Morse believes he can capture a decent percentage of the 35,000 people a day who have a layover of four hours or more. Morse also suggests the coffee outlet will be the perfect place to hold business meetings. “All roads lead to JFK. This can be a mutual meeting place, where people can accomplish fly-in, fly-out meetings from around the country and instead of going into the city, meet at the hotel.”

“What Tyler is doing,” said McLaughlin, “is curating an all-star line-up of food and beverages.” Jean-George Vongerichten will be opening a restaurant there as well. “So, it’s not only going to become a destination for travelers, but we feel confident that it will become a destination for residents.” McLaughlin said, adding that for Intelligentsia, “The TWA project represents a phenomenal opportunity for us as a relatively small company. This has an international aspect to it, so it gives us the ability to expose more people to our brand, and more importantly, to showcase the idea of coffee as a culinary experience.”

This story originally appeared on Skift Table

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Laura on TV: Let's Talk About the Hot Destinations for 2019

Want to hear about some of the year's up-and-coming destinations? Take a look at this segment that recently aired on WUSA's Great Day Washington.

On the set with Great Day Washington co-hosts
Markette Sheppard and Kristen Berset-Harris 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Canvassing the Art Scene at Hotels

In times of yore, many hotels used art as the visual equivalent to Muzak. But in today’s Instagram world, the curation of hotel artwork is much more deliberate, as properties try to project their personalities onto the crowded canvas of the guest experience.

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Museum 21C Hotel, Bentonville

According to expert curators, art placed throughout the hotel, from the lobby to guest room corridors to the rooms themselves, can serve multiple purposes. It can help sculpt brand image or further claims to a local provenance. Moreover, art collections can create conversations, along with responding to the desire of guests to project who they are by where they stay.
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Artwork at The Drake
For Mia Nielsen, the art curator at The Drake in Toronto, the process of selecting art should begin by asking, “What kind of experience do you want to create for your guest? Is it something connecting to the local environment or broader conceptual ideas?”

At The Drake, hotel art “can be an essential way to celebrate what is going on locally, especially for travelers, who get an entry point into what’s happening locally,” Nielsen said. "There are real opportunities to build audiences at a local level through art." The Drake caters to residents by “creating a new context for them to think about how the art produced locally fits into a bigger cultural conversation," Nielsen added.”

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Gallery Space at the 21c Museum Hotel Louisville
On the other hand, properties in the 21c Museum Hotels collection (which AccorHotels recently bought) take a more global approach. “Art isn’t just integrated in 21c, it’s our whole reason for being. The vision was to develop a multi-venue museum, a holistic institution with 80,000 square feet of exhibition space across eight hotels," Alice Gray Stites, the company’s chief curator and museum director, says.

The art selected for rotating public exhibitions "reflects what is going on in the world, and is designed to promote conversation and connection,” Gray Stites said. However, as a nod to the hot hospitality mantra of local, local, local, each guest room floor sports a specially designed alcove adjacent to the elevators showcasing the work of area artists.

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Guest Room at the 21c Museum Hotel Oklahoma City 
The right art can further the guest experience at all kind of hotels, from lifestyle brands to more traditional properties. “Having unique and intriguing local art with a story adds to a memorable guest experience in the hotel, which is essentially what lifestyle hotels strive for, but can be equally applied to traditional branded hotels, too," Nancy Sweeney, principle at Vail, Colorado-based Art Advisory Service, says.

When incorporating local themes, however, Gray Stites warns against “being too literal. Be cautious about being too kitschy. You can use art to tell the local story, but do it in a sophisticated, understated way.”

Beyond establishing local credentials, Sweeney, whose firm has worked with Rosewood, Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, believes "artwork helps each brand create its own identity and maintain brand standards." If a hotel is using art to convey the brand message, Gray Stites advises considering how the mission of the hotel intersects with the theme of the artwork. Sweeney adds that the property should select art to reflect its clientele.

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Hotel Arts Barcelona
Both curators agree it’s important take some risks. “By selecting original multi-media, three-dimensional, commissioned works that are singular, you create Instagrammable moments” that  can “show clients how innovative you are,” Sweeney says. Gray Stites adds, “Don’t underestimate your audience. People like to be challenged. When they see places and faces unfamiliar to them, it provokes curiosity and empathy. There's a hunger for people to connect to new ideas through art.”

As hotels ponder beefing up their art menus, it's also important to "define the key sightlines and spaces in the hotel," according to The Drake’s Nielsen. As they select art, hoteliers should "take a volumetric, spatial approach rather than focusing on flat walls. Walk through spaces and consider how a guest can interact with art to create moments of surprise and wonder."

No matter the approach, the bottom line is that art is not only an investment in aesthetics, but also in, well, the bottom line. “If you find work that people connect to, that is iconic, it will get tagged in social media,” Sweeney says. “There’s your free marketing. And that's how you can justify budgeting more money for art."

A version of this article originally appeared on Skift.com, for which I serve as the luxury correspondent.