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Mr. Van Wees

Architecture & Design

Partnerships Bring Local Flare to Hotel Design

By Hans Van Wees, General Manager, Hotel Vermont

While home-sharing companies capture attention for truly immersive local experiences, and brands respond to the movement with sub-brands touting authenticity, independent hoteliers have long appreciated the localized approach to business. In Burlington, Vermont, such local partnerships build and bond communities, and through their contribution to the hotel design, product and programming, ultimately enhance the overall guest experience.

The current state of the travel industry suggests the sharing economy is here to stay. These home-sharing companies are rapidly increasing in popularity as travelers crave - and ultimately, trust - their hosts to serve as sources of information for where locals really go to eat, explore, shop, etc. While brands have taken notice and are creating sub-brands to serve as their authentic, immersive answer to this consumer shift, in Vermont, our approach to hospitality is neither contrived nor fabricated; our localized approach to community is simply who we are.

At Hotel Vermont, we operate under the belief that partnerships are about building community, not just one individual entity. Stronger communities create not only a stronger business environment, but a better place to live, work and enjoy as a visitor. The partnerships have contributed not only to our hotel product, but to the overall guest experience, making our entire team trusted local hosts.

When we first started this project in downtown Burlington almost seven years ago, our goal was to create a hotel experience that offered true local flavor. We identified that there was a need in the market for an upscale, modern spin on the traditional Vermont getaway. Owned, developed, and designed locally, keeping everything close to home allowed us to hone in on the aesthetic provided by Vermont's natural beauty and sense of community to create partnerships that bring the very best of the state to our guests.

Often in hotel design, architects and designers are steeped in the heritage of their destination, so we were fortunate to have such a talented team locally who could grasp our vision. Starting from the ground up, we contracted Burlington-based Smith Buckley Architects and TruexCullins Interiors to spearhead all of the hotel design elements. Throughout the planning process, we wanted to capture the essence of Vermont to create a clean, minimalist design. Drawing on Scandinavian influence and Vermont's rich maker history, we were able to marry the two to create a warm, inviting and modern, yet rustic space.

The location in Burlington had more of an influence on public space and design of exterior of the building in how it fits into fabric of city and waterfront. The main level uses all local materials, such as furniture built from white oak indigenous to Vermont, polished concrete flooring made with pebbles from the beaches of the adjacent Lake Champlain, and flooring in the restaurant made from antique red oak reclaimed from an old farm barn. A statement wall of slab granite speaks to the state's history as a haven for stoneworkers, with granite shipped all over the world from the tiny town of Barre.

The ceiling provides a visual statement piece, created by TruexCullins and containing a unique abstract topography map of the Adirondack Mountains found just across Lake Champlain that allows light to come through, offering stunning shadowing and warmth. Under the piece, guests will find a wood-burning hearth to gather year-round while the aroma of steamed cider engages the senses upon return to the hotel.

Rounding out the arrival experience is native Duncan Johnson's large wooden art piece hung high above the front desk. Color Code is integral to the overall design, as the lobby was intentionally left minimal to highlight the piece. Working with reclaimed wood that he finds around the state, Johnson is best known for arresting sculptural works puzzling countless bits of wood into elegant organic forms. Using found wood from landfills, with the original colors maintained, Johnson precisely mills strips of wood and assembles them into enigmatic, loosely geometric compositions. The suggestion of past life in these faded colors and scraped surfaces bring a vague poignancy to the work. If there's a subtext, however, it's the poetry of the well-made object. The entire field of pattern and color is overlaid with a grid of tiny silver braids that have the effect of stitching or netting. The contrast of the precisely applied delicate silver webbing over the warmth and richness of the wood below emphasizes the ambiguity of scale and weight, opening the door to a range of interpretations. Though emphatically assembled out of wood, they are composed according to the intuitive logic of abstract painting.

Using local firms has been paramount to the hotel's success. By incorporating local materials from inception, there is a level of authenticity that attracts area partners during the next phase of planning.

Outside of sourcing the building materials, almost a full year pre-opening should be dedicated to scouting and cultivating partnerships with local craftsmen and artisans. Upon opening in 2013, our established flagship partnerships helped to give the hotel life and create a sense of ownership within the community.

Beyond a standard hotel design, each element should have a story and a personality that has been carefully curated to bring the best of a destination to each guest. We find that visitors are hungry for local knowledge, so the design is often just the starting point.

Some of our premier partners include Lunaroma Apothecary, Queen City Dry Goods, AO Glass, Old Spokes Home and New Duds. The 100-year-old, family-owned Johnson Woolen Mills made custom woolen blankets for use in each hotel bedroom. The earth-toned throws bring the outdoors in, serving as a pop of color in bedrooms that are finished with a blend of contrasting textures and infused with a color palette reflecting the changing seasons.

Every design detail should be an opportunity to infuse local flare. One of the most requested items that guests purchase are two-by-two inch soap dishes by local production glass studio, AO Glass. Founders Rich Arentzen and Tove Ohlander also collaborated with us to create vases for each floor's communal pantries, stocked with a selection of coffees and teas, distilled sparkling and still water, pastries and seasonal apples from nearby orchards. Even the ceramic coffee mugs located in every guestroom are designed by local potter Jeremy Ayers. The pantries were designed as a nod to the trend of creating social spaces within hotels, allowing guests to meet their neighbors and enjoy eco-conscious snacks throughout their stay.

It is important to educate staff on every item in the hotel, including its specific design elements and the story of the local partner who made it. By encouraging field trips to partners' studios and workspaces, the story becomes more tangible and employees can build meaningful relationships with these vendors in order to better narrate their stories to guests. This tactic has been tremendously successful in engraining our hotel in the local business community and creating a sense of ownership among staff.

Moreover, guests have responded incredibly well to the design and room elements, often asking where they can purchase items for their own homes. Our local partners have seen an increase in business levels since the hotel has opened, reporting an increase in traffic to their stores and purchases attributed to Hotel Vermont guests.

It is important to always expand upon your partner program, both building on existing partnerships and identifying new partners opportunistically. In looking for a way to uniquely showcase the stories of our partners, we commissioned a local cartoonist to smartly distill each account down to a graphic one page cartoon. The cartoons can be found in the directory packet of each room, and the hotel is currently in the works of printing a booklet of all the illustrations to further extend the ways guests can interact with our partners.

Another way to foster partnerships and expose guests to the locality of a hotel is through the restaurant and bar space - community tables to spark local professionals and hotel guest conversations, locally-sourced family-style menus and a robust entertainment program that brings area talent directly to guests.

As important as it is to leverage partners throughout every touch point of the hotel, getting guests off-site to explore the local community is integral to maintaining a reciprocal relationship with our partners. It also met an identified guest demand for more opportunities to explore the community.

As a result, we began a dynamic activities program guided by a Hotel Vermont employee to discover our partners. The most recent partnership offers the perfect vehicle for the area exploration. Local bicycle maker, Budnitz, designed six fully customized steel bikes, handcrafted in Burlington, each decked out with the hotel's logo, custom colors, and design. From craft beer tours and coffee tastings, to farmer's markets and water sports, all are available within pedaling distance for guests to try.

To truly succeed in enhancing the guest experience through local partnerships, one must celebrate the destination's character and diversity. For us, that means from the fifth generation to the recent immigrants and all those in between. From the cattle barns and the sap lines, the art galleries and the antique shops, the fine dining and kitchen tables, we appreciate Vermont's unique flavor. We respect the individuality of our neighbors and our guests. We care about what we do and how we do it, we are not afraid to add personality, while remaining mindful of service and professionalism.

Hans Van Wees is General Manager of Hotel Vermont. He is responsible for managing the contemporary, LEED-certified hotel located in the heart of Burlington, overseeing all operations including sales and marketing and food and beverage. Mr. Van Wees arrived at Hotel Vermont following senior leadership roles at hotels across New England, Europe and the Caribbean. He began his career in the Netherlands with Sonesta International before transferring to Bermuda to fill various senior management positions at the Sonesta Beach Resort and Spa. Mr. Van Wees then moved to the U.S. as General Manager of the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. He also provided consulting services to a variety of businesses throughout New England. Mr. Van Wees can be contacted at 802-651-0080 or talktous@hotelvt.com Please visit http://www.hotelvt.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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Feature Focus
Architecture & Design: Authentic, Interactive and Immersive
If there is one dominant trend in the field of hotel architecture and design, its that travelers are demanding authentic, immersive and interactive experiences. This is especially true for Millennials but Baby Boomers are seeking out meaningful experiences as well. As a result, the development of immersive travel experiences - winery resorts, culinary resorts, resorts geared toward specific sports enthusiasts - will continue to expand. Another kind of immersive experience is an urban resort one that provides all the elements you'd expect in a luxury resort, but urbanized. The urban resort hotel is designed as a staging area where the city itself provides all the amenities, and the hotel functions as a kind of sophisticated concierge service. Another trend is a re-thinking of the hotel lobby, which has evolved into an active social hub with flexible spaces for work and play, featuring cafe?s, bars, libraries, computer stations, game rooms, and more. The goal is to make this area as interactive as possible and to bring people together, making the space less of a traditional hotel lobby and more of a contemporary gathering place. This emphasis on the lobby has also had an associated effect on the size of hotel rooms they are getting smaller. Since most activities are designed to take place in the lobby, there is less time spent in rooms which justifies their smaller design. Finally, the wellness and ecology movements are also having a major impact on design. The industry is actively adopting standards so that new structures are not only environmentally sustainable, but also promote optimum health and well- being for the travelers who will inhabit them. These are a few of the current trends in the fields of hotel architecture and design that will be examined in the November issue of the Hotel Business Review.